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9 surprising combat fixes the Ukrainians have come up with to fight off Russia

Lauren Frias   

9 surprising combat fixes the Ukrainians have come up with to fight off Russia
Ukrainian soldiers fire with an improvised multiple rocket launcher on Russian positions near the occupied Ukrainian city of Bakhmut.Yevhenii Vasyliev/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images
  • Ukrainian forces have improvised useful solutions to their problems on the battlefield.
  • Soldiers are arming plastic drones with grenades and fixing rocket launchers to pickup trucks.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has often forced it to get innovative in its defense.

Western countries have sent billions in military aid to Ukraine, including lethal aid, to support its war effort, but Ukrainian forces are also relying on their own handiness and creativity on the battlefield, jury-rigging improvised solutions to get the upper hand against the Russian army.

From plastic drones armed with explosives to civilian pickup trucks with rocket launchers set up in the back, here are 9 ways that Ukrainian soldiers are making the most of what they've got to batter Russian forces.

'The MacGyver metaphor'

Known for its mobility and efficiency, soldiers jokingly call the pick-up truck with installed elements from a Soviet multiple rocket launcher the "Nightmaremobile."      Yevhenii Vasyliev/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images

Ukrainian forces have often resorted to scrappy methods to take out Russia's troops, vehicles, aircraft, and warships. Methods include somewhat unusual approaches like mixing Western-made arms with Soviet-era weapons already in their arsenal, among others.

Retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, a senior advisor at Human Rights First and former top US Army commander, previously noted that the craftiness of Ukrainian soldiers is why people often use "the MacGyver metaphor," referencing the original 1980s TV show in which the titular character found game-changing solutions with the simplest of materials.

The 'Nightmaremobile'

A Ukrainian soldier in a mask stands near an improvised multiple rocket launcher during firing on Russian positions on Jan. 15, 2024 in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine.      Photo by Roman Chop/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images

One such "MacGyvered" weapon is an improvised multiple rocket launcher system that Ukrainian forces have put on the back of civilian pick-up trucks.

With its efficient mobility and the lethal power of rocket-propelled explosive projectiles, the vehicle is fittingly dubbed "the Nightmaremobile" by Ukrainian forces.

Ukrainian soldiers have tossed other weapons on trucks as well. One military unit in Kupiansk, Ukraine, for instance, mounted old Soviet-era KS-19 anti-aircraft guns onto civilian trucks to drive the deadly war machine in and out of combat.

"First came the old guns, which are not maneuverable and which no one wants to work with much," Ukrainian Sgt. Evegeny Iitvin explained to The Daily Beast. "I called a friend and said let's raise the money and do it (buy trucks)."

"I've already fought on the front line. I already had the guns. I already understood their effectiveness, their safety, and that everything can be better and more convenient," he added. "I came up with the idea that I should put the gun on the truck. We brought, renovated, and installed it."

Neptune missiles

Neptune missiles
The scale model of the Neptune land-based anti-ship missile system in the National Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War in Kyiv, Ukraine.      Ruslan Kaniuka / Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images

In April 2022, Ukraine demonstrated the power of its Neptune missiles by sinking the lead ship of Russia's Black Sea fleet, a guided missile cruiser called the Moskva.

"With the Moskva, they MacGyvered a very effective anti-ship system that they put on the back of a truck to make it mobile and move it around," Hodges told The New York Times.

The following year, after reworking the missile, Ukraine appeared to begin using it for strikes in Crimea that eliminated a couple of Russia's precious S-400 air-defense systems.

'Sea Baby' drones

A sea drone cruises on the water during a presentation by Ukraine's Security Service in Kyiv region, Ukraine.      Evgeniy Maloletka/AP

The Moskva isn't the only vessel in the Russian Black Sea Fleet that has taken a beating from Ukrainian weapons. Though Ukraine doesn't have a proper navy, they have still been able to take out nearly a third of Russia's warships.

Ukrainian forces have used unmanned maritime drones — aptly nicknamed "Sea Babies" — to badly damage Russian vessels.

On August 4, 2023, video footage captured one such sea drone zooming toward the Russian landing ship, the Olenegorskiy Gornyak, before the feed cuts out after detonation. Three months later, two more Russian vessels were damaged by Ukrainian sea drones.

Earlier this year, a Ukrainian special military unit sank a small Russian warship called the Ivanovets using six satellite-controlled naval drones on Jet Skis.

One-way attack drones

One-way attack drones
An engineer installs components in Kyiv region, Ukraine.      Evgeniy Maloletka)/AP

Ukrainian forces have also employed makeshift exploding one-way attack drones made using inexpensive hobby FPV drones capable of carrying explosives attached with zip ties and tape.

Ukraine's relatively cheap drones don't necessarily compare to higher-end loitering munitions, but the unassuming aircraft can still pack a punch using RPG warheads and plastic explosives. These assets, which the Russians also use, offer asymmetric advantages, as a drone worth a few hundred bucks can take out a tank worth millions. And they can reach areas that other weapons can't with precision.

"Any equipment can be hit in a place where the enemy thinks he is a million percent safe," Maj. Kyryl Veres, a Ukrainian brigade commander, told The New York Times, explaining that he sees "huge potential" in the drones.

The success of drones, both in the air and sea, led to a boom in Ukraine's drone industry. Around 200 companies in Ukraine turned their attention to manufacturing drones, putting out 50 times more deliveries this past December compared to the previous year, said Mykhailo Fedorov, the minister of digital transformation.

"We have a war of only two resources with Russia — manpower and money," he said, according to a report by the Associated Press. "And if we learn to use these two basic resources, we will win. If not, we will have big problems."

Reusing captured Russian tanks

Reusing captured Russian tanks
A repair battalion soldier of the Armed Forces of Ukraine welds slat armor onto a T-64 tank in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine.      Dmytro Larin /Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images

Though weapons production has soared in the past year, Ukraine lacks Russia's wartime industrial capacity and supply of heavy weaponry. It has relied on weapons provided by partners, but it has also made use of weapons captured from the enemy.

Ukraine has gotten its hands on a lot of Russian equipment, including Russian main battle tanks, but it often has to go through repairs before it can be used in battle. And the Ukrainians don't always have access to the parts.

There have been reports of Ukrainians calling up Russian tech support when their captured equipment wouldn't work the way it should.

Tank cages

Tank cages
Ukrainian servicemen prepare to ride in a T-64 tank near the town of Bakhmut.      Inna Varenytsia/Reuters

Ukrainian forces, like the Russians, have also built makeshift tank "cope cages" in a last-ditch effort to defend the armored vehicles from drone strikes — though the flimsy improvised armor regularly isn't enough, for either side.

The FPV drones that have been terrors on the battlefield have been seen in videos slipping past these defenses.

A weapons-tracking researcher told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that the cages are "mainly intended to disrupt Russian Lancet munitions," a kind of loitering munition.

Unusual missile loadouts

Unusual missile loadouts
A Ukrainian Tactical Aviation pilot poses in the cockpit of his MIG-29 fighter jet at sunset in eastern Ukraine.      Libkos/Getty Images

Ukraine's improvised innovations aren't just limited to the ground. Troops put AGM-88 HARM missiles built to hunt down radar systems onto MiG-29 fighter jets — an unprecedented armament for Ukraine's Soviet-designed jets because of their Western origin and initial incompatibility.

Gen. Hodges told The Times that the aircraft modifications demonstrated the technical and tactical savvy of Ukraine's military.

"You can't just hang any kind of rocket off of any kind of plane — there's a whole lot of avionics and other aspects of flying and high-performance aircraft that are involved here," Hodges said. "And they did it."

'Franken' weapons

A BUK air defence missile system (R) moves on April 29, 2015 in Moscow for the Victory Day military parade night training.      VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP via Getty Images

In a bid to strengthen their critical air-defense capabilities, Ukrainian soldiers also combined Western surface-to-air missiles and Soviet-era launchers in an effort American officials call the FrankenSAM program. The name is a reference to "Frankenstein" and the abbreviation for surface-to-air missile.

The improvised air-defense system was borne from a need to bolster Ukraine's capabilities to protect the energy grid and civilian from Russian airstrikes during the winter.

Ukrainian forces are using US-supplied AIM-9 air-to-air missiles — which can also be used in an air-to-surface capacity.

"We fixed them," a Ukrainian official told the Financial Times. "We found a way of launching them from the ground. It's a kind of self-made air defence."


A worker sets up an inflatable tank next to a mostly inflated jet plane.      REUTERS/Thomas Peter

As useful as real weapons can be, Ukraine is also taking advantage of fake ones to fool Russia.

Dummy tanks have been used since World War I, and Ukraine is continuing its legacy by using the decoys to deceive Russian forces. Notably, Russia does the same, though not always well.

Deception is becoming more difficult due to evolving military technologies like thermal imaging, which are making it easier to spot fakes, prompting a kind of "decoy arms race" — the concept of "increasingly sophisticated decoys being used to offset enemies' weapons systems."

Ukraine has reportedly placed fake HIMARS rocket launchers made out of wood to deter fire away from real targets. Ukrainian soldiers have also made makeshift radar reflectors by repurposing old Russian oil barrels. They've even made some very realistic systems with moving parts.

"It's very consistent for Ukraine to sort of be having a decoy arms race of its own as the war progresses," George Barros, a Russia analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, previously told Business Insider's Chris Panella.

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