In the earlier advances of the Russian forces toward Kyiv, satellite imagery revealed that a 40-mile long convoy made up of tanks, armored vehicles, and artillery was on its way to the Ukrainian capital with plans to invade the city that held the helm of their government. As weeks progressed with media reports saying that its movement towards Kyiv was “imminent”, that convoy slowed down until it was literally crawling its way to the capital.
On March 10th, SOFREP reported that the convoy had stalled, believed to be without fuel, food, water and probably short of drivers. This was in the midst of reports that Russian troops were suffering from frostbite and hypothermia in large numbers. All the while, this 40 mile convoy made up mostly of supply vehicles sat there on the road making for a tempting target.
We have produced a #3D video fly-through of the 40-mile long convoy that is outside of #Kyiv, #Ukraine from the WorldView-3 #satelliteimagery that was collected on Monday, February 28, 2022, providing a better understanding of the situation. https://t.co/iTbaAwB1Rc
— Maxar Technologies (@Maxar) March 4, 2022
However, a report by The Guardian recently revealed that the column’s halt was not just due to low supplies of fuel. It was also due to a group of elite Ukrainian drone units and some 30 Ukrainian special forces that attacked the convoy under cover of the night. Ukraine has been making use of the hit-and-run tactics throughout the war, reportedly using Javelins, NLAWs, and the Bayraktar TB2 drones to quickly destroy tanks and armored vehicles in rear areas from a distance and withdraw quickly before Russian troops could react. Given the doctrine of Russian armored infantry, they would not move more than 100 yards from their tracked vehicles which made getting away clean pretty easy for Ukrainian troops shooting Javelins missiles almost 3 miles to a target.
Armed with their drones and transported by their quad bikes, this group successfully conducted night ambushes on the Russian convoy, ultimately leading to its retreat and demise as joined the collapse of Russia’s multi-pronged offensive into Ukraine.
This elite group is known as the Aerorozvidka, a group that Volodymyr Kochetkov-Sukach first established in June 2014. It was created in response to the Russian-assisted offensives in Crimea and Donbas. Kochetkov-Sukach was reportedly an investment banker before his service in the organization; he was killed in action in Donbas in 2015.
According to its website, Aerorozvidka is classified as a non-government organization but is also a military air reconnaissance unit under the Ukrainian Armed Forces. From its roots as a group of IT enthusiasts, professionals, and hobbyists to a full-fledged military unit, it goes to show how much dedication Ukrainians have in order to defend their country since 2014.
According to the unit’s head, Lt. Col. Yaroslav Honchar, an IT consultant, the Russian units become static at night, with their troops being afraid of Ukrainian shelling. So they hid their vehicles within Ukrainian villages in an attempt to deter Ukrainian forces from potentially attacking them as civilians were nearby.
“We strike at night when Russians sleep,” Honchar said, adding that it was impossible to see their drones at night. He said that immobile convoys were the primary targets of their unit, which employs 50 elements of expert drone pilots that operate heavy-duty octocopter drones.
These drones range from cheap commercially available drones to custom-built octocopters made by their very own engineers. With thermal cameras at night and heavily modified drones fitted with anti-tank weapons to light these columns up, the group is able to conduct operations with considerable effectiveness. The Times tweeted that the unit’s most prized drone is the R18 model, which has a 40 minutes flight time, a 2.5-mile range, and can carry up an 11 lbs payload.
As far as deterrence efforts by the Russians go, Aerorozvidka is not afraid of bombing the Russians at night as the drones can fly low over the targets dropping lightweight munitions, resulting in a low chance of collateral damage.
“We look specifically for the most valuable truck in the convoy, and then we hit it precisely, and we can do it really well with very low collateral damage — even in the villages, it’s possible. You can get much closer at night.”
Before the Aerorozvidka attacks, they assess which vehicles were most valuable(likely fuel and water trucks) and pick these off one by one till the column withdraws or is destroyed. They do this by using the NATO-supported intelligence system, Delta, which functions as a system that the unit created to identify valuable targets as they had a limited supply of bombs to drop. It reportedly uses information from sensors in the warzone, data from reconnaissance flights, and radio interception.
Furthermore, they use the recently acquired Starlink internet system from Elon Musk to establish a secure link so that they can operate uninterrupted.
“If we use a drone with thermal vision at night, the drone must connect through Starlink to the artillery guy and create target acquisition.”
Aerorozvidka would drive out on quad bikes and operate under cover of the night, reportedly riding through forests in the town of Ivankiv equipped with their drones, night vision goggles, remotely detonated mines, and sniper rifles to protect the drone operators.
They reportedly destroyed 2 or 3 Russian military vehicles at the head and rear of the convoy to stop them in their tracks, leaving them static and vulnerable to furtherUkrainian air attacks.
“This one little unit in the night destroyed two or three vehicles at the head of this convoy, and after that, it was stuck. They stayed there two more nights and [destroyed] many vehicles,” Honchar explained. “The first echelon of the Russian force was stuck without heat, without oil, without bombs, and without gas. And it all happened because of the work of 30 people,” he added.
From there, the Russians broke off into smaller groups in an attempt to recover and outmaneuver the drones, only to fail. Satellite images showed they had split up and gone into towns and forests, many of which chose to hide and others being redeployed elsewhere. Of course, at present, the entirety of the Kyiv region has been abandoned by Russia following their announcement that they would be focusing on the “complete liberation” of Donbas.
All partly thanks to the work of this small unit of elite drone operators, which is largely crowdfunded through their own networks to keep up operations. Aside from IT experts, some members also include individuals with backgrounds in economics and molecular biology. The team has also been credited with helping defeat attacks on Hostomel airport, eliminating some 200 Russian paratroopers.
Currently, the unit carries out 300 missions every day to effectively plan and execute their attacks. On the other hand, the Russians are believed to be trying to resupply and regroup shattered formations in order to consolidate their gains in the Donbas. They are said to be focused on liberating the region with consistent efforts to take control of the port city of Mariupol to establish a land corridor from mainland Russia to Crimea. This consolidation of Russian forces will ease their supply problems by shortening their lines of communication and make it easier for the barely seen Russian air force to establish air dominance over the area. On the flip-side though, it also allows Ukraine to consolidate its own striking power and direct it on the Donbas as well, and this would include using its drones to attack Russian units at night again