Tactical Combat Drones Play a Role in Ukraine Air Defense

Turkish TB2s and Switchblade kamikaze combat drones are bolstering Ukraine’s military forces.

Tactical armed unmanned aerial vehicles, such as the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drone, are playing a critical role in Ukraine’s fight. [Courtesy: OE Data Integration Network]

One month into the war in Ukraine, calls for help in securing the war-torn country's skies from Russian munitions continue.

In 30 days of war, Russia has fired more than 1,250 missiles into Ukraine, and it has increased sorties near Kyiv to around 300 a day, U.S. Defense officials said Friday.

"It is possible that Russia was surprised by the level of resistance from Ukrainian forces.”

From a report by Lauren Kahn, an expert with the Council on Foreign Relations

Ukraine's Air Force continues to persevere, with an estimated 55 fighter jets remaining in its fleet, the New York Times reported earlier this week. 

Fighter jets and air defense systems aren't the only assets in use, however. Combat drones are proving to be a type of force multiplier in Ukraine and the result could alter the calculus of future warfare, observers tell FLYING.

The issue of air power over Ukraine remained center stage this week as NATO heads of state gathered in Brussels to discuss their further support of the country aimed at upholding its right to self-defense against Russia's invasion.

"Allies are also equipping Ukraine with significant military supplies, including anti-tank and air defense systems, and drones, which are proving highly effective, as well as substantial financial and humanitarian aid," NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Thursday.

Drones In Ukraine

Tactical armed unmanned aerial vehicles, such as the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drone, are playing a critical role in Ukraine's fight against invading Russian forces. 

“One of the ways they are delivering close air support or actual fire in depth is through the Turkish TB2 UAVs, which are delivering munitions onto their artillery and indeed their supply lines, which are incredibly important in order to slow down or block the Russian advance,” British Defense Minister Ben Wallace told members of Parliament in early March, the Washington Post reported.

At the onset of the war, Ukraine had at least a dozen of the TB2 systems it purchased in 2019, with reports suggesting it could have up to around 48 total, according to a report by Lauren Kahn, an expert with the Council on Foreign Relations.

The TB2 combat drones are capable of carrying up to four laser-guided munitions that have a reputation for being effective against ground-based targets, such as Russian tanks and mobile air defense systems. The drones have a flight range of up to around 186 miles, and can fly up to 27 hours and at a maximum altitude of 25,000 feet. Taking off, landing, and flight control are all fully automated. 

Fast Facts: TB2 Drone

WingspanAbout 39 Feet
Payload CapacityAbout 330 lbs.
Endurance27 hours
Operational Altitude18,000 to 25,000 feet
Travel Speed80 to 138 mph (70 to 120 knots)
Maximum Takeoff WeightAbout 1,500 lbs.

“I’d call it the Toyota Corolla of drones....It doesn’t do everything that your high-end sports car does, but it does 80 percent of that, right?” Aaron Stein, director of research at the Foreign Policy Research Institute told The Associated Press earlier this month in describing the TB2. “So even for a high-end military, like the U.S., the basic concept of using an attritable, cheap platform to strike a superior force has inherent value.”

In late February, in the opening days of the war, Ukrainian military officials released video of a TB2 strike on a Russian surface-to-air system.

"Russia has so far been unable to achieve air superiority over all of Ukraine, including its drones," Kahn said. "Why Russia has been unable [or hesitant] to ground Ukraine’s Bayraktar TB2 force—despite having the capability, the opportunity at the start of the war, and familiarity with the UAVs—remains unclear. It is possible that Russia was surprised by the level of resistance from Ukrainian forces."

Battlefield Benefits

The slower speeds and lower altitudes provide unique combat utility in an urban battlefield, such as Ukraine.

Drones allow assessment of a defined region at a chosen place in time, which is a fundamentally different capability than "ripping along at just under the speed of sound" in a fighter aircraft, said Doug Birkey, executive director of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

"If you're walking around thinking you could get hit at any moment in time, that is going to wear you down psychologically."

Doug Birkey, executive director, Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies

And while fighters typically fly higher to mitigate the risk of surface-to-air missiles, drones provide an opportunity to gain wisdom over a battlefield, where patterns of life and the operational environment may be studied, he said.

"You can choose the best time to engage to get the best effect that you want, while also minimizing negative effects, like collateral damage, or, or getting shot down yourself," Birkey said.

"What's new now, though, is that it has been proliferated and used by actors far further down the food chain in terms of military powers," Birkey said. "It is impressive that [the Ukrainian military has] been able, with effectively pretty minimal training and not a lot of spool-up time, to become very proficient with it."

Russia has not countered Ukrainian drones as expected, which has opened the door to other potential impacts for Russian troops.

Drones "make them have to think about constantly being at risk for attack in ways they would not have to think about otherwise," he said. "That has a very definite cost in terms of planning, risk factoring and just general stress on the forces. If you're walking around thinking you could get hit at any moment in time, that is going to wear you down psychologically," Birkey said.

"[Russia] could be using their air defenses much more prudently against these systems," Birkey added. "They're very low tech, radars can easily see them. It's all kind of part of the confusion as to why that isn't happening."

Closing the Skies

Just as Russia's air campaign continues to stutter, Ukrainian officials continue the push for NATO support to "close the skies" over the country. In a video address to heads of state gathered for the emergency NATO Summit in Brussels, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky made another appeal for fighter jets Thursday.

"Ukraine asked for your planes, so that we do not lose so many people," Zelensky said. "And you have thousands of fighter jets! But we haven't been given any yet."

The Biden administration, as well as other members of NATO, have turned cold on the proposal of supplying Ukraine's military with fighter jets, such as Poland's offer to transfer its fleet of MiG-29 jets, out of fear of triggering an escalation with Russia.

"The United States is not putting a veto on people giving the Ukrainians aircraft," a senior Department of Defense official said Friday. "[I]f another sovereign nation wants to do that, we respect that decision. We did not want the aircraft transferred to us for further transfer to Ukraine."

Last week, President Biden announced the U.S. would be sending the country $800 million in military aid, increasing the amount sent from the U.S. this week alone to more than $1 billion. Bundled into the Biden administration's aid package for Ukraine are 100 Switchblade tactical unmanned aerial drones. 

The precision, single-use Switchblade drones are "kamikaze" munitions that weigh about 5 pounds and are launched from a tube like a mortar. The drones are a hybrid weapon, or "a kind of piloted missile that can also be a scout," said an article in Popular Science.

The short-range piloted missiles are launched from a tube like a mortar and come in two sizes: the Switchblade 300 is nearly 6 pounds, while the Switchblade 600 weighs in around 120 pounds. They're considered "loitering munitions," and can change course mid-flight.

If Switchblades are successful, however, they don't fly back.

Fast Facts: Switchblade 300 Drones

RangeAbout 6 miles
Endurance15 minutes
Operational AltitudeBelow 500 feet
Travel Speed63 mph (55 knots) cruise, 100 mph (87 knots) dash
WeightAbout 5.5 lbs.

Fast Facts: Switchblade 600 Drones

RangeAbout 25 miles
Endurance40+ minutes
Operational AltitudeBelow 650 feet
Travel Speed70 mph (61 knots) cruise, 115 mph (100 knots) dash
WeightAbout 120 lbs.

Lessons Learned

Uncrewed or remotely crewed systems bolster intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), extend reach into contested spaces, while offering the potential to stay in the air longer and with lower costs, said Rose Butchart, an associate fellow in the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ (CSIS) Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group. "I think we're seeing a lot of that in Ukraine, although certainly not all of it," she said.

While Ukraine has made some very effective use of remotely crewed systems, the TB2 travels at about 80 mph, and has about an 18,000-foot ceiling. The smaller 6-pound Switchblade has a range of about six miles, can stay in the air about 15 minutes and has a cruising speed average of about 63 mph, with the ability to dash at about 100 mph.

"That does create some tradeoffs where if you put a craft into a space, you are likely to lose that craft," Butchart said. "Of course, the most important thing is keeping the warfighter safe, and with a remotely crewed system, you don't have that danger. But, it does create some strategic trade-offs in how you employ that craft." 

Even cheaper systems are playing an important role, according to Gregory Sanders, a defense industry expert at the CSIS.

"With drones, it looks like the lower end of systems—you know, things that are maybe six digits in cost—might actually have a relevant effect here, in a way that could potentially be transformative," Sanders said.

They're proving to be a very affordable way to change the battlefield dynamic, though not necessarily bringing victory, Sanders said.

"It's a bit ghoulish, but real-world examples of use of these systems in a highly contested environment is vitally important for understanding how technology and force use and doctrine should change," Sanders said.

‘Still Need More’

Despite the successes of combat drones in Ukraine, "they still need more," from fighter jets to UAVs packing a bigger punch, Birkey said.

Larger drones, like the U.S. Army's General Atomics MQ-1 Gray Eagle unmanned aircraft systems and the U.S. Air Force's variant, the MQ-1 Predator, could provide armed ISR capabilities with added features of automatic take off and landing. The MQ-9 Reaper, with its 66-foot wingspan and its ability to carry a 3,750-pound payload, could also be a game changer.

"The effect they could yield is pretty substantial," Birkey said. "It would be a big force multiplier."

Even with the range of sizes and capabilities, combat drones are changing the nature of warfare.

"It's just really the power of having what we call a sensor shooter tied to operators that are looking at it in real time. You just can't underestimate how important that is," Birkey said. "The fact is that proliferating will increasingly change the types of military campaigns we see executed, because it is such a powerful tool." 

It's a capability the U.S. has exhibited for years, and now kind of takes for granted," he said.

"The impact of these RPAS [remotely piloted aircraft], these drones, will definitely see a lot of countries seek them aggressively because the power is clear, and they are attainable and executable within a limited budget," Birkey said.

Kimberly is managing editor of FLYING Digital.

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