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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Drones, Tablets, Cigarettes: How Ukraine's Reconnaissance Warriors Pinpoint The Enemy

Near the embattled city of Vuhledar, Ukrainian artillery reconnaissance units detect enemy positions. They work with drones, tablets and satellite internet — and they are often the last line of defense from a Russian onslaught.

Image of a soldier from the 56th Mariupol Motorized Brigade looking straight into  his DJI Matrice 300 RTK quad copter.

A soldier from the 56th Mariupol Motorized Brigade showing a DJI Matrice 300 RTK quad copter.

Anatolii Schara

VUHLEDAR — It's early in the morning, just before dawn. The artillery reconnaissance units are in Kurakhove, a city in Donetsk oblast, to pick up the equipment supplies that have just arrived from Kyiv: drones, tablets, portable solar power generators and Internet hardware for connection to the Starlink satellite system.

Because of the tremendous strain on the equipment, it needs to be constantly replaced. Everything is loaded into all-terrain vehicles, then they head toward the fiercely contested city of Vuhledar, in southeastern Ukraine, 60 kilometers from Donetsk.

"The task of artillery reconnaissance is to locate and fix enemy targets and to conduct artillery observation," explains commander Zeus, who only gives his combat name, in line with the policy of the Ukrainian army.

Artillery fire is mainly indirect. The target is not visible from the gun, which is usually located four to ten kilometers from the front line.

On the car radio, the music ends, the presenter announces in a solemn voice that Ukrainian troops are retreating in panic from Vuhledar. The men are unimpressed; they know that only Russian stations work in the frontline area.

"If you listened to only Russian radio all the time, you might think that Russian troops are already outside Warsaw," Zeus says with a grin.

Artillery reconnaissance

He goes on to explain the four types of artillery reconnaissance. "Optical-electronic is used at command and observation posts on the front line. Sonic reconnaissance determines the location of enemy artillery based on the sound of their shots, and specifies fire based on the explosions of our shells fired at a specific target," he says.

Radar reconnaissance determines the location of enemy military convoys and artillery based on the reflection of a radar beam, he said. Aerial reconnaissance is developing particularly successfully and rapidly, Zeus says. Unmanned aerial vehicles have become ubiquitous, he said, especially among missile forces and artillery.

Finally, the small convoy turns into a forest outside Vuhledar, the ground muddy and full of puddles.

"Today we will work from here," says Zeus. His team has to change locations regularly: "The Russians are actively looking for us, tracking us down, trying to destroy us."

Not a Hollywood movie

His men quickly get the equipment out of the all-terrain vehicles and prepare their drones. "Artillery spotters sitting in an office controlling a large reconnaissance drone only exist in Hollywood movies," says one soldier. "Like regular infantrymen, we move in the mud, though not in the trenches."

The drones are on the move. The silence after takeoff is broken by a voice from the radio. "Several Russian tanks have launched a fast attack on infantry positions. Request information so the artillery can work them off." "Plus-plus," Zeus replies shortly, meaning "received and put to work."

On the tablet's screen, Russian tanks, emerging from behind a hill, can be seen shelling Ukrainian positions. The radio messages become increasingly panicky.

Methodically, Russians smash Ukrainian fortifications. One of the reconnaissance drones hovers over the tanks. Zeus shouts to its operator, "Take a screenshot, take a screenshot and pass the coordinates!" By radio, Zeus relays the coordinates.

After a few minutes, explosions can be seen on the screen, but several hundred meters away from the tanks. "These damn idiots can never hit the target," Zeus curses loudly. The correction process of artillery fire begins. Panic is growing.

One of the Russian tanks, which waited out the first shelling behind a hill, moves out again and continues shelling Ukrainian positions. Once again the Ukrainian artillery strikes. This time the shells fall closer, but still miss the Russian tanks.

After all, a Russian breakthrough could cause the entire Ukrainian defense of Vuhledar to collapse.

Now Zeus no longer cares about his choice of words, crudely cursing the artillerymen over the radio. But before another correction can be made, the Russian tanks leave their positions. As it turns out, the Russians also managed to shoot down one of the drones. "Admittedly, in radio-electronic warfare the Russians are quite effective, we lose several drones every day," says Zeus bitterly.

Image of a soldier from the 56th Mariupol Motorized Brigade looking straight into  his DJI Matrice 300 RTK quad copter.

A soldier from the 56th Mariupol Motorized Brigade showing a DJI Matrice 300 RTK quad copter.

56th Mariupol Motorized Brigade via Wikimedia Commons

Rapidly changing positions

The reconnaissance team discusses the loss of the drone, and there is a lot of smoking. Suddenly a shell hits about 500 meters away, a second later another, then another. "They've got us spotted, damn it! Get the hell out of here!" yells Zeus.

The men hastily throw their things into the SUVs. No sooner have they left than Russian shells purposefully and methodically scour the forest.

A short time later, the unit takes up a new position on the other side of Vuhledar. By radio comes word that the Russians have launched an offensive in the same direction where the artillery reconnaissance unit was a moment ago. First they shower the advanced Ukrainian positions with shells, then five tanks and seven BMP armored personnel carriers advance.

Zeus decides to launch the drones immediately, despite the risk of detection by the enemy. After all, a Russian breakthrough could cause the entire Ukrainian defense of Vuhledar to collapse. Radio reports indicate that Ukrainian infantrymen have disabled a tank with a defensive Stugna missile. Nevertheless, Russian armored vehicles are rushing at high speed toward the Ukrainian positions.

Now the drones have arrived at their destination. Zeus is already connected with the commander of the Ukrainian artillery unit equipped with self-propelled Howitzers 2000. The self-propelled artillery pieces from Germany are known for hitting targets with great accuracy almost from the first shot.

"We have the coordinates of the first and the last tank," one of the reconnaissance officers calls out, looking at his tablet, Zeus relaying the coordinates aloud. After a few moments, explosions are heard, impacts of shells fired from the Howitzer 2000 can be seen on the tablet screen.

They hit close to the Russian tanks and infantry fighting vehicles. The column stops for a moment. Immediately, a shell hits the first tank and pierces it. Since its ammunition is stored directly under the gun turret (unlike in Western tanks), it detonates, sending the tank turret flying several meters away.

Russians under fire

The next shell destroys a Russian armored personnel carrier. Other tanks and armored personnel carriers scatter in panic and try to hide in a forest. But with the help of the scouts and their accurate information, the artillerymen systematically take the armored vehicles under fire. The driver jumps out of one of the burning vehicles.

They are not high-precision weapons, and there is also a significant shortage of ammunition.

While some drone operators coordinate the Ukrainian artillery, others search for Russian positions. One of the reconnaissance operators reports locating a Russian battery. But there is a big problem: due to the high intensity of the operation, the onboard electronics of the self-propelled Howitzer 2000 reports an error and does not allow firing as fast as the situation requires.

So the artillery spotters make contact with a unit of rocket artillery. These, too, have their own problems: unlike German guns, they are not high-precision weapons, and there is also a significant shortage of ammunition.

Suddenly, Russian artillery opens a heavy fire. Dozens of shells fly all along the front line around Vuhledar, the ground shakes from the many explosions.

At last, Ukrainian rocket artillery fires, but over the Russian artillery position. Swearing, Zeus continues to coordinate the fire. The next missiles then cover the Russian artillery position. On the drone operator's tablet, violent detonations of the ammunition stacked next to the Russian guns can be seen. A gigantic cloud of smoke covers the area.

Meanwhile, the Russians are trying to rescue their men from the shattered armored column. A few MT-LB armored personnel carriers are moving toward the spot where the column was shelled by Ukrainian artillery. This time they move slowly.

Finally, they stop a few hundred meters away: Russian soldiers bring their wounded comrades to the MT-LBs, amid fire and large oil stains where their tank column was destroyed.

*Anatolii Shara has been working on military issues in Ukraine for many years. With the beginning of the war, he volunteered with a paramilitary unit to help defend Kyiv. Since the withdrawal of the Russian army from Kyiv, he has been a reservist in the Ukrainian army and works as a journalist for international media.

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