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Project “Black Box”: How Ukrainians unknowingly crowdfunded deadly new drone fleet

Unaware of their role, ordinary Ukrainian citizens contributed to the classified Black Box initiative, leading to the covert development and production of the Beaver suicide drone with an impressive 800 km range
Illustrative photo. UJ-26 Bober one-way attack drones. Photo credits: Serhiy Prytula.
Project “Black Box”: How Ukrainians unknowingly crowdfunded deadly new drone fleet

Last summer, everyday Ukrainians stepped up to crowdfund a top secret military project, without realizing what exactly their donations would create. The end result has proven effective, inflicting tremendous damage to Russia’s military capabilities, according to the foundation that raised the money and Ukraine’s military intelligence.

In July 2022, the Ukrainian “Come Back Alive” volunteer foundation that raises funds to support the Ukrainian troops was approached by Ukraine’s military intelligence agency, the Chief Intelligence Directorate (HUR), with an ambitious idea — to fund-raise long-range drones that could strike Russian targets up to 600 km into enemy territory.

Now, a year and a half later, foundation head Taras Chmut described the HUR’s offer as “intriguing and ambitious,” it meant to give the Ukrainian forces a capability to hit the enemy where he does not expect it, to force him to disperse resources, and to keep his deep rear and industry “on their toes.”

“We are constantly looking for atypical solutions for this war. This is something where a conditional hryvnia invested yields results worth millions of hryvnias. This is something that can ‘globally’ influence the situation on the battlefield. This is something Russia does not expect. This is something our state cannot do for some objective reasons. This ‘something’ is a kind of “game changer” for this, and importantly, future war,” Chmut wrote on Facebook.

An initial batch of 10 prototype drones were quietly acquired and tested in combat during summer 2022. The results clearly showed promise, proving the concept and viability to pursue the project further.

Chmut recounted that the first combat uses confirmed the promise of the chosen direction:

“Of course, not all UAVs reached the target – some were intercepted by air defenses, some did not make it for other objective reasons. BUT – the direction was chosen correctly – the enemy must be hit where he does not expect,” he wrote.

Crowdfunding campaign

So the military intelligence agency and Come Back Alive foundation secretly plotted to dramatically scale up production of the still-unnamed drones by launching a covert crowdfunding campaign among ordinary Ukrainians.

Code-named “Black Box,” citizens ultimately donated 230 million hryvnias ($6.3 million) over summer 2022 to produce 60 mystery drones that no one outside the project knew anything about, not even a name or description. It was a completely classified domestic weapon that everyday people funded on faith and patriotism alone.

“How to ‘sell’ what you cannot show? How to raise 230 million hryvnias for something that cannot be named or described? This case will forever go down in the history of the volunteer movement,” Chmut recounted

Those funds purchased through Black Box allowed Ukraine to not only acquire more attack drones, but further upgrade their capabilities over time thanks to Ukrainian ingenuity.

“The invested money made it possible not only to obtain the ‘products’ to reduce the offensive potential of the occupying troops, but also contributed to the development and evolution of the UAVs themselves — so over time, from a 600 km aircraft, we came to the Bober [‘Beaver’] — a more advanced model, with greater, up to 800 km range and combat payload. With better aerodynamics and communication,” Chmut said

UJ-26 Bober loitering munition (suicide drone)

The later Bober drone can fly 800 km while carrying a heavier 25 kg explosive warhead. It also features a unique duck-like style airframe shape that helps avoid radar detection.

Ukroboronprom: Ukraine’s “kamikaze” drones with 1,000 km combat radius in mass production

Come Back Alive revealed that through Black Box, everyday citizens had crowdfunded the entire first production batch of 45 mass-produced Bober drones for the HUR’s secret arsenal, while other 15 “products” were so to say Bober’s grandfathers.

Chmut says that according to Ukraine’s Chief Intelligence Directorate itself, strikes carried out the new long-range drones have inflicted staggering losses upon Russia’s forces – described as “tremendous efficiency” even considering not every drone reached its intended target.

Specifically, the secret Bober drone fleet crowdfunded through Black Box is estimated to have directly inflicted a $900 million worth of Russian equipment and infrastructure losses so far. And that’s likely just the tip of the iceberg in terms of total damage.

The unexpected bombardment has forced Russia to expend more resources defending rear areas and critical infrastructure — assets and territory they likely assumed safe from attack earlier.

Advanced Russian air defense systems and electronic warfare units have been forced to redeploy from forward deployment near Ukraine back into the Russian heartland to protect vital locations. State media propagandists have also faced growing pressure to somehow explain to their domestic audience how their formerly praised air defenses were suddenly so vulnerable.

Ukrainian drones have successfully penetrated Russian airspace to hit numerous high value targets related to their war machine. Chmut says, the secretly developed drones targeted factories producing components for Kh-59 cruise, Kh-31 air-surface, and Kh-35 anti-ship air-launched missiles. A storage facility holding irreplaceable ballistic parts for Iskander ballistic missile systems was also hit.

Several different air assaults might have involved the use of the Bober long-range drones:

  • On 30 May 2023, these UAVs were used to strike Moscow and the Moscow region.
  • On 30 August 2023, an airfield in Pskov, 700 kilometers from the Ukrainian border, was attacked by unknown drones. Such a long range suggests the use of the Bober UAVs.
  • On 26 November, Russian authorities claimed the successful interception of 21 UAVs en route to Moscow.

Ukrainian citizens’ grassroots funding through the once totally secret “Black Box” initiative in summer 2022 directly enabled this capability as their donations provided the initial seed money to catalyze domestic production of these newly developed drones.

As Chmut declared:

“This is your investment in the development of domestic production of such UAVs. And the accumulation of experience in their operation and use. It’s about playing the long game.”

In a Twitter post reveal, Come Back Alive further hinted that the “Black Box” crowdfunding initiative might have produced more than just the new Bober drones.

The Bober UAV having the range of 800 kilometers is “just one component of the [Black] Box,” intentionally leaving unclear what other types of secret weapons the case might yet contain.

In July 2023, the Serhiy Prytula Charity Foundation, another major fund collecting donations for the Ukrainian army, ordered 50 units of the Bober for 200 million hryvnias or about $5.4 million, with one UAV costing about $108,000.

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