Of Roadside Bombs and Drones: Putin’s Looming Insurgency Problem
The Russian military may soon experience a violent and tech laden insurgency the likes of which it has never endured — in Afghanistan, in Chechnya, or in Syria — and against which it may not prevail.
The Ukrainian military did not collapse the way Moscow likely expected. Instead, it proved adaptive and creative in battling Russian forces, increasingly through asymmetric means. If Russia seeks a permanent occupation of the Donbas region or continues with the kind of urban warfare currently underway in Mariupol, Ukraine will continue to resist asymmetrically. This will lead to an increasing reliance on established insurgent tactics. Small weaponized Ukrainian-made drones have appeared on the battlefield, but I believe repurposed commercial off-the-shelf drones will play an increasing role. Much like in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, explosively formed penetrators, vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, and roadside bombs will join the battlefield in a big way. However, this insurgency will mature in weeks, not years, and the Russian forces are not prepared.
I watched the beginnings of the Iraqi insurgency develop in 2003 when I deployed there as a Department of Defense civilian attached to the Iraq Survey Group. At first the improvised explosive devices we saw were relatively unsophisticated: short-range electronic devices using cordless phones, wireless doorbells, and car alarms. But in just two short months, I witnessed the insurgents’ rapid learning curve. In the subsequent two decades, insurgents have continued to learn. In Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, terrorists used small commercial off-the-shelf fixed wing and rotary wing drones, which they armed with both improvised and re-purposed munitions, typically 40mm grenades, in a wide variety of configurations. While not classically militarily effective due to their small payload capacity and lack of warhead guidance, as well as the low-density massing of coalition forces, this may not always be the case. More advanced drones with higher payloads, the ability to swarm, and longer operating envelopes could become strategically relevant in future conflicts. Groups like ISIL were able to kill numerous Iraqi troops. They even produced high-quality propaganda videos to showcase their ersatz air wing.
A quick search of YouTube reveals videos from Ukrainian forces clearly intended to demonstrate their own drone capabilities. Soon, the techniques that the Islamic State developed to terrorize the Middle East could prove vital for Ukrainians protecting their country from Russian terror.
The Current Conflict
According to reporting from the International Institute for Strategic Studies on both Ukrainian and Russian forces, Russia has a strong numerical advantage on every measurable front, from submarines to surface to air missiles and from troops to tanks. Clearly then, when you are outnumbered in so many areas it makes little sense to slug it out, a la the Battle of Kursk. It is not 1943, and Ukraine knows technology, training, doctrine, and home field advantage matter. Videos from Ukraine are replete with examples of small unit tactics, often employing organic Stugna-P anti-tank guided missiles or Javelins to devastate Russian armor. While some presumed the Russians would easily overwhelm the less-equipped Ukrainians, the latter have made excellent use of small unit insurgency techniques and ambushes through conventional and hybrid forces, along with hit-and-run attacks using a variety of weapons. These are things they would have been taught by U.S. Army Green Berets, who are documented as having trained the Ukrainians since 2014.
Russian forces appear bogged down, despite Kremlin protests to the contrary, and therein lies part of their problem, since static forces are easier to kill. Similarly, it has been documented that foreign fighters from Western nations, including the United States, have been volunteering for groups like the International Legion for the Defense of Ukraine. It is logical to presume many of these volunteers, some of whom are reportedly special-operations veterans, served in Iraq, Syria, or Afghanistan, and thus have firsthand experience with improvised explosive devices spanning their creation, placement and tactical employment. This experience, combined with Ukrainian knowhow and creativity, is sure to inaugurate the coming insurgency at an advanced level. Effectively responding to these techniques took the United States and its partners a great deal of time and resources. These are things Russia may not have in abundance as its army and air force are attritted through a combination of conventional Ukrainian forces, special operations, and partisans.
Having served as senior executive deputy director of the Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center, I have seen some of the resources Ukrainian forces will have at their disposal in waging this kind of war. Since the start of the Iraqi insurgency, I have observed how the technology to produce deadly explosives and drone delivery systems has increased dramatically. What I refer to as 2nd-generation technology (things like passive infrared and dual-tone multi-frequency triggers) and 3rd-generation technology (like software driven, plug-and-play devices such as Arduino microcontrollers and even multi-layer printed circuit boards) can now challenge even advanced warfighters.
Drones, whether you call them unmanned aircraft systems, unmanned aerial vehicles, or anything else, offer further capabilities, which Ukrainian forces have already proven eager to exploit. In Iraq and Syria, the U.S. military faced a steep learning curve to defeat armed and repurposed commercial drones. While the United States did eventually develop technological solutions, it took years of attacks, many injuries, and loss of equipment to adapt.
In a February 15, 2022, article, The Sun profiled the Ukrainian firm UA Dynamics and reported on how their domestically produced weaponized drone is operated. Eugene Bulatsev, a UA Dynamics engineer claimed their “Punisher” model drone “has been causing havoc behind pro-Russian lines on Donbas for years because the enemy have no idea what has hit them.” According to a March 5, 2022, story in Business Insider, Bulatsev stated Punisher drones were “game-changing” and had completed up to 60 “successful” missions since the Russians first invaded Ukraine in 2014. Bulatsev further claimed the Punisher can carry three kilos (about 6.6 pounds) of explosives, at a top speed of 125mph, and can fly for hours using GPS waypoints — something useful for both intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions as well as attacks. Again, according to Bulatsev, the targets to date have been stationary, including fuel and ammunition storage, electronic and counter-electronic warfare stations, and anti-aircraft systems. This seems logical on its face, since such drone-dropped munitions have no guidance or propulsion to attack faster moving targets. In the current situation, Russian forces have provided almost irresistible targets, often parking on or along main roads.
The Punisher was professionally produced to offer a home-grown solution, but repurposed armed commercial off-the-shelf drones like those made by the Chinese company Da-Jiang Innovations and the fixed wing Skywalker X8 (also produced by a Chinese company) have also proven effective for insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. Tellingly, the page of a group called DroneXL notes that the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense has been calling on skilled drone pilots to join the fight. Specifically, they are using people who know how to work around Da-Jiang’s attempts at geofencing in order to fly against Russian targets. There are also reports that Ukrainian shops which sell drones have been emptied out — a harbinger for the Russians of what is coming.
And the Punisher is not the only homegrown Ukrainian drone effort to supplement the repurposed Da-Jiang family. In a March 18, 2022 story, The Times of London detailed the exploits of the Ukrainian army unit named Aerorozvidka — in effect their drone corps. This same group, back in 2015, was documented as using off-the-shelf drones to attack Russian forces and proxies. Not only are the Ukrainians using the aforementioned repurposed weaponized commercial drones, they announced another organically produced model called the R18, which purportedly has a four-kilometer range, 40-minute loiter time, and a weapons carriage capability of five kilos. This is above the carriage capability of typical consumer-grade Da-Jiang drones such as the Phantom 4, although the newer Phantom Pro 4 can purportedly carry about 2.7 kilos (about six pounds).
If five kilograms seems like an improbably small charge to destroy armored vehicles, consider that anti-armor grenades like the Russian RKG-3EM, also used by the Ukrainians, are rated to penetrate more than 200mm (about eight inches) of rolled homogeneous armor (a standard of measurement used for anti-armor weapons). Similarly, upgraded warheads for the venerable Rocket Propelled Grenade 7 launcher, such as the PG-7VL and tandem charge PG-7VR, weigh between 2.6–3.2 kilograms (about 5.7–7 pounds) and can allegedly penetrate more than 500 mm (more than 19 inches) of armor, making them lethal to the top armor of even a modern main battle tank. Such usage is not theoretical — in 2016, ISIL forces were photographed using apparent PG-7 style rounds on commercial drones.
Da-Jiang drones are reportedly vulnerable to detection and subsequent attack facilitated by the DJI Aeroscope system, which can locate the company’s products. Geolocated coordinates could then be used to target launch points, something allegedly depicted in a video of unknown provenance, purportedly from Ukraine. Still, this system only works against Da-Jiang platforms, and there is no indication the Russians have been effective at stopping Punisher or R18 drones.
Lastly, both the Russians (through use of Kalashnikov Group KUB-BLA “kamikaze drones”) and the United States (through the announced transfer of 100 Switchblade tactical loitering munitions) have been providing portable weaponized drones. While smaller in size, they are nevertheless (when functioning properly) precision strike weapons with significant explosive charges. They will join an increasingly crowded constellation of armed drones, such as the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 that has been used so effectively by Ukraine. Since the Russians have, so far, been ineffective eliminating the threat posed by the heavily armed Bayraktar or other drones, it is logical to believe the Ukrainians will aggressively use this tool as long as it remains available to them.
In a 2017 assessment, Jason Shell concluded that “60 percent of all American fatalities in Iraq and half of all American fatalities in Afghanistan, more than 3,500 in total, were caused by IEDs.” The basics of an improvised explosive device, including buried explosives, vehicles packed with commercial, homemade or even military explosives, explosively formed penetrators and platter charges, are not rocket science. Al-Qaeda, ISIL, and the Provisional Irish Republican Army successfully employed various explosive devices for decades, giving the United States and its coalition partners vast experience in countering this tactic. Similarly, vehicle-based explosives have been used across Europe, Africa, and Asia by terrorist groups, albeit more sporadically than in the Middle East. Explosives-trained personnel in the Ukrainian military are well equipped to manufacture such devices. They may use sophisticated fusing and firing systems if needed, although based upon my experience, even low-tech methods such as pressure plates or twin lead wire for command detonation, work extremely well and cannot be jammed. I expect that the wide employment of such technologies is imminent. Indeed, the first evidence of buried explosives charges, possibly using the TM-62 family of anti-tank mines, seems to have already emerged, as well as a device comprising two 152mm artillery shells.
As for vehicle-based devices, their prolific use in conflict zones such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria makes them an obvious choice against Russian forces. Given the physics of unfocused explosions, these would be best targeted against logistics support vehicles and intermediate armored vehicles like the BMP-3, BMD-4, Pantsir-S1, and BTR-80 series, or the 9K330 TOR. While a very large buried charge could disable or kill a tank, the Ukrainians already have Javelins, Next generation Light Anti-tank Weapon, and PG-7VR rounds for that. In heavily congested urban environments, particularly where large numbers of buildings have been turned to rubble or there are a substantial number of vehicles on every street (working or not), vehicle borne improvised explosive devices are a perfect weapon. Imagine the futility for Russian troops attempting to explosively “clear” hundreds of commercial vehicles on a dense city block.
Explosively formed projectile technology, having proven its lethality against American and coalition forces, should become be a top focus for Ukrainian insurgents. These are easy to recreate. The only significant challenge is producing the concave plates, but this easily done with a hydraulic press. The Ukrainians have enough of their own and captured Russian explosives to make almost unlimited quantities of the weapons, while the Russians have virtually no combat experience protecting against them. Buried in normal roadside debris, or even concealed in artificial rocks, they will be deadly.
The Next Few Weeks of Hell
It remains to be seen how Moscow will readjust its military strategy in light of the serious setbacks it has sustained over the past month. But unless Putin decides to admit defeat and completely withdraw Russian forces, Ukrainian fighters will have every incentive to use insurgent tactics to push them out of any territory they seek to capture or simply hold. Because unconventional and asymmetric tactics tend to favor the militarily weaker side, they should remain a powerful tool for Ukraine to employ, augmenting their conventional combat power and the influx of Western supplied arms.
As Russia appears to be pivoting to a more limited goal of securing the Donbas region and creating a land bridge to Crimea, Putin’s prospects for any sort of victory appear increasingly pyrrhic. Whether or not history assesses the Russian adventure as a loss, Russia is going to pay a terrible cost in dead soldiers and billions of dollars in destroyed equipment — a toll that is rising daily. Each insurgency has the potential advantage of copying techniques from those that proceeded it. Ukraine’s high-tech insurgency of drones, vehicle-based explosives, roadside bombs, and projectiles will also increasingly play out on social media. This will make the spectacle that much more visible — and horrible.
Scott Sweetow is a former U.S. Army cavalry scout and retired Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives senior executive with expertise in explosives, intelligence, and counterterrorism. He is president of S3 Global Consulting. Follow him at @S3G_Consulting.