‘We will end this war with drones,’ says Mykhailo Fedorov, deputy prime minister of Ukraine. We meet at the Ministry of Digital Transformation, which he runs in Kyiv. It has become crucial to the counter-offensive. To reclaim occupied land, Ukrainian troops need to remove miles of landmines, and can do so only if kept safe by swarms of drones that fly ahead, searching for the enemy. Russia has drones too – many more of them – and is adept at jamming and downing Ukraine’s fleet. A drone arms race is under way.
Soon after his election, President Volodymyr Zelensky asked the then 28-year-old Fedorov to run a new ministry aimed at turning Ukraine into a digital country (or, as he put it, a ‘paperless state’). At first, the idea was to move common government services on to an app called Diia. Once the war intensified, the brief soon expanded to defence procurement. Fedorov’s remit was to bypass a slow-moving and often fraud-addled civil service. He hoped to incentivise and energise both the voluntary and private sectors. The aim was to out-produce and out-innovate the Kremlin.
At 32, Fedorov is now a veteran. His ‘Army of Drones’ programme has been designed to encourage Ukrainian companies to make thousands of drones and train a similarly large number of operators. This unprecedented collaboration of private enterprise and the national military has so far seen 12 drone assault companies created, with about 65 soldiers apiece. Fedorov says six more will be created soon. ‘We would like drone assault companies in each brigade.’
The objective is to make drones more quickly than Russia can shoot them down. There are no official numbers, but some estimates have said Ukraine is losing 10,000 a month.