Ukraine Warns Chinese Drones May Be Compromised

Ukraine Warns Chinese Drones May Be Compromised a drone flies against a pale cloud covered sky (Khalil Mazraaw/Getty Images)

By By Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali | Saturday, 23 April 2022 11:58 AM

Ukraine, weighing China's support for Russia amid Vladimir Putin's invasion, has deemed Chinese drones compromised, leaning heavily on start-up American drone suppliers.

Chinese company SZ DJI Technology Co. is the world's largest commercial drone maker, but relying on a product from a country with ties to Russia has been deemed a national security risk for Ukraine's military and citizens, The Wall Street Journal reported Friday.

The drones are used in Ukraine to search for survivors, survey damage from Russian attacks on cities, and scouting Russian forces, according to the report.

Ukraine had reported technical glitches from DJI drones and are suspecting it might be intentional to sabotage the country's defense against Russia's invasion. China has reportedly been siding with Russia in its claim of parts of Ukraine as Russian territory, and Ukraine has noted Russia also uses DJI drones.

DJI drones were placed on a U.S. sanctions list in December, restricting U.S. citizens from buying or investing in them.

DJI has denied allegations is it supplying Russia's war on Ukraine or meddling with Ukraine products, with spokesman Adam Lisberg telling the Journal that DJI does not permit use of consumer drones for military use.

As Ukraine has turned away from Chinese-tied drones, American drone startups have picked up the supply line, including Seattle-based BRINC Drones Inc. and Silicon Valley's Skydio Inc., the Journal reported.

Unlike the DJI drones, which Ukraine claims has failed with its drone-detection systems, BRINC boasts its drones make it difficult for Russia to detect them.

Lisberg told the Journal the drones were knowingly malfunctioning before the Russia invasion, but there was no tampering with them.

Ukrainian drone dealer Taras Troiak has made a living selling DJI drones in Kyiv and Lviv, but he has severed ties with DJI and is now working with Skydio and donating drones to the Ukraine military efforts to defend against Russia's invasion, according to the Journal.

"All future purchases will not be Chinese drones," Troiak told the Journal.

As for military-grade weapons-carrying drones, newly disclosed "Ghost" drones that are part of America's latest arms package for Ukraine were developed by the U.S. Air Force for attacking targets and are destroyed after a single use, the Pentagon said Thursday.

The United States and its allies have ramped up arms shipments to Kyiv ahead of Russia's announced offensive in eastern Ukraine, as Moscow tries to salvage its nearly two-month old campaign.

Ukrainian forces have used Western weapons including Stinger and Javelin missiles along with drones, like the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 and U.S.-made Switchblade, effectively to target Russian positions.

The White House said earlier on Thursday that over 121 Phoenix Ghost Tactical Unmanned Aerial Systems would be provided to Ukraine as part of the new arms package.

The Pentagon said the Ghost drones are well suited for the coming fight in Ukraine's Donbas region, which officials have described as flat terrain reminiscent of the U.S. state of Kansas.

"It was developed for a set of requirements that very closely match what the Ukrainians need right now in Donbas," Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said, without elaborating.

Little else is known about the drones, including their range and precise capabilities, and Kirby declined to offer more details about them.

Still, he did say they were designed mainly for striking targets.

"It can also be used to give you a sight picture of what it's seeing, of course. But its principal focus is attack," Kirby said.

A small number of Ukrainians have been trained in the United States on how to operate Switchblade drones, single-use weapons that fly into their targets and detonate on impact.

Kirby said training for the Ghost drones would be similar to the training on the Switchblade. But he declined to detail training plans or say how many Ukrainians would be trained on the new system.

The Ghost drones have not yet been delivered to Ukraine.

Earlier on Thursday, Kirby said the drones had been rapidly developed for Ukraine. But later, at a news conference, he clarified that development had started before the Russian invasion on Feb. 24.

"But we will continue to move that development in ways that are attuned to Ukrainian requirements for unmanned aerial systems of a tactical nature in eastern Ukraine," Kirby said.

Information from Reuters was used in this report.