Modern Drone Warfare in Ukraine

10 May 2022

Modern Drone Warfare in Ukraine

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, popularly called drones, are in the Ukraine conflict spotlight. From social media posts by amateur drone operators, to commercial quadcopters flown by news gathering organizations, to fixed-wing military models, drones are having a significant impact on modern warfare.

Since the start of the invasion, civilians using phones and drones are documenting Russian forces’ actions and locations. UAVs are vital to information warfare, especially keeping the Russian propaganda machine in check. Citizens are quickly processing, exploiting and distributing drone video footage, as well as rapidly combining inputs from news organizations and military officials. Videos appear within days, hours, even minutes, refuting Russian attempts to control the information narrative – or perpetuate disinformation – at least to the international community. A recent example is an ABC News clip showing the vast, senseless destruction of civilian targets in Mariupol.

YouTube drone footage showing destruction to civilian housing in Mariupol. (ABC News)

Fighting Back

The A1-SM Fury and the Leleka-100 reconnaissance drones make up the backbone of the indigenously-built Ukrainian fleet, with some 300 units fielded. Yet the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 is by far the star of the Ukranian drone show. Made by Baykar Tech, with a wingspan of 36 feet and carrying four laser-guided bombs, these small aircraft show surprising lethality. Widespread internet videos document the destruction of Russian tanks, trucks, artillery, high tech Surface to Air Missile systems (SAMs), and naval combatants.

Russian Raptor Boat Under Attack

On May 1st the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Valery Zaluzhny, announced on social media that the Ukrainian military destroyed two Russian Raptor boats near Zmiiny Island.

Bayraktar TB2

“Bayraktar is working. Together to victory!” he wrote, referencing the Turkish-made drone. A spectacular video shows the strikes on the seemingly vulnerable Russian vessels.

War Crimes

The International Criminal Court has opened an investigation into alleged war crimes by the Russian military in Bucha, Ukraine, a town on the outskirts of the capital, Kyiv. U.N. rights chief Michelle Bachelet stated there is a reasonable basis to believe war crimes have been committed during the conflict, as well as crimes against humanity, and genocide. She emphasized drone video will be instrumental in collecting evidence of these crimes. Using powerful geospatial analysis software such as ArcGIS, analysts will map, analyze, catalog and preserve devidence such as mass graves, for possible future tribunals or other legal action.

Drones as Military Aid

As international military aid pours into Ukraine, much of the military hardware includes drones. Part of the US aid package includes 100’s of loitering missile systems called the Switchblade 300 and 600. Developed and produced by AeroVironment, the Switchblade 300 brings a unique and deadly capability to the fight.

Switchblade 300

According to the manufacturer, Switchblade 300 is designed for the type of ground fight we are seeing. Lightweight, man portable, and easy to use, it’s Sensor-to-Shooter capability combines ISR and strike capabilities. The system allows up to 15 minutes of loiter time, collection or reception of real targeting data, plus striking a target, while the operators view a video downlink even in a beyond line of sight (BLOS) scenario. The 300 also boasts an instantaneous machine-to-machine transfer of target coordinates, presumably from other drones like the Switchblade 600.

Switchblade 600

Also manufactured by AeroVironment, the Switchblade 600 represents the next generation of extended-range loitering missile. With improved high-precision optics, over 40 minutes of loitering endurance, and an anti-armor warhead,

the 600 can engage larger, hardened targets at even greater distances. An all-in-one, man-portable system, the 600 and includes everything required to successfully plan and execute missions and can be set up and operational in less than 10 minutes. With its high-resolution EO/IR gimbaled sensors and advanced precision flight control, Switchblade 600 allows combatants to quickly and easily deploy, fly, track and engage non-line-of-sight targets and armored vehicles with precision lethal effects without the need for external ISR or fires assets. So far, supporters have supplied Ukraine with some 700 Switchblades – large and small – for use against Russian forces.

What is PHOENIX GHOST?

As part of the $800 billion defense package sent to the Ukraine, the US is sending Ukraine the mysterious Phoenix Ghost tactical drone. This loitering munition system developed by the US Air Force, currently has relatively little open source or public detail available. Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby stated it’s a “one way drone” that is “clearly designed to give a punch” indicating it is that it is a low-cost, single-use attack drone that behaves like a loitering munition. Observers hope to record this system in action, to better understand its capabilities.

Destroyed Orlan 10, Orlan-30, and lost Chinese-made DJI Mavic found by Ukrainian Forces.

Russian Drones

Like other combat arms actions in the first months of conflict, Russia’s UAV forces are running into trouble. Early employment of the majority of drones in the eastern region may explain the high number of videos and photos on the open Internet, showing downed Orlan-10s and Orlan-30s in Southeastern Ukraine. In April, Jane’s Defense reported Russian forces are “fielding the Forpost-R unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) for the first time.” An official Russian defense video showed an armed Forpost-R taking off from an unidentified prepared airstrip, and striking Ukrainian multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS). The video showed, perhaps inadvertently, Russia launched these drones from Belarussian Gomel airport, approximately 30 miles from the Ukrainian border.

The Forpost-R is an improved, reverse-engineered model variant of the Forpost (Outpost) Israeli Searcher Mk II UAV. Interestingly, Russia has a large arsenal of powerful drones including loitering munitions, but are not using them as they did in Syria. According to The Eurasian Times, the Ukrainians are just defending their drones better, using weapons less easily impacted by electronic warfare.  They cite frequent Russian jamming or spoofing to fool the UAV systems or drone operator, but Russian attempts against Bayraktar TB2s remain largely unsuccessful. This is a testament to the Turkish drone’s electronic protection.

Assessment

As this war continues, it is hard to say how long the Ukrainian military can hold off the onslaught of Russian aggression. It seems that Russia has more equipment, manpower, and up until this campaign, most observers presumed Russia would take over this nation relatively quickly. However, Ukraine has been able to achieve surprising results, even victories, as the defense of Kyiv indicates. Maybe the tank has been replaced on the modern battlefield by the drone? At this point It is clear that Ukraine is engaging in an impressive asymmetrical campaign, and is currently winning the modern drone fight.

References

ABC News Video: Mariopol Attacks.

Avinc, Inc. Switchblade 600

Radio Svoboda. Russian Boats Sunk.

VOA News. Possible War Crimes.

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