While the story of the Ghost of Kyiv captivated the world and the Ukrainian Air Force continues to lose Su-25s and pilots attacking Russian invasion forces, a parallel air war is taking place, one whose impact on the campaign will help shape future air conflicts to come. The impact of Drones in the Ukraine war is something governed by numerous factors. Their use in prior conflicts and operational record in the current conflict certainly bears study. Operational security concerns and the murky nature of War News makes any study subject to revision. However, in compiling and posting publicly released information it is possible to sketch a picture of how Ukrainian drones have performed in the conflict thus far.
The primary drone of the Ukrainian Air Force is the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 Drone, which has seen extensive use in prior conflicts by Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Turkish efforts in Syria and against the Kurdish Insurgency. In Azerbaijan, the TB2 was instrumental in serving as a spotter coupled with Israeli Made Harpy Offensive Drones. The TB2-Harpy combo decimated Armenian forces and allowed Azerbaijan to seize control of the disputed Armenian Nagerno-Karabakh enclave, a conflict which dated from the fall of the Soviet Union. Though not as capable as a Predator, Reaper or Israeli Heron, the TB2 offers a relatively low-cost solution with much of the same capabilities as larger and more expensive American systems.
Meanwhile, the Russian Air and Space Force, known as the VKS, has been mysteriously absent from the battlefield over Ukraine.
According to a Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) commentary by contributor Justin Bronk;
‘The lack of Russian fixed wing fighter and strike aircraft sorties has also allowed Ukrainian SAM operators and troops with MANPADS such as the US-made Stinger missile to engage Russian helicopter gunships and transports with significantly less risk of immediate retaliation. This in turn has contributed to the significant lack of success and heavy losses suffered during Russian air assault operations.’
With Russian piloted combat operations at a relatively minimal level given the scale of the conflict, the exact reason why remains unknown. Whether by losses taken thus far, lack of close air support coordination, inexperience in operating Precision Guided Munitions, and a decision to deconflict Surface to Air Missile systems from piloted aircraft, or some combination of thereof, Russian sortie levels remain low.
Bronk goes on to note;
‘Furthermore, the almost total lack of Russian offensive counter-air (OCA) sweeps has been coupled with very poor coordination between Russian ground forces’ movements and their own medium- and short-ranged air defence systems. Multiple Russian columns have been sent forward beyond the reach of their own air defence cover, and in others cases accompanying SAM batteries have been caught inactive in military traffic jams without making any apparent effort to provide situational awareness and defence against Ukrainian air assets. This has allowed the surviving Ukrainian Bayraktar TB-2 armed UAVs to operate with considerable effectiveness in some areas, inflicting significant losses on Russian vehicle columns.’
Evidence for this conclusion can be seen in the video below.
The Ukrainians have even made a pop song about the TB2, probably one of the first songs ever written about a Combat Drone. The Official Video was uploaded on Mar. 1, 2022, it has already reached nearly 200k views on YouTube.
As the war continues to bog down, the danger of escalation remains. With NATO officially denying aerial reinforcement of Ukraine’s pilot aircraft fleet, the importance of Uninhabited Aircraft Systems remains crucial, as one of the few low cost, minimally risky ground attack systems able to be used against Russian Air Defense and the vast mobile convoy of forces advancing toward Kyiv and Kharkhiv. The losses taken by Ukrainian Su-25 strike aircraft clearly illustrates their vulnerability against both Russian and Friendly SAM systems. As nature abhors a vacuum, Drones have naturally stepped in to fill the breach. As time goes on the biggest danger is that Russia unleashes their Air Force to flatten Kyiv and Kharkov just as they did over Chechen Rebels in Grozny and over Syria against Isis.
Given the fluidity of the conflict we will not speculate further, but will post what open source links are available to the public. As our own Aviation Experience includes some familiarity with Uninhabited Aerial Systems, we will close with an illustration of the capabilities of even a simple DJI Inspire System. By using a simple autopilot app, it was possible to program the system to fly autonomously while remaining in line of site. As we operated the system flying in the link below, a substantial amount of the footage was filmed with both system and camera operating automatically, while we chased the system on a golf cart while remaining out of sight to avoid being in the shot.
Drones will not yet take over a modern battlefield, but given their use over the Middle East during the Afghan and Iraq Wars, and their proliferation and use by insurgent Houthis against Saudi Arabia and the UAE, they are a threat which cannot be ignored. Drones are here to stay, and their use is now a key feature of modern warfare.
Be sure to check out William Cobb’s Facebook Page Pensacola Aerospace Museum for awesome aviation’s photos and stories.
Also CLICK HERE to check out a video about Kiva Dunes, piloted by William Cobb.
Photo credit: Ministry of Defence of Ukraine, Oryx and Army.com.ua via Wikipedia
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