In the first week of December, Ukraine successfully executed multiple UAV-based attacks deep into Russian territory. Despite expert analysis demystifying details of the strikes before the week was over, rumors still abounded about the attacks, which included speculation of Ukraine’s development of some secretive, long-ranged, unmanned platform. Is a new, secret weapon in the skies over eastern Europe? Whether or not such a device yet exists, there’s a strong case to be made that one of Europe’s most understated and innovative drone producers may have its stride again under fire.
Attacks Deep Into Russian Territory – What We Do Know
On December fifth, news broke out of what appeared to be successful attacks on the Dyagilevo and Engels airbases, both hundreds of kilometers into Russian territory. Russian press seemed to confirm what many in the open source community were speculating: that these were drone strikes.
The attacks didn’t cause a tremendous amount of material loss, but sent a powerful message. Two strategic bombers were damaged. Two Russian soldiers were killed, and four were injured.
On the 26th, another strike was successfully executed against the airfield at Engels, killing another three Russian soldiers. Russian sources say that there was no equipment damaged, but there has been a significant amount of unverified evidence on social media of larger fires breaking out at the installation.
So far, it’s seemingly confirmed that these attacks were executed with retrofitted TU-141 Strizh UAV’s, a reconnaissance tool used by the Soviet Union in the 1980’s.
The claim is that by removing much of the original equipment, the UAVs can be used as extremely low-flying cruise missiles with a 1000km range, and can navigate a pre-planned route at over 1100km per hour. The devices are capable of being outfitted with a payload of nearly 100kg.
Lofty Goals And Recent Ukrainian Developments
While the prospect of these devices flying almost completely unchecked into Russian airspace should give the invaders pause, these attacks evoked an October 17th statement by Ukraine’s state-run engineering firm, Ukroboronprom.
In the statement, it was said Ukraine had an unmanned aerial system (UAS) coming soon (perhaps by the end of 2022) with a 1000km range, though in this announcement, the device promised had a 75kg payload. However, the only photographic evidence provided for this development has been what appears to be a piece of a fuselage with an insignia.
Another image propagated with the announcement in several other articles is a Gorlista AN-BK-1 “Turtle Dove” reconnaissance drone, a platform active since 2018.
It is now the third week of 2023, and there hasn’t been a sighting of any such drone published.
A recently-introduced system from Ukrspecsystems, the SHARK UAS was built from the ground up to be a drone for conducting target acquisition and adjustment for artillery strikes. The SHARK reportedly can capture a full-HD image at 30x, generating actionable photos at 5km from potential targets.
Sokil-200 & 300
Another Ukrainian project that has stayed under the radar has been the development of the Sokil-200 and 300 (Sokil being Ukrainian for “Eagle”). They are “full-mission capable” UAS under development by DKKB Luch, the same contractor that developed Ukraine’s Neptune anti-ship missiles. In a 2020 statement, the company claimed that Sokil-200 will be able to remain airborne for 24 hours, have a greater range than the imported Bayraktar TB2, and sport a heavier armament.
However, despite the lofty promises, Luch claimed that these new drones would be in production by November 2020, but there’s been no indication that this has been the case.
More Home-Grown Innovations
Ukraine’s aerospace and defense industries hit the drawing board rapidly once the war with Russia and Russian-backed separatists began in 2014. Through several centralized planning and funding initiatives, a domestic industry spearheaded by firms such as CDET/KORT, Deviro, Athlon Avia, and a number of others, have generated dozens of inexpensive designs for UAS. Many of these systems are low cost reconnaissance drones and loitering munitions that have started to make their appearances in this past year.
Popular Mechanics published a comprehensive list in June of the UAS proven to be used in Ukraine up to that point. While it lacks some of the more recent developments (such as the US-made drones, the SHARK, etc.), the diversity is staggering.
Foreign Influence On The UAS Front
Baykar Bayraktar TB2
One of the most famous and earliest implementations of unmanned systems since the 2022 invasion has been Ukraine’s use of Turkey’s Baykar Bayraktar TB2. It is what’s considered a medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) drone designed primarily for precision airstrikes. While the TB2’s performance has been lauded in Ukraine, it had already been battle-tested in Syria, Libya, and most prominently in 2020 against Armenia in the horrific 44-day war over Nagorno-Karabakh.
What causes the Bayraktar to stand out among other MALE drones is its balance of endurance, range, and an ability to carry four laser-guided missiles at a relatively low cost. The Turkish TB2 had been appreciated by Ukrainian decision-makers long before the invasion last February, and the two nations had even taken steps to prepare domestic production and cooperative development of future systems, according to documents published in early 2020. The first unit was allegedly delivered in 2019, with its first known combat action in the Donbas on 26 October 2021.
Evidence of destroyed TB2s has been amplified by Russian sources for propaganda purposes, but this has further reinforced its hallowed status, as it indicates just how important the platform is to the optics of the war. The TB2 is becoming dated, but it’s proven itself as an incredibly lethal tool for budget-conscious militaries, even against some of the most modern anti-air and electronic warfare systems Russia and Russian-supplied forces have thrown at it.
Army Of Drones
As seen in a number of viral videos, easily obtainable, off-the-shelf DJI Phantoms and Mavics have been conducting short range scouting missions and even been armed with grenades. These have proven effective for sabotage, squad-level reconnaissance, and disabling individual armored vehicles.
The value of these improvised loitering munitions has been recognized since at least the 2016-17 Battle of Mosul. There, Daesh saboteurs had been found to attach small explosives to quadcopters. It’s an extremely damaging, precise, and difficult to counteract weapon that costs comparably little.
To this end, the Ukrainian World Congress and other organizations have launched the “Army of Drones” initiative. This has been one of the main pipelines for acquiring and utilizing commercial drones internationally through volunteer donations.
Individuals can either contribute their own privately-owned drones if they meet certain specifications, or they can donate money to the cause. A similar effort has been made on the Russian side, sometimes resulting in aerial clashes of commercial drones that were originally designed as toys.
A Ukrainian remote warfare NGO, Aerorozvidka, have taken this simple concept and run with it. One of their more well-known creations is the R-18. An octocopter designed to fly undetected at night, it can drop three 1.6kg explosives on unsuspecting targets with surprising precision.
US Collaboration And Speculation
US-made Phoenix Ghost and Switchblade drones have been used in large numbers in Ukraine. Utilized as loitering munitions and reconnaissance tools, the drones were allegedly only developed shortly before the invasion. At the time the first units arrived in April, little seemed to be known about the design or its origin. Currently manufactured by AEVEX Aerospace, the weapons were developed and procured in secret as a Big Safari project. Allegedly, it was intended to be a sort-of quick solution to a perceived lack of the US Department of Defense‘s loitering munition and short-range combat drone abilities.
While this has been a favorable development for Ukraine, there has been a great deal of debate as to how much the US can (and perhaps already has) invest its own proprietary technologies into the conflict against Russia. There has been a lot of pressure within the US government and defense industry to start sending the MQ-1C Gray Eagle or variants thereof to Ukraine.
Officially, the US has refused to send the Gray Eagle on the grounds of the risk presented by letting its technology fall into Russian hands, and that they will not supply Ukraine with weapons capable of striking into Russian territory. While this position has been maintained by the White House, the discussion is ongoing as to whether or not the Gray Eagle could be retrofitted with less sensitive equipment and reduced capabilities, not unlike what has been done in the past with the Stinger missile.
Implications For The War And Beyond
So could Ukraine possibly be in possession of some extremely long-range, next-generation unmanned system? While the fog of war will likely make this impossible to definitively answer, there are a number of ways it could actually be true. It seems clear that the talent is there within Ukraine’s defense industry, and has been for years. It is also not the wildest speculation that some assistance from an active partner such as Turkey or the United States could provide Ukraine with the missing pieces for a project like Sokil-300 or a local variant of the Gray Eagle.
While such an achievement would be excellent news for Ukraine’s defenders, it’s not the only significant development here that should be demanding the world’s attention.
Could Ukraine Become A Center For Arms Manufacturing Again?
It’s an often-cited fact that throughout the history of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was the industrial heart of Soviet arms manufacturing. Ukraine has already demonstrated its ability to produce a reliable 155mm NATO-standard artillery piece, an extremely improved variant of the BTR-3, advanced anti-ship cruise missiles, a reportedly high-performing infantry rifle, and a number of other innovations of necessity since 2014. These projects have been hobbled by the impact of the invasion on their industrial base, persistent corruption, and a lack of foreign investment. These conditions will clearly change if the war ends more-or-less in Ukraine’s favor, especially if the country continues to seek further integration with the rest of Europe.
Demand for weapons is also reportedly the highest it’s been in Eastern Europe since the collapse of the Soviet Union, in large part due to policy changes within the former Soviet countries that comprise NATO’s eastern flank. If the security landscape continues to be shaped in this direction, it will present an opportunity for Ukraine’s manufacturers.
With the amount of innovation coming out of Ukraine in UAS, there’s a very real scenario where a post-war Ukraine becomes a competitor in the space of inexpensive unmanned aerial equipment and weapons systems.
Russian Air Defense – What Happened?
Images have recently been released of anti-aircraft missile systems on several strategic buildings in Moscow. This is clearly in response to the very real risk of Ukrainian attacks deep into their territory. This may be a baleful barometer of how the struggle for aerial dominance seems to be going for Russia.
Russian state media has claimed that this has happened because of how many air defense assets had been relocated closer to Ukraine for the invasion. If this can be believed, it still means that at the very least, Ukraine’s utilization of drones has changed the equation for the foreseeable future, and that there is an approaching limitation threshold to Russian equipment.
Even if the actual damage inflicted by the Ukrainian air strikes is limited, the need for Russia to relocate valuable equipment further from the front is itself a victory. Their clear propaganda value for Ukraine is a remarkable achievement alone.
A Genie Is Out Of The Bottle – Automated Warfare
For more insight on the ethical considerations of Remote Warfare and Automated Weapons, take a look at the NGO coalition, Stop Killer Robots.
Since the United States’ drone strike campaigns have come under intense criticism over the past decade, there has been a growing concern over the possibility of autonomous weapons systems making kill decisions. Loitering munitions as a class of weapon are subject to this scrutiny in particular, as their flight, target acquisition, and loitering capabilities can already be automated. The Phoenix Ghost, Poland’s WB Systems Warmate, and the Iranian Shahed-136 loitering munitions are only a few examples of loitering munitions that already have some level of sophisticated autonomous abilities. There is a pending investigation into how the November loitering munitions attacks on Kyiv’s infrastructure were potentially done with automated systems.
Let it be clear: Ukraine, as the defender, should not be blamed for the series of events contributing to these developments, but the nature of the current conflict is undeniably leading to an escalation. It is likely only a matter of time (if it has not already happened) that Ukraine, Russia, or both, will make use of a weapon that leaves a human entirely out of the kill-decision chain.