Drones play an important role in the war in Ukraine-Russia war. In the Ukraine war, they demonstrated how drones could alter war dynamics. Given their relative cost-effectiveness compared to similar manned aircraft, drones are challenging existing assumptions about the use of airpower, allowing lesser adversaries to engage in aerial warfare effectively.
Without a large conventional air force, Ukraine’s airpower largely takes the form of drones, a first for a large nation. The Ukrainian military employs several high- and low-end imported and domestically produced drones to resist Russia’s invasion, which began on February 24, 2022.
Although Russia is the world’s second-largest arms exporter and produces advanced air and space systems, it does not have the most advanced in the world. However, the country has recently shown signs of concern about drones’ role in contemporary warfare, and Russian interest in drone development has sharply increased. Currently, Russia is also employing domestically produced drones in Ukraine.
This article examines the types of drones or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) used by the Ukrainian and Russian forces on the battlefield.
1. Baykar Bayraktar TB2
The Baykar Bayraktar TB2, produced by the Turkish defense company Baykar Defense, is a hugely popular medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned combat aerial vehicle that can fly remotely or autonomously. The TB2 has a maximum altitude of 25,000 feet and can fly for nearly 24 hours. It measures 6.5 meters (21 feet) long, has a wingspan of 12 meters (39 feet), and a maximum take-off weight of 650 kilograms (1,433 pounds).
The Bayraktar, as it is commonly known, can carry four laser-guided bombs. These bombs are devastating against Russian tanks and other armored vehicles. This drone was previously used in Syria, Libya, and Azerbaijan before arriving in Ukraine. As part of its military modernization program, the Armed Forces of Ukraine began acquiring the Bayraktar TB2S in 2019, which was later upgraded to the TB2. It is now believed that Ukraine has several dozen TB2s in its arsenal.
In addition to the TB2, the Ukrainian Army employs the Punisher, a small and agile locally-made drone designed and manufactured by UA Dynamics, a company run by Crimea conflict veterans. The company describes the drone as “reusable, fast, unexpected, precise, and lethal.” The Punisher has a combat payload of 2 kilograms (4.5 pounds), a range of 45 kilometers (28 miles), and a cruising speed of 43 knots. It has a 2.3-meter (6.5-foot) wingspan and can fly for up to 90 minutes at 400 meters (1200 feet).
Because of their small size and low altitude, they can reach deep behind enemy lines without being detected before or during strikes, then return for a quick five-to-seven-minute servicing. Punisher drones are said to have been able to strike supply lines supporting Russian troops and ground vehicles and trains transporting fuel and other resources to these troops due to this combination of characteristics.
3. Warmate 1
The Warmate 1 is a micro-loitering munition developed by WB Electronics in Poland. The drone is vaguely plane-shaped, with a centrally mounted wing and a v-tail, and has a top speed of close to 150 kilometers (93 miles) per hour. It can stay aloft for about 70 minutes and has a line-of-sight operating range of about 15 kilometers (9 miles) and a payload capacity of 1.4 kilograms (3 pounds). The drone’s control system allows a single operator to fly autonomously or manually to desired locations. Ukraine employs this drone for surveillance, reconnaissance, and attack Russian positions.
The Biden administration provided Ukraine with American-made Switchblade kamikaze drones as part of a military aid package in March 2022, transferring approximately 100 drones. The Switchblade comes in two sizes: 300 and 600. The 300 is intended for precise strikes on personnel, while the 600 is intended to destroy tanks and other armored vehicles. The battlefield effect of the Switchblade is unknown.
5. Tupolev Tu-141 Strizh
The Ukrainian arsenal includes the jet-powered Tupolev Tu-141 Strizh drone, a large, high-altitude UAS from the Soviet era. Despite being designed for surveillance, the Tu-141 can also attack enemy positions, though with limited success in previous wars. Despite previously limited success, Ukraine upgraded the platform and fielded a useful Tu-141 fleet following the Russian invasion in 2014. This UAS resembles a cruise missile rather than a traditional drone. It is a rocket launched from its trailer and flies at transonic speeds on a predetermined course. The Tu-141 can collect various types of intelligence while flying a predetermined path. The drone launches a parachute for recovery after the flight, allowing it to be reused.
1. Kalashnikov Kyb
In 2019, Zala Aero unveiled the Kalashnikov Kyb hybrid wing-body drone with raised wingtips. The aircraft has a flight time of 30 minutes and is more than a meter wide and long. It typically travels 80 kilometers per hour (50 miles per hour) but can short-distance flights at 130 kilometers per hour (78 miles per hour). It can carry a payload of three kilograms (6.6 pounds). Soon after the invasion began, Russia’s ground forces began using this drone to attack targets in Ukraine. At least two Kyb drones have been found by Ukrainian forces, providing proof that Russia is using them in its invasion.
The Eleron-3SV drone was developed in 2013 by the Russian business ENICS. The drone has a 25-kilometer operating range and conducts continuous reconnaissance using optical and electronic tools (15 miles). It can hang there for up to two hours. Eleron-3SV drones have been used in the Syrian theater and operating in the Donbas region since 2015. Russia has used these drones in Ukraine, and the Ukrainian Army has claimed to have captured two.
The Orlan-10 drone is a medium-range, multipurpose unmanned aerial system (UAS) developed by the St. Petersburg-based Special Technology Center. Russia used this drone early in the war to attack Ukrainian military assets and for aerial reconnaissance and electronic warfare. This drone is typically used in pairs or threes for surveillance and reconnaissance.
The first drone is used for surveillance at 1-1.5 kilometers (4,000 to 6,000 feet) above a target, the second for electronic warfare, and the third for transmitting surveillance data to the control center. The drone can travel at a top speed of 150 kilometers per hour and has a combat range of 140 kilometers (80 miles). It has a service ceiling of 5,000 meters and a maximum flight time of 16 hours (15,000 feet). Its capabilities are not fully understood.
4. Forpost R
The Russian Forpost R is a licensed Israeli IAI Searcher II drone version. Forpost R has a top speed of 200 kilometers per hour, a mission endurance window of approximately 18 hours, and a service ceiling of 20,000 feet. This drone flew for the first time on August 23, 2019, and will join the Russian Armed Forces in 2020. The Forpost R’s primary mission is surveillance, and the 500-kilogram (1200-pound) air vehicle is outfitted with improved radar identification equipment, among other reconnaissance devices. Ukrainian forces destroyed a Russian Forpost R drone on March 11, 2022. Ukraine’s military claimed the drone entered Polish airspace before returning to Ukrainian airspace and being shot down.
5. Orion E
Russia’s best strike drone is the Orion-E combat drone. Russian forces first used the Orion-E in combat against forces opposed to the Assad regime in Syria. According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, the drone has “fighter-like” capabilities. Kronshtadt developed the drone, which came in two variants: the Orion-E export variant and the Inokhodets variant used by the Russian military. It is a medium-altitude, long-flight drone that can fly for up to 24 hours and has a maximum flight altitude of about 8,000 meters (25,000 feet). The drone has a cruising speed of up to 200 kilometers per hour and a payload capacity of 250 kilograms (550 pounds).
It has an under-nose turret with electro-optical and infrared cameras and a laser target designator for delivering guided weapons. The Orion-E can carry up to four air-to-ground missiles, including the adjustable aerial bombs KAB-20 and KAB-50, the UPAB-50 guided gliding aerial bomb, and the X-50 guided missile. The drone will soon be equipped with electronic warfare systems. Russia has not disclosed the number of Orion drones it operates in Ukraine, but it has claimed that they have successfully attacked Ukrainian positions. At the same time, online photographic evidence indicates that the Ukrainians shot down at least one Orion-E.