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In a Ukraine workshop, the quest to build the perfect grenade


Thomas Gibbons-Neff

The writer is the Kabul bureau chief and a former Marine infantryman

An array of mostly unremarkable items stretched across two wooden tables on the far side of a cramped workshop in eastern Ukraine: double-sided tape, gloves, Allen wrenches, a soldering iron, 3D-printed plastic, ball bearings, a digital scale. Next to them was a German DM51 fragmentation grenade.

They were all important ingredients for Ukrainian troops trying to piece together a puzzle: How do you create a grenade that weighs next to nothing but can be dropped from a drone and destroy a roughly 40-tonne Russian tank?

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

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

Now Graf and his team, who have become experts at killing Russian troops with munitions dropped from the air, are trying to raise the drones’ effectiveness to the next level: by using them to deliver what they consider the perfect grenade.

The challenge is building that grenade.

A member of a volunteer battalion practices the launch and retrieval of a DJI Mavic drone as the group trains outside Kyiv.
A member of a volunteer battalion practices the launch and retrieval of a DJI Mavic drone as the group trains outside Kyiv.

“It’s our main goal,” Graf 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 lethal battlefield tool. Like other Ukrainian soldiers during the war, he identified himself to reporters only by his military call sign.

The tinkering in Graf’s workroom is another example of how Ukraine’s military has adapted as the war progresses, creating advantages in the face of the Russian army’s superiority in troop numbers and long-range weaponry.

The grenade, Graf said, should weigh around 1.1 pounds, the maximum weight a DJI Mavic 3 drone can carry without its flight being significantly disrupted.

To get the grenade closer to the desired weight, his team has been using a 3D printer to try to make a lightweight casing that can hold the explosives needed to penetrate a tank’s armour. The painstaking task involves experimenting with grenades of differing designs, clasped in a vise in their workroom, and operating around the explosive mechanisms to fine-tune them.

The grenade should be able to penetrate the hull of an armoured personnel carrier or tank — something not currently possible with a munition weighing around 1 pound, Graf said. For now, their best grenade is the German-supplied DM51, an explosive that, with stabilising fins attached, weighs near their imposed threshold.

But the DM51 is manufactured to kill people and is not effective against a tank.

“Every day, we study; we make some experiments with grenades, with bombs, with drones, and make our work better,” Graf added.

To Graf and the legions of Ukrainian drone operators and armourers, the quest for an enhanced grenade is part of a broader drone arms race with Russia. Like Graf’s team, the Russian military is also trying to make its small unmanned vehicles deadlier, to varying levels of success.

The Chinese-made Mavic 3 drone has turned into the ubiquitous backbone of Ukraine’s drone forces. It is small, portable, has a decent battery life and range and can quickly be outfitted to drop grenades. Russian forces use it, too.

The Russians’ bigger military drones, including the self-exploding Shahed-136, which is made in Iran and frequently launched at Ukraine’s infrastructure, are used differently from the small Mavics that are deployed against concentrations of troops and trenches. The Mavics are quadcopters; they can hover like a helicopter directly over their target before dropping their lethal cargo.

Ukraine has stayed ahead in the drones arm race in much the same way as it has succeeded on the battlefield: Lower-level commanders have more leeway in how and when to use them, and drone units such as Graf’s have less bureaucracy to navigate to test and deploy their weapons.

“The Ukrainian drone effort is more streamlined and works directly with the military,” said Samuel Bendett, a specialist on Russian drones and other weapons at CNA, a research and analysis organisation in Arlington, Virginia. “The Russians are only getting there now.”

That means that Graf and his comrades’ inventions can quickly be shared with other drone units in chat groups before being used in the field, with little oversight. - New York Times

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