Slovyansk, Ukraine — An array of mostly ordinary items spread across two wooden tables on opposite sides of a cramped workshop in eastern Ukraine: double-sided tape, gloves, Allen wrenches, a soldering iron, 3-D printed plastic, ball bearings, a digital scale. Next to him was a German DM51 fragmentation grenade.

They were all vital ingredients for Ukrainian soldiers trying to piece together a puzzle: How do you make a grenade that weighs nothing but can be dropped from a drone and destroy a nearly 40-ton Russian tank? Is?

“War is an economy. It’s money,” said Gref, a sturdy, bearded Ukrainian soldier in charge of his unit’s drone team. “And if you have a $3,000 drone and a $200 grenade, and you destroy a tank that costs $3 million, that’s pretty interesting.”

Since Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine nearly a year ago, technological advances on the battlefield have focused mostly on both countries’ increased use of small, remotely operated drones and their growing importance in nearly every aspect of the war. including reconnaissance, improvised artillery fire and so-called kamikaze attacks.

Now Graf and his team, who have become experts at hitting Russian troops with air-dropped ammunition, are trying to raise the effectiveness of drones to the next level: to use them for what they believe to be perfect grenades. .

The challenge is building that grenade.

“That is our main goal,” Graff said last month from his headquarters in the city of Sloviansk. He was surrounded by the various components needed to turn a flying toy into a deadly battlefield tool. Like other Ukrainian soldiers during the war, he identified himself to reporters only by his military call sign.

The tampering of Graf’s workplace is another example of how Ukraine’s military has adapted as the war progresses, creating an advantage in the face of the Russian military’s superiority in troop numbers and long-range weaponry.

The grenade should weigh about 1.1 pounds, said Graff, the maximum weight a DJI Mavic 3 drone can carry without disrupting its flight.

To get the grenade closer to the desired weight, his team is using a 3-D printer to try to create a lightweight casing that can hold the explosives needed to penetrate a tank’s armor. The laborious work involved experimenting with hand grenades of different designs, clamped in a vice at their workbench, and working around the detonating mechanism to fix them.

Graf said the grenade must be able to penetrate the hull of an armored personnel carrier or tank, something currently not possible with a one-pound weight. For now, their best grenade is the German-supplied DM51, an explosive combined with stabilizing fins that weigh near their imposed limits.

But the DM51 is designed to kill people, and is not effective against tanks.

“Every day, we study, we do some experiments with grenades, bombs, drones, and we improve our work,” Graf said.

For Graf and veterans of Ukrainian drone operators and armorers, the search for an advanced grenade is part of a wider drone arms race with Russia. Like Graf’s team, the Russian military is trying to make its smaller unmanned vehicles lethal to varying degrees.

The Chinese-made Mavic 3 drone has become the ubiquitous backbone of Ukraine’s drone forces. It is small, portable, has a good battery life and range and can be quickly set up to drop grenades. The Russian army also uses it.

Russia’s larger military drones, such as the self-detonating Shahd-136, which is made in Iran and often launched at Ukraine’s infrastructure, are used in contrast to smaller Mavics that are deployed against concentrations of troops and trenches. Let’s go Mavics are quadcopters – they can hover like a helicopter directly over their target before dropping their deadly cargo.

Ukraine has been ahead of the drone arms race in the same way that it has been successful on the battlefield: low-level commanders have the knowledge of how and when to use them, and drone units such as Graf have the skills to test and navigate their way through. There is less bureaucracy for Deploy your weapons.

“The Ukrainian drone effort is more streamlined and works directly with the military,” said Samuel Bendet, an expert on Russian drones and other weapons at CNA, a research and analysis organization in Arlington, VA. “The Russians are just getting there.”

That means Graf and his teammates’ inventions can be quickly shared with other drone units in chat groups with little oversight before being used in the field.

Russia has taken a more industrial approach to the drone arms race, prioritizing mass-produced munitions, Mr. Bendet said, although some Russian volunteer groups are making progress in testing and putting drones on the front lines. are sending. The only drawback for the Russians: navigating Moscow’s Soviet-era bureaucracy to get the right equipment in the hands of their soldiers, Mr. Bendet said.

“There’s a lot of back and forth in this,” he said. “On the one hand there is a technical breakthrough, and on the other there is a catch.”

Tucked away on one of the shelves in the graph’s workshop was evidence of Moscow’s industrial efforts to compete with Kyiv: a factory-built Russian OFSP, a small, approximately 40-millimeter grenade that was to be dropped by the Orlan-10, a reconnaissance drone made to look like a lawn mower. The manufacture date of March 2022 was inscribed on the side of the grenade.

“They’re leaving a default modification of this grenade,” said Ilya, one of Graf’s drone engineers and armourers. “We’re dropping everything we can find.” The main thing to consider, he said, “is the weight of a grenade that the drone can move.”

Another obstacle that Ukrainian drone operators face is that they have to modify the weapons to work in ways that were not originally built for them.

The challenges are twofold: Loaded with ammunition from countries such as France, Germany and the United States, Ukrainian troops need to learn the intricacies of each piece of equipment before rigging the explosives.

That process is also complicated. Some smaller hand grenades such as the M433, which are made and supplied by the United States – and sometimes called the Golden Egg because of its size, shape and color – have a type of shaped charge warhead that pierces through the armor plate. Can punch through. But they should only be fired from hand-held grenade launchers, not dropped by drones.

So Ukrainian soldiers must carefully place the grenade in a vise grip, close the cartridge case that contains the propellant that fires it, and then begin the even more delicate task of prying the aluminum cup over the nose of the grenade. . With pliers and other hand tools, soldiers must gently probe and manipulate the fuse’s internal mechanisms to deactivate both of its safety features. If successful, they are left with a grenade that can easily explode if misplaced.

And before it can be sent on a mission against Russian troops, the explosives have to be carefully mounted on the drone.

Graff said that no one on his team was killed while working on the grenade, but that the process was dangerous for front-line soldiers. “There are many, many dead people because they don’t understand how these things work,” he said.

Despite the risks, Graf and his team continue to tinker in their workshop filled with various types of explosives, coming close to the grenade hitting the tank. Currently, they have an ammunition they say can penetrate Russian armor, but it’s about half a pound too heavy.

“We make grenades out of garbage,” Graf joked. “But if you can destroy a tank with a Mavic, you are the best in this war.”

john ismay Contributed reporting from Washington.

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