‘War-enabling, not war-winning’: how are drones affecting the Ukraine war? – The Guardian

Shot after shot pounded into the Russian missile battery hidden by the lighthouse on Snake Island, a Black Sea rock 22 miles (35km) from the Ukrainian coast. The edited video, released by the Ukrainian military, showed the strike and its aftermath – all taken from a Turkish-designed Bayraktar TB2 drone.

Until then, evidence of the TB2 – a remotely piloted killer drone with a range of up to 190 miles – had largely disappeared from the conflict. The assumption was that the two dozen or so that Ukraine had bought from Turkey had been shot down and Ankara, not wanting to upset Russia, had declined to supply more.

Yet the battle for control of Snake Island suggested the picture had changed. A day later, another TB2 video, accompanied by the pumping music typical of these propaganda releases, showed a landing craft being destroyed; a day after that, the downing of an Mi-8 helicopter as Russian troops were disembarking.

Death from a distance, shown on social media video.

An aviation analyst, Amelia Smith, spotted that one of the drone videos indicated the drone had a new registration: T253 – not seen in Ukraine before. It had been spotted being tested in late March around the manufacturer’s test facility in Turkey, suggesting it was newly supplied, perhaps part of a new batch.

One week on, Russia said it had shot down nine TB2 drones, which cost somewhere between $1m (£820,000) to $2m each, plus several other uncrewed aircraft, in the battle for Snake Island. While that claim is hard to verify, control of the territory is still being contested, for all the videoed strikes.

The TB2s are clearly militarily effective – and are used for all their propaganda worth. But it is not obvious they are militarily decisive. The point is not lost on Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who said in April: “With all due respect to Bayraktar, and to any hardware, I will tell you, frankly, this is a different war.”

A satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies on 12 May taken from above Snake Island in the Black Sea.
A satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies on 12 May taken from above Snake Island in the Black Sea. Photograph: AP

The 11-week conflict – in which Russia’s invasion has stalled after capturing most of the south coast and some of the east of the country – has become, since the abortive attempt to take Kyiv, largely a battle of tanks and artillery in which both sides exchange heavy and often unguided fire as they fight over increasingly small amounts of territory.

This is not to suggest that drones are irrelevant. However, it reflects in part the reality that for both sides, the larger armed drones – the TB2s on the Ukrainian side and Russia’s nearest equivalent, the Orion drone – have not been present in large numbers and once eliminated are not easy to replace.

Sam Bendett, a drone expert with the US Center for Naval Analyses thinktank, said the Ukrainian military had taken advantage of the fact that Russia did not control all the airspace and that it did not have persistent electronic warfare defences “with some very accurate and significant strikes”. But he added: “What is needed from their perspective is to do so on a much larger scale.”

Russia knew it needed to counter the TB2 from the 2020 war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh, in which Azerbaijan used Turkish drones to knock out Armenia’s Russian-designed tanks and gain a decisive advantage.

Drone graphic

Moscow had long lagged behind in drone technology, said Douglas Barrie, an aerospace analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “Russia is having to play catchup. They have underinvested in this area since the early 1990s, just as they underinvested across the board,” he said.

Moscow started deploying Orion combat drones in Ukraine in March, followed almost immediately by reports one had been shot down. “They went into the war with a limited supply, the consequence of decisions made years ago; perhaps with two or three dozen Orions, instead of having a larger number,” Bendett said.

Ukraine has wasted little opportunity in trying to demonstrate the homespun nature of Russian drones: videos of a downed Orlan 10 reconnaissance drone being taken apart show it relies on a consumer Canon DSLR camera with key buttons glued into position and, for its fuel tank, parts of a water bottle, including the screw-on top.

“No original part” was made in Russia, the Ukrainians conclude in the video, and the true cost of the drone was estimated at $3,000 rather than the $80,000 to $120,000 official cost. It is probably a reasonable estimate, but in reality, even Turkish TB2 drones have relied on off-the-shelf components to keep costs down and the pace of manufacturing up.

Meanwhile, as the war becomes increasingly attritional, and armed drones are knocked out of the sky, new drones are coming to the fore. The US has agreed to supply to Ukraine at least 700 of the less sophisticated single-use, or kamikaze, Switchblade 300 and 600 drones, with a range of six or 25 miles, loitering munitions that can hang in the sky and smash down, with fearful effect on their target.

A Switchblade 300 drone system being used as part of a training exercise in California.
A Switchblade 300 drone system being used as part of a training exercise in California. Photograph: Cpl Alexis Moradian/AP

Switchblades have started to arrive on the frontline – a Ukrainian video from a week ago purports to show a Russian position struck from above, followed by soldiers fleeing in terror. But again, although the number of kamikaze drones appears large, the stockpile may be quickly depleted as the war continues.

Prof Peter Lee, a drones expert at Portsmouth University, said that in a war where “no side has control of the air” the most significant use of drones has instead been for “intelligence gathering and situational awareness – exactly what aircraft were first used for 100 years ago”.

Each side has made heavy use of simple, commercially available drones for reconnaissance, with videos frequently released into the public domain, such as an edited montage of footage of a Russian armoured column being ambushed in Brovary, east of Kyiv, in March. Drone footage of artillery shelling, attacks on armoured vehicles and other fighting on both sides have become a routine feature of the war.

Russian tanks seen being ambushed on outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine – video

Such has been the demand for simple camera drones that China’s DJI, the world’s largest manufacturer, chose in April to suspend sales of its easy-to-use drones to Ukraine and, more surprisingly, to Russia – although it is unclear if the ban will have a meaningful effect. One expert has estimated that Ukraine is operating as many as 6,000 reconnaissance drones on the battlefield.

“Drones are not a war-winning technology,” Lee said. “But they are a war-enabling technology, and what we have seen is Ukraine responding in a quicker and more agile way.”

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