SLOVIANSK, Ukraine – At the far end of a cramped workshop in eastern Ukraine, an array of inconspicuous items were strewn across two wooden tables: double-sided tape, gloves, allen keys, a welder, 3D-printed plastic, bearings and a digital scale. Next to them was a German DM51 fragmentation grenade.
They were all important ingredients for Ukrainian troops trying to solve a puzzle:
How to make a grenade that weighs almost nothing but can be launched from a drone e destroy a tank Russian about 40 tons?
“War is an economy. It’s money,” said Graf, a portly, bearded Ukrainian soldier at the head of his unit’s drone squad.
“And if you have a drone for $3,000 and a grenade for 200and destroy a tank that costs 3 million, that’s very interesting.”
Since Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine nearly a year ago, technological advances on the battlefield have largely focused on both countries’ increased use of small, remote-controlled drones and about their growing importance in nearly all aspects of warfare, such as reconnaissance, correcting artillery fire, and calls kamikaze attacks.
Now Graf and his team, who have become experts at killing Russian troops with air-dropped munitions, are looking to take drone effectiveness to the next level: using them to deliver what they consider the perfect grenade.
The challenge is to build that grenade.
“It’s our main focus,” Graf said last month from his headquarters in the city of Sloviansk.
It was surrounded by the various components necessary to transform a flying toy into a lethal tool on the battlefield.
Like other Ukrainian soldiers during the war, he identified himself to reporters only by his military nickname.
The tinkering in Graf’s workshop is another example of how the Ukrainian military adapted as the war progressed, creating benefits faced with the superiority of the Russian army in the number of troops and long-range weapons.
The grenade, Graf said, is expected to weigh about 500 grams, the maximum weight a DJI Mavic 3 drone can carry without significantly disrupting its flight.
To bring the grenade closer to the desired weight, his team used a caliber 3d printer to try and make a lightweight shell that could hold the explosives needed to penetrate a tank’s armour.
The laborious task consists in experimenting with grenades of different designs, clamped in a vice in his work room, and working around the explosive mechanisms to tune them
The grenade should be able to penetrate the hull of an armored vehicle or tank, which is currently not possible with a projectile weighing about 500 grams, Graf said.
For now, their best grenade is the German-supplied DM51, an explosive that, with paired stabilizer finsweighs close to the imposed threshold.
But the DM51 is built for kill people and is not effective against a tank.
“Every day we study; we experiment with grenades, with bombs, with drones, and we improve our work,” added Graf.
For Graf and Ukraine’s legions of drone operators and gunsmiths, the search for an improved grenade is part of a larger drone arms race with Russia.
Like Graf’s team, the Russian military is also trying to make it more deadly their small unmanned vehicles, more or less successfully.
The Chinese-made Mavic 3 drone has become the ubiquitous backbone of the Ukrainian drone force.
It’s small, portable, has decent battery life and battery life, and can be quickly outfitted to throw grenades.
Russian forces also use it.
The larger Russian military drones, including the self-exploding Shahed-136, manufactured in Iran and often launched against Ukrainian infrastructure, are used differently from the smaller Mavics that are deployed against troop concentrations and trenches.
Mavics are quadcopters; they can hover like a helicopter directly above their target first drops its lethal load.
Ukraine has remained ahead in the drone arms race as it has triumphed on the battlefield:
Lower commands have more leeway in how and when to use them, and drone units like Graf’s have less bureaucracy to draw around to test and deploy their weapons.
“The Ukrainian drone effort is more streamlined and works directly with the military,” said Samuel Bendett, a specialist in Russian drones and other weapons at CNA, a research and analysis organization in Arlington, Virginia.
“The Russians only understand that now.”
This means that the inventions of Graf and his companions can quickly be shared with other drone units chat groups before being used in the field, with little supervision.
Russia, according to Bendett, has taken a more industrial approach to the drone arms race, favoring mass-produced munitions, although some Russian volunteer groups are making headway in testing and sending drones to the front lines.
The only drawback for the Russians is the Soviet-era bureaucracy of getting their soldiers the right equipment.
“There’s a lot of comings and goings,” she says.
“One side has a technological breakthrough and the other reaches out.”
Hidden away on one of the shelves in Graf’s workshop was evidence of Moscow’s industrialized attempts to compete with Ukraine:
a factory-produced Russian OFSP, a small grenade about 40mm intended to be launched from an Orlan-10, a reconnaissance drone that sounds like a lawnmower.
The date of manufacture of the grenade was March 2022.
“They are releasing a default modification of this grenade,” said Iliya, one of Graf’s drone engineers and gunsmiths.
“We are releasing whatever we find.”
The main thing to consider, he said, “is the weight of a grenade that the drone can move.”
Another hurdle Ukrainian drone operators face is having to do it modify weapons work in ways they weren’t originally designed for.
The challenge is twofold:
Faced with an onslaught of munitions from countries such as France, Germany and the United States, Ukrainian troops must learn the ins and outs of each device before handling explosives.
This process is also complicated.
Some small grenades, such as the US-made and supplied M433, sometimes referred to as “golden egg“Because of their size, shape and color, they have the type of shaped charge warhead that can pierce armour.
But they can only be fired portable grenade launchernot by drones.
Then the Ukrainian soldiers must carefully place the grenade in a vice, extract the case containing the propellant used to fire it, and then begin the even more delicate job of detaching the aluminum cup above the grenade’s nose.
Using pliers and other hand tools, soldiers have to probe and handle gently the internal workings of the fuze to disable its two safety devices.
If they succeed, they are left with a grenade that could easily explode if mishandled.
And before sending it on a mission against Russian troops, the explosive must be carefully fitted to the drone.
Graf said none of his team was killed working on the grenades, but the process was dangerous for front-line troops.
There are “many, many dead because they don’t understand How do they work these things,” he said.
Despite the risks, Graf and his team continue to work in their workshop filled with different types of explosives, getting ever closer to the elusive tank killer grenade.
They currently have ammunition that they say can penetrate Russian armour, but it weighs about a kilo too much.
“We make grenades out of garbage,” Graf jokes.
“But if you can destroy a tank from a Mavic, you are the best in this war.”
c.2023 The New York Times SocietyY
Mark Jones is a world traveler and journalist for News Rebeat. With a curious mind and a love of adventure, Mark brings a unique perspective to the latest global events and provides in-depth and thought-provoking coverage of the world at large.