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Ukraine's "Army of Drones" tells CBS News $40 million worth of Russian military hardware destroyed in a month

Drone warfare is key in Ukraine's fight
Ukraine drone unit says $40 million in Russian hardware destroyed in past month 02:33

Eastern Ukraine — Russia launched a fresh wave of drone attacks against Ukraine overnight. The Ukrainian Air Force said Tuesday that it downed all but two of the 31 exploding aircraft, but the latest assault highlighted the extent to which the war sparked by Russia's full-scale invasion more than a year and a half ago is increasingly a drone war.

Ukraine's military gave CBS News rare access to one of its new drone units, called the "Army of Drones," which has been successfully attacking Russian forces behind the front line. We watched as soldiers from the unit, part of Ukraine's 24th Mechanized Brigade, practiced commanding fleets of the small aircraft to target and destroy enemy hardware and personnel.

One pilot, codenamed "Sunset," was flying a state-of-the-art R18 octocopter — a drone designed entirely in Ukraine. Each one costs more than $100,000, but even with that price tag, the R18s have proven cost effective, and devastatingly successful.

A Ukrainian soldier with a drone unit from the 24th Mechanized Brigade flies a Ukrainian-designed R18 octocopter UAV during a training exercise in eastern Ukraine, in early October 2023.  CBS News

Sunset told us the unit had already used them to destroy 10 Russian tanks since it started operating in May.

Equipped with thermal imaging cameras, the R18 turns deadliest after dark. The Ukrainian troops showed CBS News video from one of the devices as it illuminated a Russian Howitzer artillery piece hundreds of feet below, and then blew it up.

The 24th Mechanized Brigade's commander, codenamed "Hasan," said his forces had "destroyed $40 million worth of Russian hardware in the past month."

He said the unit was set to grow in manpower from about 60 to 100 troops, and they will need even more drones.

According to one estimate, Ukraine is using and losing 10,000 drones every month. With the war dragging on, Hasan acknowledged that ensuring a supply of the lethal weapons is an issue.

Ukrainian soldiers with a drone unit from the 24th Mechanized Brigade prepare a Ukrainian-designed R18 octocopter UAV during a training exercise in eastern Ukraine, in early October 2023. CBS News

Most of the drones used by his forces come from China, he said. But Beijing officially banned its drone makers from exporting to Ukraine — and Russia — at the beginning of September. They still manage to get them through middlemen and third countries, but it's slower.

Boxes from China sat on a shelf in a concealed workshop, where another Ukrainian commander, "Taras," watched over his men working to adapt the drones they could get ahold of to kill, and repairing damaged ones to save money. That kind of warfare thrift is all the more important with new U.S. aid for Ukraine now suspended.

Since it was founded in May, the drone unit we met has struck communications towers, infantry hideouts and Russian soldiers, and Sunset had a message for Americans, including the politicians in Washington who will decide whether to continue increasing military support for his country:

"Thank you," he said. "We are not wasting your money. Drones save our lives."

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