KYIV — Surrounded by rooms filled with stacks of cluster munitions and half-made thermobaric bombs, a soldier from Ukraine’s 92nd Mechanized Brigade recently worked on the final part of a deadly supply chain that stretches from China’s factories to a basement 5 miles from the front lines of the war with Russia.
This is where Ukrainian soldiers turn hobbyist drones into combat weapons. At a cluttered desk, the soldier attached a modified battery to a quadcopter so it could fly farther. Pilots would later zip-tie a homemade shell to the bottom and crash the gadgets into Russian trenches and tanks, turning the drones into human-guided missiles.
The aerial vehicles have been so effective at combat that most of the drone rotors and airframes that filled the basement workshop would be gone by the end of the week. Finding new supplies has become a full-time job.
“At night, we do bombing missions, and during the day, we think about how to get new drones,” said Oles Maliarevych, 44, an officer in the 92nd Mechanized Brigade. “This is a constant quest.”
More than any conflict in human history, the fighting in Ukraine is a war of drones. That means a growing reliance on suppliers of the flying vehicles — specifically, China. While Iran and Turkey produce large, military-grade drones used by Russia and Ukraine, the cheap consumer drones that have become ubiquitous on the front line largely come from China, the world’s biggest maker of those devices.
That has given China a hidden influence in a war that is waged partly with consumer electronics. As Ukrainians have looked at all varieties of drones and reconstituted them to become weapons, they have had to find new ways to keep up their supplies and to continue innovating on the devices. Yet those efforts have faced more hurdles, as Chinese suppliers have dialed back their sales, as new Chinese rules to restrict the export of drone components took effect Sept. 1.
“We’re examining every possible way to export drones from China, because whatever one may say, they produce the most there,” said Maliarevych, who helps source drone supplies for his unit.
For the better part of a decade, Chinese companies such as DJI, EHang and Autel have churned out drones at an ever-increasing scale. They now produce millions of the aerial gadgets a year for amateur photographers, outdoor enthusiasts and professional videographers, far outpacing other countries. DJI, China’s biggest drone maker, has a more than 90% share of the global consumer drone market, according to DroneAnalyst, a research group.
Yet in recent months, Chinese companies have cut back sales of drones and components to Ukrainians, according to a New York Times analysis of trade data and interviews with more than a dozen Ukrainian drone makers, pilots and trainers. The Chinese firms still willing to sell often require buyers to use complicated networks of intermediaries, similar to those Russia has used to get around U.S. and European export controls.
Some Ukrainians have been forced to beg, borrow and smuggle what’s needed to make up for the gadgets being blown out of the sky. Ukraine loses an estimated 10,000 drones a month, according to the Royal United Services Institute, a British security think tank. Many fear that China’s new rules restricting the sale of drone components could worsen Ukrainian supply chain woes heading into the winter.
These hurdles widen an advantage for Russia. Direct drone shipments by Chinese companies to Ukraine totaled just over $200,000 this year through June, according to trade data. In that same period, Russia received at least $14.5 million in direct drone shipments from Chinese trading companies. Ukraine still obtained millions in Chinese-made drones and components, but most came from European intermediaries, according to official Russian and Ukrainian customs data from a third-party provider.
A war of innovation
On a hot morning in August, two dozen Ukrainian soldiers from four units trained on a new weapon of war: a repurposed agricultural drone known as “the bat.”
Flying over a cornfield outside the eastern city of Dnipro, the devices dropped bottles filled with sand onto tarps that served as targets. The soldiers later returned to their units across the front with the drones, which carry 44-pound shells that can be aimed at tanks.
The hulking rotor-powered bombers were made by Reactive Drone, a Ukrainian company that owes its existence to Chinese industrial policy. The firm was founded in 2017 by Oleksii Kolesnyk and his friends after Chinese subsidies led to a glut of drone components being made there. Kolesnyk took advantage of that to source parts for his own agricultural drones, which he then sold to farmers who used them to spray pesticides in eastern Ukraine.
When the war began, everything changed. Kolesnyk, who was in Romania for business, rushed back to his hometown, Dnipro. Within days, he and his team repurposed their agricultural drones for battle.
A similar frenzy took place across Ukraine. Ingenuity born of necessity pushed many to repurpose consumer technology in life-or-death scenarios. Drones emerged as the ultimate asymmetric weapon, dropping bombs and offering bird’s-eye views of targets.
In the war’s first weeks, Ukrainian soldiers relied on the Mavic, a quadcopter produced by DJI. With its strong radio link and easy-to-use controls, the Mavic became as important and ubiquitous as the Starlink satellites made by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which help soldiers communicate.
In April 2022, DJI said it would discontinue its business in Russia and Ukraine. The company shut its flagship stores in those countries and halted most direct sales. Instead, volunteers backed by online fundraisers brought in the copters by the thousands to Ukraine, often from Europe. Russia found new channels through friendly neighbors while continuing to receive the drones through Chinese exporters.
Russian and Ukrainian soldiers also began using nondrone DJI products, including one called AeroScope. An antenna-studded box, it can be set up on the ground to track drone locations by detecting the signals they send. The system’s more dangerous feature is its ability to find the pilots who remotely fly DJI drones.
A rush ensued to hack DJI’s software to disable the tracking feature. By the end of last year, a mix of software workarounds and hardware fixes, such as more powerful antennas, had mostly solved the problem.
“The efficiency of the AeroScopes is not the same as it was a year ago,” said Yurii Shchyhol, the head of Ukraine’s State Special Communications Service, responsible for cybersecurity.
‘More like fishing than hunting’
As the war has stretched on, Ukrainian soldiers have worked to make cheap Chinese drones more deadly. One advancement that flooded the front this year: hobbyist racing drones strapped with bombs to act as human-guided missiles.
Known as FPVs, for first-person view — a reference to how the drones are remotely piloted with virtual reality goggles — the devices have emerged as a cheap alternative to heavy-duty weapons. The machines and their components are sold by a small number of mostly Chinese companies like DJI, Autel and RushFPV.
In eastern Ukraine, soldiers from the 92nd Mechanized Brigade recently tested an FPV. In a field near their workshop, a 19-year-old former medical student in the unit, who goes by the call sign Darwin, leaned against a truck and slipped on virtual reality goggles. Nearby, his spotter, call sign Avocado, flew a DJI Mavic high above to guide him.
“People wish us luck with hunting, but this is more like fishing than hunting,” Darwin said. “It can take a long time.”
Tandems like Darwin and Avocado have become a regular feature of the war. Avocado, the Mavic pilot, gets a higher-altitude view so she can talk the FPV pilot, Darwin, along the path to a target. With a virtual reality headset, Darwin sees little more than the landscape speeding below him. Often, he must fly roughly 5 miles or more by sight, evading Russian jammers. Successful missions, where a $500 FPV takes out a $1 million weapon system, are trumpeted across social media. Yet less than one-third of attacks are successful, pilots said.
A drone industry of its own
In an office building barricaded with sandbags, the man behind Ukraine’s efforts to build a drone-industrial complex slid his phone forward. On it was a photo of the newest addition to a secretive Ukrainian program to strike deep inside Russia: a long-range drone with a pointy nose and swept wings.
“Yesterday, the new Bober, modernized, flew to Moscow,” said Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s digital minister, referring to a class of heavy kamikaze drone that had struck Moscow the day before.
All summer, the long-range drone program had terrorized Moscow. In an interview in August, Fedorov, 32, took credit.
He has led the effort to revamp Ukraine’s military technology base since late last year, using deregulation and state funding to build a remote-control strike force that the country can call its own. That includes helping fund the Bober program, as well as seeding a new generation of Ukrainian companies to build a drone fleet. Part of the idea is to diversify away from foreign suppliers like China.
“The state must create the best conditions, provide funding, so we will win the technological war against Russia,” said Fedorov, whose Ministry of Digital Transformation is overseeing the government project to spend $1 billion on drones this year.
He acknowledged that some smaller companies faced issues from Chinese suppliers but said that overall, it had not been a major holdup.
“Of course, they are facing problems,” he said. “But to say that there are some supercritical problems that prevent development — there is no such thing.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.