On August 27 media reports appeared in Ukraine detailing a devastating attack on a Russian air base early that morning which damaged or destroyed five parked combat aircraft along with at least two air defence systems.  This was followed by speculation, initiated by an authoritative Russian blogger, that disposable drones made from cardboard and supplied by Australia might have been responsible.

This is a sensitive topic as western-supplied hardware is meant only to be used within the borders of Ukraine, supposedly so as not to provoke an escalation in the conflict.  The Melbourne-based manufacturer Sypaq isn’t commenting, referring inquiries to Defence – and from them is a boilerplate response of Australia being aware of its legal and humanitarian principles.

At first glimpse, it is certainly possible that several of them – the Russian source says seven were used for the attack – could have penetrated air defence systems to reach their targets.  Marketed under the name of the Corvo PPDS (Precision Payload Delivery System), they can carry up to 5kg, which if it had been in the form of a shaped charge is powerful enough to cause significant damage, especially to relatively thin-skinned aircraft.

Some commentators have said that with a maximum range of 120km this means that to reach the air base on the outskirts of Kursk they must have been launched from inside Russia because of the distance to the Ukraine border.  However, this overlooks the possibility that range can be increased with a smaller payload – and even a hypothetical 3kg shaped charge would still cause significant damage.  For example, the warhead on a Javelin anti-tank missile can destroy a Main Battle Tank and weighs 2.74kg.

Another reason why these particular drones could have been used is that their small size, cardboard construction and low speed makes them very difficult to detect.  One of the big challenges for any air defence system is to minimise the number of false alarms being generated and so various software filters are applied to screen out things like small, slow-moving objects – such as birds.

By the look of it, a Corvo drone powered by a virtually silent electric engine motor would have about the same radar and infrared signature as a well-fed owl.  They can be launched by hand or with a slingshot and require no supporting infrastructure, so a small team could have carried out the operation.  They arrive in theatre in an IKEA-like flatpack and can be assembled on the spot by a soldier with minimal training – and once airborne they navigate autonomously to their programmed destination.

The original concept was to develop a cheap, disposable drone that could deliver supplies covertly to troops in the field.  The small avionics part is recoverable and the rest, which is cardboard and foam rubber, is simply discarded after use.  Ukraine has shown considerable skill at using technology in innovative ways and if the speculation is correct they have not only set back the combat power of Russia, they have now come up with a major new headache for air defence operators that will greatly complicate their jobs.

In an interview on Times Radio, Ukraine’s military spokesperson Yuriy Sak confirmed that carboard drones had been used in the air base attack – but he did not say where they were from, or who had launched them.

For every challenge – such as the increasing use of small drones – there is always a countermeasure, and another Australian company EOS is supplying Ukraine with systems that are likely to have a major impact on the battlefield.  These are remote weapon stations (RWS) typically using a 30mm chain gun linked to sensors able to detect and track a variety of targets.

The top-of-the-line product is called Slinger and an initial ten of these are being provided to Ukraine via US defence giant Northrop Grumman, which is also the manufacturer of the gun.  It is part of the large Bushmaster family of externally powered weapons and this model – the M230LF 30x113mm – is an improved version of that used by Apache attack helicopters and can fire programmable ammunition, such as air-burst rounds.

Ukraine media report that up to 160 Slingers will be acquired, but this has not been confirmed.

In addition, EOS has sold another 160 lightweight R400 RWS directly to Ukraine.  Like Slinger, the R400s come in a bolt on configuration that can be mounted on a variety of platforms such as large pickup trucks, M-113 personnel carriers – or even on captured Russian infantry fighting vehicles.  They have the same 30mm cannon as Slinger and an electro-optic sensor and can be used against air and surface targets.

This means that EOS is supplying Ukraine with a highly mobile, cost-effective air defence system.  The 30mm gun – which can fire up to 300 rounds per minute but typically uses short bursts – has an effective range of 3km.  This means it can destroy drones, helicopters and even cruise missiles if it has enough time to engage them.  It can be equally effective against ground targets and a longer barrelled version will equip Army’s future Redback infantry fighting vehicles.  The EOS sensor virtually guarantees a first shot hit.

While the supply of Bushmaster 4×4 protected troop transporters have received the most attention, there is a lot more going on.  Russia is continuing to pay a very heavy price for their invasion – and Australian companies are doing their bit to help Ukraine fight back.


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Kym Bergmann
Kym Bergmann is the editor for Asia Pacific Defence Reporter (APDR) and Defence Review Asia (DRA). He has more than 25 years of experience in journalism and the defence industry. After graduating with honours from the Australian National University, he joined Capital 7 television, holding several positions including foreign news editor and chief political correspondent. During that time he also wrote for Business Review Weekly, undertaking analysis of various defence matters.After two years on the staff of a federal minister, he moved to the defence industry and held senior positions in several companies, including Blohm+Voss, Thales, Celsius and Saab. In 1997 he was one of two Australians selected for the Thomson CSF 'Preparation for Senior Management' MBA course. He has also worked as a consultant for a number of companies including Raytheon, Tenix and others. He has served on the boards of Thomson Sintra Pacific and Saab Pacific.


  1. It is just absurd that Ukraine is not meant to use this or that weapon against legitimate military targets across the border in RuZZia, “for fear of escalation”.
    This is the same sick logic that compelled Ukraine to give up its nuclear weapons to Russia, in exchange for “security guarantees”.

    • Totally agree. For what it’s worth, the attitude of western countries seems to be further hardening towards Russia and if the occasional Storm Shadow – or Australian cardboard drone – crosses the border I don’t think there’s going to be too much hand wringing. The expectation in the US and Germany was that Putin would have come to his senses by now and started seeking a way out – but that’s not happening and the only way forward is to supply Ukraine with as much hardware as possible, and remove any limitations on its use. If only the work on transferring F-16s had started 6 months ago rather than just now the Russians would be in a far worse place.


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