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How DIY weaponry is hobbling Russia’s Ukraine invasion, from shotgun grenade launchers to 3D-printed bombs

The i 28/03/2022 Cahal Milmo

From improvised grenade launchers made from repurposed shotguns to homemade body armour sewn by fashion industry seamstresses, a DIY arms industry is mushrooming in Ukraine to further the country’s battle with the Russian military.

Within hours of Vladimir Putin’s order to send his 190,000-strong invasion army across the Ukrainian border, a coalition of artisanal and ad hoc weaponry producers swung into operation seeking to narrow the gap between Moscow’s expensively-assembled military machine and Kyiv’s far less well-resourced but hitherto more nimble forces.

While much of Ukraine’s success in stalling the Kremlin’s advances has been put down to agile tactics and use of advanced hardware, including British NLAW anti-tank weapons, the ability to improvise equipment – from civilian drones adapted to drop grenades to crowdsourced targeting – is proving an important element of Kyiv’s arsenal.

The equipment being provided ranges from napalm-filled Molotov cocktails being produced by a brewery in the western city of Lviv to modifications to existing Soviet-era weaponry held by the Ukrainian military to make it more lethal for the counter-attacking campaign being fought by its troops.

A Western military source told i: “Necessity is the mother of invention and the Ukrainians are proving themselves to be highly creative, whether it is in the regular forces or among civilians and volunteers. This conflict is already re-writing a lot of the rules of a war between nations whereby a combination of social networks, garage-built weaponry and cheap hardware is helping to seriously hobble a nominally modern, well-armed military such as that of Russia.”

Prior to the invasion, Art of Steel, a company in western Ukraine, made its revenues by producing replica medieval armour and weapons for historical re-enactments. These days its forges and welding sheds turn out chain-linked metal spikes known as caltrops, designed to impede the progress of enemy vehicles and infantry, as well 8mm-thick metal plates for body armour.

A spokesman for the company said: “Everyone is trying to help in the fighting places and in the rear. Any materials are being used. Ukrainians are united in this war.”

It is work that is being repeated in workshops across Ukraine as construction companies and engineering firms switch to a new production line of caltrops and “Czech hedgehogs” – the large anti-tank obstacles familiar on barricades since the Second World War, which are being churned out in their thousands using surplus railway tracks.

Online tutorials on how to make the materials are being disseminated via social media platforms such as Telegram and WhatsApp. Elsewhere, people like Irina Protchenko, a seamstress who until recently was sewing Hugo Boss suits in a factory on the outskirts of Kyiv, have started spending their time producing flak jackets from donated materials for use by frontline fighters. She told CNN last week: “The biggest reward will be if one of these flak jackets saves the life of one of our defenders.”

The trend for improvisational warfare is being seen in the conversion of existing weaponry to new uses.

A tactic being seen repeated on social media footage is the conversion of shotguns into makeshift grenade launchers by taking a conventional hand grenade, removing the pin and placing the device in a metal cup so the spring-loaded handle remains constrained.

The cup is then fixed to the end of the barrel of the shotgun, which is loaded with a cartridge from which the pellets have been removed. When fired, the grenade is launched over the distance of a football field, leaving the confines of the cup and exploding on impact.

A similar modification has been adopted for Soviet-era RPG-7 rocket propelled grenade launchers. Originally designed for use against armour, the launchers are being tweaked to fire mortar rounds which burst into shrapnel and are therefore more effective against infantry.

In the western city of Lviv, personnel at the Pravda microbrewery have formed one of hundreds of Molotov cocktail production lines across Ukraine, filling bottles once destined for craft beer with a lethal cocktail of engine oil, petrol and dissolved expanded polystyrene. The resulting napalm-like concoction is judged to be ideal for reducing Russian tanks to burning ruins in an urban street fighting environment and in at least one case, fighters have also fashioned an improvised crossbow to act as a petrol bomb launcher.

Experts said such lethal inventiveness would prove valuable to Ukraine in maximising its potential for resisting a longterm campaign by Russia, which despite its error-strewn invasion continues to outgun Kyiv in terms of weaponry and personnel. But they warned that the Heath Robinson approach to armaments was not an alternative to Ukraine’s need for a sustained supply of effective conventional militry hardware.

Mark Cancian, a former US Marine Corp colonel who now a senior adviser at the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, told i: “Improvised weapons and defences have some value, and trying a lot of approaches can have value because it is often hard to determine ahead of time what will be most effective.

“However, improvised weapons are rarely as effective as standard military weapons, which are designed specifically for combat. Standard weapons benefit from special materials and manufacturing techniques, a long development process, and efficiencies of scale.”

But it is at the interface between civilian digital technology and conventional warfare that some of the most effective innovation is taking place.

Ukroboronprom, a Ukrainian defence manufacturer, is using 3D printing technology to produce fins to attach to RKG-3 anti-tank hand grenades. As a result, the grenades can be attached to an off-the-shelf, eight-motor civilian drone costing £1,500 and dropped on top of Russian tanks, where the armour is thinnest.

When the drone is combined with thermal imaging equipment, it can be used to find and attack Russian armour hiding in villages and woodland at night by Ukraine’s Aerorozvidka – a military force of some 50 drone operating teams.

The weaponry company is also making use of social media to disseminate a bold offer of $1m (£760,000) to any Russian serviceman prepared to surrender a functioning aircraft, or $500,000 for a combat helicopter.

Ukraine is also making increasingly extensive use of crowdsourcing to gather information on Russian troop movements, encouraging citizens to use GPS signals to send the location of Kremlin forces via a social messaging app.

When Russian forces earlier this month attacked the city of Voznesensk in southern Ukraine, a detachment of tanks was seen to fire on Ukrainian defenders before rapidly withdrawing to a new location to avoid retaliatory fire. The Ukrainian forces were nonetheless able to reply in kind after receiving the co-ordinates of the hiding Russian tanks from onlooking compatriots.

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