Ukraine Scrambles for UAVs, But Russian Drones Own the Skies
Moscow-backed rebels have the advantage
With few willing to venture into Ukraine’s skies, and a pressing need for airborne intelligence, Moscow and Kiev are throwing their drone fleets into the fight.
To be sure, both sides are using unarmed reconnaissance drones. It’s all about helping their troops stay up-to-speed on their foe’s movements and positions. And in particular—spotting where the enemy is so the other side can shell them with artillery.
But the Russian-backed separatists have the advantage. Moscow has supplied sophisticated unmanned aerial vehicles to the rebels.
By contrast, Ukraine’s military never had much of a UAV fleet, so it’s had to improvise by resurrecting old hardware, improvising new homemade drones and buying whatever it can from friends and the commercial market.
Ukraine’s turn toward unmanned aviation for its intelligence needs is understandable. So far, Kiev is down to almost half the planes and helicopters it had before the war, from 400 to 222.
The vast majority of these losses are due to non-combat causes, such as theft by Russian-backed rebels and accidents. But Ukraine has lost 21 planes and choppers due to rebel anti-aircraft fire, and one jet lost to a Russian MiG-29 fighter.
In June, Ukraine’s military announced it was refurbishing older aircraft in its inventory. Later that summer—and again early this month—Russian-backed rebels released footage showing the downed carcasses of two unarmed Soviet-era Tu-143 drones.
The 1970s vintage, turbojet-powered drones use a rocket-assisted takeoff, and land by deploying a parachute and drifting to the ground. They’re a cousin of Ukraine’s Tu-141, a similar UAV that Ukraine has pledged to bring back into use.
The unarmed Tu-143s—a welcome revival though they may be—aren’t nearly enough to fill Ukraine’s surveillance needs. Instead, Kiev’s military has looked to build and buy smaller, tactical UAVs that soldiers on the front lines can carry into battle.
In Dnepropetrovsk, engineers are trying to create a pipeline of UAVs for the future by working on smaller models, including the “Dragonfly,” a UAV in the style of the AeroVironment RQ-11 Raven.
Everyday Ukrainians have stepped in to help bolster the fleet. People’s Project, a Website that crowdfunds supplies for the Ukrainian military, is working on funding two different UAVs.
Project engineers hope that one model—a tactical twin-boom drone driven by a propeller—will be able to sidestep jamming with an inertial navigation system it can revert to if Russian troops block its GPS connection. Jamming is an occasional hazard for UAVs in Ukraine.
On the cheaper side, People’s Project funded the purchase of a RVJET Flying Wing—a commercially-available hobby airframe—intended for use by the Donbas battalion.
NATO countries are the most important potential source of UAV technology to Ukraine. But the alliance has largely shied away from equipping Ukraine with unmanned surveillance systems.
By contrast, Russian-backed rebels in Ukraine haven’t had nearly as much trouble getting access to UAVs from abroad. According to Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, the U.S. Army’s top officer in Europe, Russia has supplied the rebels with several reconnaissance drones.
In the post-Cold War period, Russia didn’t invest in unmanned systems nearly as much as the U.S. and other major military powers did. In 2013, Col. Gen. Vladimir Chirkin—Russia’s ground forces chief—admitted as much.
“Regarding UAVs it cannot be said that we are hopelessly behind, but we have been lagging very seriously,” he said. “We have generally not been engaged in this for the last two decades.”
All that changed thanks to Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia. Though the Russians routed Georgia’s tiny military, Georgian forces made extensive use of Israeli-made UAVs, much to Russia’s consternation.
Taking notice, the Russians went on a similar buying spree, snapping up Israeli UAVs and promising to invest billions in their lackluster domestic drone industry.
Regardless of the late start, Russia’s UAV spending is paying dividends in Ukraine. Hodges said that Russian drones are a contributing factor to the rebel’s lethally-accurate artillery. The drones allow the separatists to detect and pummel Ukrainian forces from afar.
Evidence of Russia supplying UAVs to Ukraine isn’t hard to come by. Ukrainian forces claim to have shot down a few of Russia’s Orlan-10 drones, a tactical UAV in service with the Russian military and produced by St. Petersburg’s Special Technological Center.
Other Russian UAVs spotted in Ukraine include the Granat-1 and the ZALA-421–08. In November, Ukrainian forces claimed they shot down a Granat, which Russian forces doubles the accuracy of artillery battalions equipped with them.
Ukrainian troops photographed the wreckage of a ZALA drone, in service with the Russian army and border guards. It’s made from a flying-wing design that soldiers can carry on their back and launch by hand.
The belligerents in Ukraine’s war aren’t the only ones using UAVs to try and understand what’s happening on the ground.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, an intergovernmental group which monitors conflicts and assists in conflict resolution, purchased Schiebel S-100 Camcopters—a rotary-wing UAV—to keep track of the war from the air.
The OSCE, however, has found its own UAVs caught up in Ukraine’s drone war.
Barely a few weeks after the OSCE’s drones took flight in October of 2014, Russian-backed rebels began trying to shoot them down. In November, an OSCE S-100 recorded rebels near Mariupol taking aim at the drone with a shoulder-fired missile launcher, and then shooting at it with an anti-aircraft gun. The rebels missed.
But it’s the rebel’s electronic warfare systems that have presented the most serious threat to the organization’s mission. OSCE drones flying over rebel territory have encountered “military-grade GPS jamming,” according to the group.
The jamming, which disrupts connections to GPS navigational satellites, caused the OSCE to briefly ground its UAV fleet in November. The interference continued as recently as Feb. 13, when an OSCE drone lost its primary GPS link in a likely jamming incident.
It’s not clear if the rebels knew the drone was from the OSCE. Whoever jammed it could’ve mistaken it for a Ukrainian aircraft.
But it demonstrates that the Russian-backed rebels realize it’s not enough to simply have drones of your own—you’ve got to try and bring down your enemy’s ’bots as well.
Tu-141 in action over eastern Ukrainemedium.com
Artillery battalion moves to Donetskmedium.com