‘War has changed a lot’: the young Dubliner flying strike drones for Ukraine

Irishman’s Ukrainian parents hid his passport to stop him joining defence of Kyiv at age 17

Top strike drone pilots have been called the snipers of modern warfare, and Ukraine’s army has one who goes by the call sign “Irlandets” – “Irishman” in Ukrainian.

He is a 20-year-old born and raised in Dublin, whose Ukrainian parents took away his Irish passport to stop him travelling to his ancestral homeland to help defend it from Russia’s all-out invasion in 2022, when he was still only 17.

Since arriving in Ukraine last year he has been deployed to the eastern battle zones of Bakhmut, Avdiivka and now Kharkiv region, and recently came to public attention by hitting six Russian artillery guns in quick succession during a visit to his unit by a prominent Ukrainian military blogger, who posted video of the feat on social media.

The intensity of frontline life has already given Irlandets a wealth of experience, and he is now imparting advice to even newer, even younger recruits on how to work and survive in a battle against a bigger and better-armed enemy, as drone warfare evolves at staggering speed to become a potentially decisive factor in this and future conflicts.


“I was 17 when everything kicked off,” he says of Russia’s full-scale attack on Ukraine in February 2022, when it poured troops, armour, missile systems, fighter jets and helicopters over the border in a bid to occupy its pro-western neighbour.

“I was seeing videos on Telegram of what’s going on, and wondering how my family and friends here were doing. So I started searching for places that would take me at 17 [as a recruit]. I basically got rejected by everybody and thought well, okay, I am still technically a kid – but I was going to be 18 in about a month.”

He quietly made preparations to travel to Ukraine and join a unit of international volunteers to help defend Kyiv, and shared the plan with his parents five hours before his flight to Poland. The news, he recalls, caused “a big row”.

“I went to a friend’s place to drop off some bags,” he says. “I thought I had my passport with me, but when I came home and started doing my final checklist it was like, hold up, my passport – where’s it gone?”

‘We fully destroyed four Russian FPV squads in Avdiivka and it was a brigade effort to destroy them’

“When I was checking my equipment, a friend of my parents came over. She lives about 50km away and I think they gave her my passport. They came up with a last-minute grandmaster plan. While I was playing chequers, they were playing chess.”

Undeterred, he replaced his vanished passport and tried again last year. Having completed an interview and physical test to join the Irish Defence Forces, he told his parents he had been called to basic training and there was no need to see him off. Then he collected two bags that he had stashed with a friend and flew to Poland.

“The next time we spoke I said: ‘So actually, I’m in Kyiv right now,’” he recalls. “We argued for something like three months, whenever we communicated. Then they accepted my decision and it’s all good. They’re okay with it now.”

After training in Kyiv, he joined the 3rd Separate Assault Brigade, which has gained an elite reputation and a large public following – including nearly 1.2 million subscribers to its YouTube channel – due to its presence in the hardest battles of the war.

Irlandets – who does not want his name to be published, for security reasons and in line with military policy – expected to be in the infantry and was bracing himself for trench warfare.

Then he was asked if he wanted to be a drone pilot, even though he had never flown one. After 60 hours on a simulator and a few weeks at “drone school” in Kyiv, he was sent to a position near Bakhmut shortly after Russia occupied it last May.

He was tasked with flying first-person-view drones (FPV), quick, nimble, bomb-carrying quadcopters that explode on impact, and are guided by pilots who view the battlefield and home in on targets using live video sent from cameras on the drone.

“Everything was fully destroyed in Bakhmut by that point,” says Irlandets, who became a member of an aerial reconnaissance unit called Terra.

“We kept flying into Bakhmut because [Russian] FPV squads loved to stand in the big buildings on the outskirts and you could fly nicely into their windows. Lots of them also came to live in apartment blocks there,” he adds. “My first hit was when a bunch of Russian soldiers piled up in that building and I hit it directly.”

FPV drones are not only highly accurate in striking everything from soldiers to artillery guns to tanks, but the footage they provide is used by both sides to show the effectiveness of their forces and to mock the futile attempts of enemy troops to escape.

“You can see their emotions before you hit someone with an FPV drone, you can see their face. But I have no issues with it,” Irlandets says. “It doesn’t affect my sleep or anything like that.”

He has destroyed or damaged Russian armoured personnel carriers, artillery pieces, trucks carrying ammunition and other enemy equipment, but what he calls the “cherry on top” was a T-90 tank – a multimillion-euro weapon blown up by a couple of FPVs costing only a few hundred euro each.

Irlandets is part of a four-man squad that also flies drones for surveillance and for dropping bigger explosives such as anti-tank mines, but he likes FPVs best.

“They can be extremely effective and accurate. With artillery, you might need a few shots to get the range right, but with FPVs you can do one flight and hit your target. Our squad’s success rate is about 60 per cent – that’s very high,” he says.

“War has changed a lot… Anything that requires lots of kills, lots of destroyed vehicles, high accuracy – that’s FPV work,” he adds.

Reconnaissance operations are now handled largely by surveillance drones rather than small squads of highly trained soldiers, and snipers are no longer the ultimate long-range precision killers – FPV pilots can do the same job from the relative safety of a bunker up to 10km from the target.

“We killed a sniper,” Irlandets says. “We got information on the building where he was firing from and flew in through the window, and there was no more firing. The days when that [sniper work] was highly effective and highly needed have long gone.”

The flipside is that drone pilots have now joined snipers as high-value targets for the enemy.

“If we spot a Russian FPV squad, everyone works to get it. We fully destroyed four Russian FPV squads in Avdiivka, and it was a brigade effort to destroy them,” Irlandets says.

“Our squad has been under attack from aviation bombs, artillery fire, mortars, tank fire… I’ve had some concussions but they were very minor and I didn’t have to go to hospital.”

His skills came to wider attention when military blogger Yuriy Butusov spent a few hours with his drone squad in the Avdiivka area and posted footage on his YouTube channel – which has more than one million subscribers – of Irlandets destroying or damaging six Russian artillery guns.

‘With artillery, you might need a few shots to get the range right, but with first-person-view drones you can do one flight and hit your target’

On his return to base, Irlandets was greeted by his commander, who gave him warm congratulations and a takeaway pizza box. Inside it was a Glock handgun that Irlandets now carries in a pouch covered in patches that include the Irish Tricolour.

“I’m just as patriotic towards Ireland as I am towards Ukraine. If war started in Ireland now, in two weeks maximum I’m back in Dublin fighting, no questions asked,” he says. “I’d like to go back to Ireland and live peacefully there. But Ukraine is also on the table – in war and in [civilian] life, you need to always have multiple plans.”

Russia’s invasion has killed and injured tens of thousands of Ukrainians, and Irlandets has several friends of his age who have lost limbs. When he talks about the need for constant professionalism on the front line – where any poorly camouflaged position or careless move can be spotted by deadly enemy drones – and instilling that ethos in new recruits, he sounds much older than his years; he also says the physical and mental demands of the job often make him feel 45 rather than 20.

On a recent day off from frontline duties, he is relaxed and still feeling the benefit of a recent visit home.

“Before I even got to the house I said, ‘Dad, we’re stopping at the pub and grabbing a pint,’” he says. “I slept so much when I was home, and had a nice few spice bags, some Guinness, went to a few pubs and nice places to eat. I met up with a bunch of friends. It was all really nice.”

After about a week in Dublin, Irlandets returned to Ukraine and joined his drone squad in Kharkiv region, where Russia launched new attacks this month.

“For my parents it was very hard to say goodbye again. But for me it wasn’t really difficult. It was like – you’ve had your fun, now it’s time to go back,” he says.

It was the first time he had seen them since leaving secretly to fight in Ukraine, and he says he managed to shock them again, but this time with a revelation familiar to parents of many young adults.

“I had a Ukrainian Cossack done on my arm towards the end of the Bakhmut campaign. I thought, okay, I went on my first mission, I didn’t die, and I actually got results – so it was time to get a tattoo.”

  • Sign up for push alerts and have the best news, analysis and comment delivered directly to your phone
  • Find The Irish Times on WhatsApp and stay up to date
  • Our In The News podcast is now published daily – Find the latest episode here