Shot after shot pounded into the Russian missile battery hidden by the lighthouse on Snake Island, a rock in the Black Sea 35 km from the Ukrainian coast. The edited video, liberated by the Ukrainian armyshowed 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 roughly two dozen that Ukraine had bought from Turkey had been slaughtered and that Ankara, not wanting to antagonize Russia, had refused to supply more.
Still, the battle for control of Snake Island suggested the image had changed. A day later, another video from TB2, accompanied by the catchy 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 landed.
Death from a distance, broadcast on a video on social networks.
Aviation analyst Amelia Smith noticed that one of the drone videos showed the drone had a new registration: T253 – never seen in Ukraine before. It had been spotted being tested in late March around the manufacturer’s test facility in Turkeysuggesting that it was supplied recently, possibly part of a new batch.
A week later, Russia said it shot down nine TB2 drones, which cost between $1million (£820,000) and $2million each, along with several other unmanned aircraft, in the battle for Snake Island. Although this claim is difficult to verify, control of territory is still disputed, for all the strikes filmed.
TB2s are clearly militarily effective – and are used for all their propaganda value. But it is not clear that 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 all material, I will tell you, frankly, this is a different war.” .
The 11-week conflict – in which the Russian invasion stalled after capturing most of the southern coast and part of the country’s east – has become, since the failed attempt to take kyiv, in large part a battle of tanks and artillery in which the two sides exchange heavy and often unguided fire as they fight over increasingly restricted territories.
That’s not to say drones aren’t relevant. However, this partly reflects the reality that on both sides the largest armed drones – the TB2s on the Ukrainian side and the closest Russian equivalent, the Orion drone – were not present in large numbers and a once eliminated, they are not easy to replace.
Sam Bendett, a drone expert at the US think tank Center for Naval Analyses, said the Ukrainian military took advantage of Russia not controlling all the airspace and having no defenses of persistent electronic warfare “with very precise and meaningful defenses”. strikes”. But he added: “What is needed, from their point of view, is to do it on a much larger scale.”
Russia knew it had to counter the TB2 of the 2020 war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh, in which Azerbaijan used Turkish drones to knock out Russian-designed Armenian tanks and gain an advantage decisive.
Moscow has long lagged behind in drone technology, said Douglas Barrie, an aerospace analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “Russia needs to catch up. They have underinvested in this area since the early 1990s, just as they have underinvested in all areas,” he said.
Moscow has started deploying Orion combat drones in Ukraine in march, followed almost immediately by reports that a person had been shot. “They entered the war with a limited supply, a consequence of decisions taken years ago; maybe with two or three dozen Orions, instead of having more,” Bendett said.
Ukraine has lost few chances trying to demonstrate the homemade nature of Russian drones: Videos of a downed Orlan 10 reconnaissance drone being disassembled show it relying on a large Canon DSLR camera audience with key buttons glued in place and, for its fuel tank, parts from a water bottle, including the screw-on cap.
“No genuine parts” were made in Russia, the Ukrainians conclude in the video, and the real cost of the drone was estimated at $3,000 instead of the official $80,000-120,000. That’s probably a reasonable estimate, but in reality, even the Turkish TB2 drones relied on off-the-shelf components to cut costs and increase the pace of manufacturing.
Meanwhile, as the war becomes increasingly attritional and armed drones are knocked out of the skies, new drones are emerging. The United States has agreed to supply Ukraine with at least 700 of the least sophisticated single-purpose, or kamikaze, Switchblade 300 and 600 drones, with a range of six or 25 miles, trailing munitions that can hang in the sky and crashing, with scary effect on their target.
Switchblades began to arrive on the front line – a Ukrainian video from a week ago purports to show a Russian position being struck from above, followed by soldiers fleeing in terror. But again, although the number of kamikaze drones seems large, the stock could be quickly depleted as the war continues.
Professor Peter Lee, a drone expert at the University of Portsmouth, 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 made extensive use of simple, commercially available drones for reconnaissance, with videos frequently released into the public domain, such as a montage of footage of a Russian armored column ambushed in Brovary, U.S. east of kyiv in March. Drone footage of artillery bombardments, attacks on armored vehicles and other combat on both sides has become a common feature of warfare.
Demand for single-camera drones has been such 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, Russia – although ‘it is not clear whether the ban will have a significant effect. An expert estimated that Ukraine operates up to 6,000 battlefield reconnaissance drones.
“Drones are not a winning technology,” Lee said. “But this is a technology that enables war, and what we’ve seen is that Ukraine responds faster and more agilely.”