«These are primarily Ukrainian inventions.» Interview with a drone operator

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Svyatoslav Prokopchuk is a commander of the patrol police unit who is currently dealing with strike drones. The serviceman told Lviv Now what it’s like to manage drones that carry explosives, what it gives the Ukrainian army, what is known about Ukrainian inventions in this field, and why the liberation of Kherson was different from the situation in Bakhmut.

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You were among the first to enter the liberated Kherson, as we see from a video you posted that day on your page on one of the social networks. Do you remember that day? How did it happen, what were the expectations and what did you face in Kherson?

No one expected that people would meet us like this when we arrived in Kherson. This only confirms that Kherson is Ukraine. It was, is and will be a Ukrainian city, no matter what happens there. The residents greeted us very kindly. To be honest, we could hardly hold back our tears, but people want to see that our army is strong and doesn’t allow itself to cry. 

The people of Kherson came out with Ukrainian flags. On the second day, we talked a lot with them, and they said that they hid those flags under pillows, in storerooms – anywhere, so that at a certain moment, when Kherson was liberated, they would come out to meet our army, to show that they fought. Each of us has a different struggle: some were able to join the Armed Forces, some couldn’t, some have the willpower to go fight, some don’t – and these are normal things. Even the partisans in the Kherson region made a great contribution: the fact that they painted something, or attached Ukrainian flags, also has a very strong psychological effect.

We met a priest, who held Holy Services in Ukrainian during the occupation. People gathered in the evenings and sang songs in their native language. The father told how FSB officers came to him, but he still spoke Ukrainian.

It was very nice to see people welcome us like that. They came out on the second day as well, brought us food and sweets, and did it from their entire hearts, because they were waiting for the Armed Forces to enter Kherson.

I also remember shots of these scenes and think that more than one person in Ukraine reacted quite emotionally to it, remembering the resistance and the actions taken by the city residents when the Russian troops entered Kherson. These shots are also revealing because the videos and photos, where you are in the background of Kherson, were among the first and widely distributed. They were posted by the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine, and in foreign magazines. Did you take the photo deliberately for the public or was it just the first thing you did when you saw the «Kherson» road sign?

We drove in two cars, and to be honest, I passed the «Kherson» sign. Already in the mirror, we saw that our guys had stopped and told us through the radio: «Come, let’s take a photo, just for memory, and later we’ll see.» We didn’t take the Starlink with us, otherwise, we would probably have run this photo sooner. There was no connection at all, I could not even make a connection from a satellite phone. Already on the way back, between Posad-Pokrovske and Mykolaiv, I posted this photo. I remember that everyone was still together in the car deciding what to write in the post, and called it «No comments».

After that, your next stop was Bakhmut. How different is it there? Is it very difficult?

After that, we spent some time in the Kherson and Mykolaiv regions, because the enemy had withdrawn from there too. Although he left not by his will, but only because our army showed its strength. We worked on the Kinburn spit, and only then went to Bakhmut.

Bakhmut is a radically different war. If in Kherson, we had distances of four to five kilometers from the position, then there, it was 50-100-200-500 meters in some places. It’s very different in terms of the amount of artillery that works against us and that works against them. The fact that we operate mainly with strike drones is also different, there is the issue of EW [EW, or electronic warfare, is a type of armed struggle, during which radio jamming is used to influence the radio-electronic means of intelligence, communication and control systems of a potential adversary to complicate their work and data transmission], which works very powerfully. In Bakhmut, we lost two attack drones, and in the Mykolaiv and Kherson directions, we had no such losses. Here you should look at things realistically, what you can do and what you can’t.

You had a rather succinct post: «Thanks to Bakhmut for teaching.» I see that things were completely different there, that you must have acquired different skills or understanding of how to work with all this.

Bakhmut really taught us that one should not overestimate himself. What we thought we «know-how» in the Kherson – Mykolaiv direction does not work at all in Bakhmut. We tried to choose the hours, for three or four days, we determined them based on the work of the EW at night. We usually work with the impact drone only at night, so that it’s not so noticeable, because it is very large and can be easily heard. Thermal imagers and a «night lamp» will see it, but not everyone has it. Therefore, the work is going on only at night. In addition, most of the personnel are asleep, and there are only posts, SP-shka [informal name for an observation point]. This is about the Mykolayiv region because everything was different there. We worked at night, and here, battles go around the clock. We somehow did not take these points into account. We lost the drones due to the fact that one of them had a GPS module, which, in my opinion, is not ready to work under EW, and the second one, where a completely different GPS module was knocked down, but miraculously returned back. It just fell, and we picked it up. But again, this is only the work with the EW. It was like we determined that there was none at that moment, but when we started working, everything turned out differently. In the Mykolayiv region, it was easier. If we determined the hours when the drone was rising – then okay: the drone comes in, drops the explosive ammunition, and returns. Mostly, they worked in automatic mode: they flew for two or three days, identified targets, coordinated them, programmed the flight, and determined where to start. In Bakhmut, we had to switch to manual mode, because the drone there did not keep with work under the EW, even with an expensive GPS module.

Drones have become a feature of this war. Before that, you didn’t use them either. How did you start working with drones and how ready were you to use them?

To be honest, we were not ready at all, so it was necessary to learn very quickly. I used to serve in the 73rd Marine Special Operations Center and all the drone work had to be done manually. We went around everything on foot, wrote reports, submitted information about where and what we found: their SP-shka, dugouts, trenches, some warehouses, if it was possible to get there and determine what exactly these warehouses were. And now, having raised the drone and knowing how to fly, there is no need to walk so much, to expose the personnel to danger – the drone does all the work. Previously, we did not have a single drone in the unit, only one aircraft, with which one person worked at that time, and all intelligence was on foot. Now, the drone took off, flew, then on the big screen, the operator reviewed everything that he observed. «Army SOS», checked the coordinates, loaded – and you have the whole picture, which once demanded to spend a lot of time.

As for strike drones, they are generally the future. You don’t need to ambush with them and then make a raid. If we spend a few days, we determine where the personnel lives, seeing their features, traces. We are consulting with neighboring units, maybe they identified or saw something. Sometimes there is access to SIGINT [signal intelligence], and the guys can give information if there is a cluster of phones. Then you agree on the target and select the explosive. Our drone can carry up to 30 kilograms, so you can carry quite powerful explosives, and you work on a personnel basis. This is a completely different result. Again, you save the life of your personnel.

What is the role of volunteers in providing drones, and the help people provide by fundraising for them?

In our case, all drones are volunteers’. For the first strike drone, volunteers raised part of the funds, for the second one, the guys and I took the plunge and bought it ourselves. The next drones will already be purchased with volunteer money. People helped because they saw our work. We tried to publish and fundraise for a drone because we figured that two or three would do more work than one. We have a small unit, so people were trained so that they could divide into teams and work.

So there is always a need for volunteer help, right?

Yes, it is in any unit. I say this after talking with the guys I used to serve with. I heard more than once: «Autel» can be given to us from the warehouse, but not «Mavic». Although the second is much better and will do more work than the first. Therefore, without volunteers, we would not have an army, and we would not exist either. At the beginning, Ukraine was not so ready, volunteers were looking day and night for helmets, «armor», and «unloading vests» – anything the boys asked for. That is why volunteers make a big contribution to our victory.

When there is a need for repairs or a new drone, you turn to people the same way. How comfortable is it for you?

To be honest, I don’t feel comfortable asking for help, so most of the time I don’t. Somewhere the boys will call, somewhere they will chat with someone, hear what is needed, and offer to help themselves. Personally, I cannot ask, even though I understand that this is a need and it must be done. But even our fundraising requests do not come from me, I never write about them. We agreed that I approve the post, how we write it, and how we submit it. But these are other people who ask, because it is problematic for me.

The development of drones happened gradually. Today, everyone understands their necessity, so the question arose of training operators for better use and preservation. Do such pieces of training take place and is it appropriate to talk about it?

Before giving the drone to the operator, this is necessary. It would be wrong to say that we did not destroy drones, or that we immediately went to training. We learned by ourselves: we read something, looked for videos, consulted, watched the guys fly on the training ground, made mistakes. Drones were falling, even an impact drone, because we did not take into account the fact that the battery can die so quickly. All this leads to the fact that training is necessary. Even now, you and I are shooting the program in our free time, when we don’t train. All of our trainees went there, as it’s mandatory for everyone. We decided that. Even with many sorties in combat conditions, there are some theoretical and practical points that we do not know.

It’s worse with strike drones, because the ones we use are mostly homemade. As for their management, there are no trainings for two or three weeks. I was taught for half an hour: they showed how it flies, I filmed it, then I tried it several times on the training ground, and then we already tried to fly it in combat conditions. We succeeded, and we started working with them.

I keep repeating that training is necessary. If volunteers buy drones, transfer them to the unit, then I would recommend that you first ask if there was any training. A lot of public organizations do this: guys who know how to fly simply united and teach military and police officers for free. There is a queue to join them, because they are free, and operators must be sent for training.

Do you participate in such training or are you involved in them? You have the experience of directly using drones in combat conditions, which is significantly greater than just the theoretical ability to control them.

Whether or not to go to training is decided by the fighter and his commander. I think they are necessary: no matter how much practice there is, you can still find something you don’t know. That is why I told the commander that I should send my group, a small unit. And since we have already shown the work and the commander treats it with respect, understands that it is necessary, he reacted adequately – and sent us.

I also meant how involved you are as instructors.

We ourselves do not train fighters on how to use drones. There are schools for that. It is necessary to teach correctly, accessible, and it is very difficult for us. However, when there is an opportunity, we teach children. For the fighters who contact us, we conduct other trainings, which have never been organized purely on drones.

To what extent have Ukrainian drone-related inventions and their additions developed?

They developed very powerfully. Aeroplanes and drones are now mostly Ukrainian developments. Even the drone we fly is the work of Lviv smugglers. Once those drones «hauled» cigarettes to Poland, Romania, and now – the explosives [against Russians]. An impact drone is an agrodrone that can carry some weight. The one we use works by coordinates: there is a program in which we register them, it goes to the Russians and performs a drop. We work at a low altitude, we have already worked out the one at which we have the most optimal hitting so that there is not a large spread between the hitting point and the control point. We have one meter. These are our developments, and there are many of them. In Lviv, there is a development with a thermal imaging camera, there is an R18 [R18 is the development of «Aerororozvidka» (aerial reconnaissance), a vertical take-off and landing octocopter, which has eight lifting screws and can carry several kilograms of payload]. Drones are being developed in Mykolaiv. They are working, constantly improving, looking for GPS modules, and thinking about what changes to make in order to work better under EW. Drones with a thermal imaging camera and R18 are not merely given to us by the guys – you have to go through training. And this is very correct, because it reduces the loss of drones. When you have completed the training, you understand what moments can be, plus during these two weeks, you get to know people who you can always ask something if your knowledge is not enough.

You also took part in the liberation of Lukyanivka. There was definitely a different situation than in Kherson, where our troops forced the enemy to retreat.

Yes, this is the Kyiv region, the month of March, as I remember. There were several squads. There was a unit of the patrol police, Belarusians, the Korchynskyi Brotherhood, there was a tank that in reality saved us all. Although we are not familiar with its crew, everyone said that it was the third year of our Ground Forces Academy. Just this one tank did most of the work. Because at the beginning, as soon as we entered Lukyanivka, the contact battle had not yet begun. The enemy’s artillery worked, ours as well, and we ran among the houses so that the shells would not hit us. The tank came out, «folded» their one, then another one, and so it constantly pulled the enemies on itself. Well done, guys! It would be interesting to meet them. If it weren’t for them, we probably wouldn’t be having our conversation today. That’s how it was in Lukyanivka – everyone went together. Maybe some unit did not remember, but the Russians retreated.

You talk about tanks so simply, although it probably wasn’t like that. Such stories should be heard by our European partners, who are still debating whether to transfer military equipment to Ukraine. There is a lot of different information about how the Russians retreat and leave the trophy equipment. Did you have this?

It was. In the same Lukyanivka. They left the equipment and fled because it was scary. The Russians did not know the number of our forces, and we did not know theirs. But we won, and they retreated. Their equipment was then handed over to the Armed Forces of Ukraine. I did not see this in the Kherson direction, but those with whom we served before saw it: they left mortars and equipment, abandoned everything and retreated. And we have a slightly different job – strike drones, reconnaissance, long-range shooting.

As it is said in the Kharkiv region, during their retreat, the Russians managed to replenish the reserves of equipment for the Armed Forces of Ukraine. But such moments testify to the condition of the aggressor’s motivation and morale. Because of the specifics of your service, you don’t come across this every day, but is there a noticeable difference in the motivation of Ukrainians and Russians?

We have different motivations than they – we are fighting for our land, and they came to destroy us. Our whole history consists of this: as long as we and they have existed, they have had nothing else but to destroy us. What motivation can they have? What they are being bullied is one thing, aren’t they trying to win back something of their own? We are fighting for our land, our children, and our families, so that we continue to exist as a nation. And they are for destroying us as a nation. Therefore, they have no motivation to fight and die.

Thank you for this conversation and for what you do! I wish that we not just win, but do it as soon as possible, so that your skills in working with reconnaissance drones will suit us in a peaceful life too!

Sergiy Smirnov spoke

Text: Marichka Ilyina, translated by Vitalii Holich

Photo: Ivan Stanislavsky, Tvoe Misto

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