Chinese-made drone, retrofitted and weaponized, downed in eastern Ukraine
Driving deep into the forest, the hush between the towering pine trees and the clear blue skies was splintered every few seconds by the sound of distant explosions from the frontline battles for eastern Ukraine.
Guiding us through the woodland on foot, Ukrainian soldiers eventually brought us to a clearing where they showed us the wreckage of a weaponized drone which they said they shot down with their AK-47 automatic weapons over the weekend.
The drone was a Mugin-5, a commercial unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) made by a Chinese manufacturer based in the port city of Xiamen, on China’s eastern coast.
Some tech bloggers say the machines are known as “Alibaba drones” as they have been available for sale for up to $15,000 on Chinese marketplace websites including Alibaba and Taobao.
Mugin Limited confirmed to CNN that it was their airframe, calling the incident “deeply unfortunate.”
It’s the latest example of a civilian drone being retrofitted and weaponized since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a sign of the rapidly shifting patterns of warfare.
“Along the frontlines, basically all the time we’re conducting aerial reconnaissance,” said Maksim, a 35-year-old territorial defense fighter who wanted to go only by his first name.
Overnight Friday into Saturday, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) told CNN that their agents based in Russian-held territory alerted them that a UAV had been launched from there, heading towards a Ukrainian target.
The SBU then raised the alarm with military units based in eastern Ukraine, near the city of Sloviansk.
At around 2 a.m. Saturday, fighters from the 111th Brigade of the Territorial Defense Forces of Ukraine heard the drone overhead, and even saw a light blinking on the aircraft.
“From the sound, from the signal light, the troops fired a lot at it and knocked down the UAV,” Maksim said.
Maksim said the UAV was flying at very low altitude – close enough to bring it down with hand-held weapons.
Now lying on the forest floor, a bullet hole was visible on the nose of the machine, which had broken apart and sustained significant damage.
Nearby, the soldiers also showed us a small crater in the earth which was created by the payload on the UAV – a bomb of approximately 44 pounds (20 kilograms), which was later safely detonated by the fighters.
In a video shared with CNN, the Ukrainian fighters showed how they hooked up a US-made demolition charge and then sprinted through the forest to their truck, before driving away at speed.
At a distance of around 1,640 feet (500 meters), they then stopped their vehicle and turned to film the powerful impact of the blast – a reminder of the potential damage it could have caused had it met its intended target on Ukrainian soil.
CNN reached out to Russia’s Ministry of Defense for comment on the incident, but has not yet received a response.
The weaponized commercial drone did not have a camera fitted, which means it could not have been used for surveillance, and essentially makes it similar to a “dumb bomb,” according to Chris Lincoln-Jones, a retired British Army officer and specialist in drone warfare.
“This particular drone that we’ve been looking at would be much more effective if it had a decent camera in it,” Lincoln-Jones said.
He added that the machine adds more evidence to the theory that Russia is not the military superpower that the world might have expected.
“This seems to be a very crude, unsophisticated, not very technologically advanced way of conducting operations,” he said, adding that the price of the machines is very cheap in military terms.
“The Ukrainians have to do whatever they can,” he added, so he would expect them to use “much more makeshift weapons.”
In January, officials in the Russian-held Luhansk region in eastern Ukraine claimed in a Telegram post that they had shot down a Mugin-5 launched by Ukrainian forces.
Ukrainian officials did not comment on this particular incident, but experts said that there is evidence that both sides of the conflict have utilized this technology.
“Both Russia and Ukraine have used commercially available Chinese platforms such as this during the course of the conflict, including in armed roles,” said N. R. Jenzen-Jones, an arms and munitions intelligence specialist, and director of the consultancy Armament Research Services.
“In this case, the Mugin-5 Pro was likely being used in a ‘bomber’ role, and not as a one-way attack (OWA, also called ‘sacrificial’) UAV,” Jenzen-Jones said.
The munition loaded onto the drone was likely to be a “high explosive fragmentation” design, which was “simple and not very aerodynamic,” he said.
Jenzen-Jones added that the release mechanism for the bomb appeared to be made with 3D-printed components, which would “suggest that the UAV has been rapidly retrofitted.”
As weaponry evolves in real time on the battlefields of Ukraine, the civilian companies behind the technology that is being armed to kill are now scrambling to find ways to stop their products from entering the military supply chain.
“We do not condone the usage. We are trying our best to stop it,” a spokesperson for Mugin Limited told CNN.
In a previous statement posted on the company’s website on March 2, Mugin Limited said they “condemn” the use of their products during warfare, and said they ceased selling products to Russia or Ukraine at the start of the war.
CNN also reached out to half a dozen other companies whose electronic parts were visible in the downed UAV.
That includes servos made by MKS, a Taiwanese manufacturer of electronic devices.
“Some UAV manufacturers may adopt MKS servos on their finished products for military usage, we are not happy about it, and it is against our company’s mission and vision,” a company spokesperson said in an email to CNN.
The MKS website disclaimer also states that their products are “forbidden” for any illegal or military utilization.
A sensor on the retrofitted circuit board on the UAV was made by Novatel, part of the Hexagon group based in Canada, which supplies industries including “agriculture, construction and automotive.”
“For all export-controlled products we have extensive control processes in place to ensure they are provided in compliance with applicable export laws,” a Hexagon spokesperson told CNN via email.
“In April 2022, we also took the decision to freeze all business activities in Russia.”
Despite the signs that the use of UAV technology in this conflict is ramping up, Ukrainian fighter Maksim denies that this has become a war of the drones.
“It’s not a war of technology,” he said. “The war is firstly a war of people.”