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On the Ground With the ‘Darth Vader’ Drone Hunter Brigade in Ukraine

The Darth Vader brigade, which is made up of civilians including a teacher and IT workers, operates as an important first line of defence to keep Ukraine’s capital safe from Iranian-made Shaheds

A member of the Darth Vader drone hunter brigade mans a Browning M2 machine gun. Photo: Jeff Farrell
A member of the Darth Vader drone hunter brigade mans a Browning M2 machine gun. Photo: Jeff Farrell

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A purple laser light shines into a night sky that whines. But this is no pyrotechnic show. The whirring noise that sounds like a lawn mower comes from exploding drones that Russia has fired towards Kyiv on a mission of death and destruction.

“It’s there. I’m following it,” a man shouts, his voice urgent.

A Browning M2 machine gun erupts and yellow streaks rip through the air forming a cluster of red dots in the abyss above where .50 calibre bullets tear into an Iranian-made Shahed drone.

Darth Vader brigade members (left to right) Buryi, Dreamer, Jimi, Czech, Dima come out at night to help keep Kyiv’s skies safe. Photo: Jeff Farrell

This is the Darth Vader drone hunter brigade in action in their hometown of Hnidyn, in Kyiv Oblast, about 30kms south east of Kyiv city centre.

In the defensive operation in January, the volunteer unit blasted the Shaheds bound for the capital, a video shows. “We shot down one, made some damage for the second drone,” says brigade member Jimi, who can be heard shouting in the footage as he wielded a high powered torch, directing a tube of purple light on the drone, before the unit’s gunner opened fire on it.

“But then the second one was destroyed by another (volunteer) group — they noticed our work and were ready to shoot.”

Drones buzz towards Ukraine’s capital in frequent nightly attacks. The Shaheds carry 50kg warheads and reach speeds of up to 111mph (178km/) on missions to hit sites such as energy infrastructure.

Western air defence systems, including the US made Patriot, combat the attacks, and in the year to April intercepted about 80% of the drones, figures from Ukraine’s Air Force show. However, falling debris from the downed devices often leave civilians injured.

Mobile volunteer units, such as the Darth Vader brigade, in towns outside Kyiv make up an earlier line of defence for the city — with the brigades aiming to shoot down the devices before they swarm into the capital to rain down death and misery.

“It’s a good opportunity to protect our families,” says Jimi, reflecting on his part-time work to help keep Kyiv’s skies safe, a world away from his day job as a remote IT worker for a company in Springfield, Missouri in the US. “It’s inspiring that you possibly save lives — one life, or in some cases a lot of lives.”

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“We don’t know if we’ll still be alive next week, so we live as if there’s no tomorrow.”

The five members of Darth Vader – who give only their call signs for security reasons — are made up of 36-year-old Jimi, Buryi, 52, also an IT worker, the group’s commander Dreamer, 49, a company boss, Czech, 37, an energy saving professional, and 23-year-old history teacher, Dima.

They named their unit Darth Vader on account of the purple laser they shine into a night sky to light up an incoming drone for their gunner to shoot.

“The light is like Darth Vader’s sword,” Jimi laughs. On May 7, the Darth Vader unit gathered in a field of long grass outside Hnidyn.

It is pushing 8pm and the sun bleeds out of the sky; the air warm.

The outskirts of the capital city are just 5kms to the north where residential blocks are visible – tall buildings of different sizes that, in the distance, look like bars on a graph.

There has been no notification of a drone attack tonight and the brigade has met to check on their equipment.

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Jimi jumps up onto the back of a VW van, converted into a makeshift pick up truck, and helps set up the M2 Browning machine gun, the unit’s main weapon to fire on drones.

Dreamer, the brigade’s commander, Czech and Jimi have hauled the heavy weapon out of a box and are propping it onto a stand as metal clanks. Now sitting comfortably on its perch, Czech swivels the gun easily, ready to pull the trigger. The weapon can hit targets as far away as 2,000 metres.

“It’s on a base, so it doesn’t kick back too much for the user when he fires. It’s very noisy. Too loud,” Jimi says, laughing. The sky now darkens fully and insects chirp.

The Darth Vader brigade set up their Browning M2 machine gun, which is mounted on the back of a converted VW van. Photo: Jeff Farrell

Buryi pulls on a balaclava, and turns on one of the brigade’s laser torches. A stream of purple light shines into the blackness above. “It’s for visually sighting the Shahed drone,” Buryi explains.

Jimi pulls out goggles that he says are night vision glasses to also help the unit see the flying explosives. “It’s not enough just to hear it and shoot it by sound — so that’s why we have some additional devices.”

The IT worker says the Darth Vader brigade members take turns to be on call, operating in groups of twos and threes when Ukraine’s Air Force warns them of incoming drones.

“We meet during the nighttime — we’re working during the day in our jobs as usual citizens,” says Jimi.

We’re all volunteers. It’s not about money – it’s about trying to protect our families

Darth Vader member, Jimi

Jimi, who says he adopted his call sign because he is a fan of the late legendary rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix, added that Moscow’s forces fire the Shaheds from locations in Russia, including the city of Kursk, 500kms northeast of Kyiv.

“We have notifications about what targets are coming to our area. We have information: what speed (the drones) have, what direction and how many,” Jimi says.

“Usually we have from three to four hours of notice,” adds Buryi, “between Shahed launch to air alarm starting.”

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“We get details also about how the route has been changed during the past five minutes,” Jimi says, adding that they track the route through software on a tablet device to learn if the devices buzz near their home city for the group to take a shot.

Buryi, however, explains the Russian military’s tactic in its bid to throw Kyiv off the trail. “The Shaheds don’t fly in one line — it has a complex trajectory. They change the flight to thwart the (Ukraine’s anti defence) plans.”

“They think they’re clever, but we’re clever as well,” Jimi says, smiling. “It’s a kind of a game.”

Last November, in what Ukraine said was the biggest drone attack since the invasion, Moscow launched 75 Shaheds in one strike on Kyiv.

Jimi shows off the brigade’s arsenal of small arms in the event they are forced to fight Moscow’s troops in a street battle. Photo: Jeff Farrell

City authorities said it shot down 74 of the devices but falling drone debris can often cause damage and injuries. Five people, including an 11-year-old child, were wounded, officials said. Kyiv equally targets Russia with drones as the two sides wage hybrid warfare.

In April, Kyiv claimed responsibility for a drone attack in Russia’s Tatarstan region that left 12 people injured, local authorities said. The attack in an area more than 1,300km from the Ukraine-Russia border was reported as the deepest strike in Russian territory for Kyiv since the war erupted.

The strike said to be waged with an unmanned light aircraft hit the town of Yelabuga, local authorities said, in an area where drones are said to be produced, with an oil refinery in nearby Nizhnekamsk.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has dragged into its third year with Kyiv currently on the backfoot in the east of the country as Moscow advances in small but steady gains, seizing village after village.

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In the event Moscow’s forces ever make it as far west as Hnidyn, in a fresh push for Kyiv, the Darth Vader brigade are ready to fight in any street to street combat with their arsenal of small arms.

Jimi shows off their weapons — including a Kalashnikov AK 74 assault rifle and a bulky US made AR 15 rifle. The five men of the Darth Vader brigade are happy with the check up on their weapons and laser lights, and with no warning of drones tonight they lay down their guns.

Dreamer rests a mini cooker with two hobs on the rear of the VW van and lights up the gas. He makes coffee and soon hands out steaming cups to the men.

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Jimi also pitches in to the offering, doling out chocolate eclairs from a tray as a treat as he ponders Ukraine’s challenge to successfully beat the Russian invader. “It won’t be easy, it will be hard,” he says, sipping from his mug. “But all of us hope that we will win this war.”

And he tells of his hatred for Russian president Vladimir Putin in light of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine that has slain more than 10,000 civilians in the country to date, according to UN figures. “I’d like to kill him,” Jimi says. “I’d say most of Ukraine’s citizens want to kill him — a lot of Ukrainian blood is on his hands.”

For now, all Jimi and his fellow members of the Darth Vader brigade can do is play their small but vital part in helping keep the skies above them safe.

“It’s a good opportunity to protect our families, our country,” Jimi says, “to make this war finish earlier as much as possible to get a better future for our kids.”


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