Ukraine war: The age of loitering warheads is dawning

Initially, the Ukrainian military dominated the drone war against the Russian attackers, who are now striking back unmanned. Both sides are relying on a new drone weapon.

With the attack on Ukraine, the country has become the scene of a new drone war after Nagorno-Karabakh. Unmanned aerial vehicles of various sizes and capabilities are being deployed. Videos of unmanned armed combat are meant to boost the troops‘ and the population’s morale. Initially, Ukraine had the advantage, but now Russia is catching up.

In the current war, manufacturers from Turkey, the USA and Russia will benefit from the military success of their drones. Presumably, a market for smuggling baguette-sized armed drones will soon develop. The current battlefield also proves that drones from the electronics market are playing an increasingly important role in military conflicts.

Erdoğan demands lifting of export restrictions

Crashed TB2 in Ukraine (MoD Russia).

Before the war broke out in Ukraine, the government in Kiev had at least 20 long-range Bayraktar TB2 drones from Turkey. Their attacks are said to have inflicted serious damage on Russia’s military. This is documented by a survey of the destroyed equipment of both sides by the website Oryx, which specialises in military technology. The number of TB2 losses, on the other hand, is low; so far, only one shoot-down has been documented by photos.

In the meantime, Turkey seems to have brought plenty of supplies to Ukraine. This is suggested by tracking websites that have documented several transports from the Turkish airport Tekirdağ, the headquarters of the drone manufacturer Baykar, to Poland in recent weeks.

Unlike the Bayraktar TB2’s operations in the Turkish-backed war over Nagorno-Karabakh, which were contrary to international law, the drone has a positive connotation in the Ukraine war – at least in the West. In return for the country’s unmanned armament, Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdoğan is now demanding the lifting of export restrictions that some Western states had imposed on the Turkish drone industry.

Information war with drone videos

The Bayraktar drones also play an important role in the information war. Videos recorded in missions became known to the global public two years ago from the Azerbaijani war of aggression against Armenian troops. Before that, they had already been disseminated among Turkish nationalists, for example after a TB2 in the Turkish part of Kurdistan destroyed a portrait of PKK founder Abdullah Öcalan to great media attention.

Turkish Air Force „attacking“ Öcalan image (YouTube).

Militia analysts Michael Kofman and Leonid Nersisyan have described the effect of such images in the war over Nagorno-Karabakh. They could „lead one to believe in the dominance of such systems, even in a conflict where many casualties are still inflicted by armor, artillery, and multiple launch rocket systems“.

The footage is not always from military drones; in the current war in Ukraine, successful attacks by Ukrainian ground forces are also being documented from the air in high resolution using commercial, privately purchased drones. Many of these flying cameras are made by the Chinese manufacturer DJI.

„Bayraktar, Bayraktar“

The government of Ukraine has recognised the importance of TB2 to the survival of its troops. Through its app to access agency services, the Ministry of Digital Transformation now offers the online game єBayraktar, in which the Turkish drone is flown against Russian tanks marked with the symbol „Z“. The ministry calls this a „digital sedative“ to boost the morale of citizens.

Official Ukranian video game „єBayraktar“.

In the first weeks of the war, a Ukrainian song of praise for the TB2 also spread on social media, vilifying the Russian attackers as cowardly „orcs“ and orchestrating „Bayraktar, Bayraktar“ in the chorus.

Selçuk Bayraktar is the name of the founder of Baykar, and after Sümeyye Erdoğan’s marriage, a son-in-law of the president.

Late deployment of Russian armed drones

Russia also has a larger arsenal of weaponised drones, including the Orion, for example. Russia also has a larger arsenal of combat drones, including the Orion, for example. It is significantly larger than the Turkish TB2 and has a higher payload. Somewhat smaller and thus comparable to the TB2 is the Forpost-R, which Russia produces in licence as a derivative of the Israeli Searcher drone.

Orion, allegedly attacking in Eastern Ukraine (MoD Russia).

Russian drone operations began at a later stage of the war. It was only eight days after the invasion that the Russian defence ministry tweeted the first video of an Orion drone, allegedly during an air strike in the Donetsk region. Meanwhile, Russian propaganda also relies on increased footage of enemy vehicles and positions being destroyed from the air.

Much of the video from Russian armed combat comes from smaller drones such as the Orlan-10 or the Eleron-3, which can only be used for surveillance. With other drones in the Orlan series, the military can also mark targets for attack by ground forces.

Russia started to send kamikaze drones

Now a new unmanned weapons system is making its way onto the battlefield. Russian troops are increasingly using so-called loitering munitions of the model KUB. These are armour-piercing warheads that can remain in the air for up to half an hour and launch themselves into the target on the command of a drone pilot. The impact destroys the entire system, which is why it is also called a kamikaze drone.

Loitering munitions fill the military gap between missiles that fly inexorably towards their target after being launched, and larger combat drones that circle over a region for many hours. It unfolds its potential above all when the exact position of a target is still unknown. If this then appears on the monitor, the attack can be triggered immediately and, in some models, without human involvement.

Loitering drones can thus fall into the category of autonomous weapon systems. Such a system from Turkey, which can allegedly make this kill decision with artificial intelligence, was first detected in armed combat in the civil war in Libya. However, it is unclear whether it was also used.

Strikingly many crashes

The Russian KUB drones are manufactured by the company Zala Aero, which belongs to the Kalashnikov Group. Kalashnikov claims the drone’s flight time is 30 minutes and its payload is probably three kilograms. The Russian military has reportedly been using the KUB in Syria since 2015, and it can also fly as a drone swarm.

Crashed KUB allegedly in Ukraine (Twitter).

This year, the KUB is to be exported for the first time; sales at a unit price of $160,000 could be made to Armenia, Belarus, Syria and other partners of Russia in the Middle East and North Africa, according to military analysts.

However, the Kalashnikov drone is proving to be easy prey for Ukrainian troops in the Ukraine war. Some apparently fall from the sky by themselves; pictures of destroyed KUBs keep appearing on the internet, according to which they crash without exploding.

Military aid from the USA

Ukraine will also soon be using loitering munitions. Following a decision by Congress, the United States wants to export 100 Switchblade systems with ten drones each to Ukraine. The Switchblades, manufactured by the company AeroVision, are produced in 300 and 600 variants.

The Switchblade 300 while starting (Creative Commons).

The lightweight 300s are the size of a baguette and are used to attack people, while the larger 600s can engage tanks. Weighing over 22 kilograms, they are difficult to carry in soldiers‘ luggage, but their range of 40 kilometres is considered a military advantage. The smaller Switchblade 300 costs only $6,000, but its range is only a few kilometres.

Russia could respond to the US Kamikaze drones in Ukraine with its Lancet-3, also made by Kalashnikov, which the manufacturer only recently finished developing. It is larger than the Switchblades and is also said to have been tested in Syria.

Loitering drones from Poland may also soon appear in Ukraine, says drone expert Wim Zwijnenburg of the Dutch non-governmental organisation Pax. He is referring to the Warmate system, which has similar characteristics to the Switchblade and, according to Zwijnenburg, may already have been exported to Ukraine.

Warning against loitering munition on the black market

Heavy and complicated technology is needed to control larger drones, but it is different with loitering munitions, which are used in a similar way to bazookas. Observers therefore warn of the danger that the weapons could soon be available on the black market.

They are particularly well suited for assassinations, US military advisor Rob Lee told the Washington Post newspaper.

Attacks like the one on Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro by two DJI drones packed with explosives could be perfected by kamikaze drones with automatic target tracking.

Drone warfare at the counter

Meanwhile, DJI is also facing a „drone war“ at the German shop counter. The electronics retailers MediaMarkt and Saturn are removing all of the Chinese manufacturer’s products from their stores because the company is not deactivating its drones purchased in Russia – as demanded by individual users. According to DJI, however, this is not technically possible.

Drone steered by „Aerorozvidka“ (Facebook).

A complete geofencing of the DJI drones in Ukraine would also weaken the defence there against the Russian attack. The volunteer militia „Aerorozvidka“, consisting of about 30 members, observes Russian troops from the air with the help of quadro- or octocopters and also drops smaller explosive devices over vehicles.

The unit claims to have mainly assisted in combating the Russian military convoy storming the capital Kiev. Their vertically launched, small drones are said to have benefited from the Starlink satellite service installed by tech billionaire Elon Musk for a decentralised, independent internet after the outbreak of war in Ukraine.

Image: The KUB loiteriung munition (Kalashnikov).

Autor: Matthias Monroy

Knowledge worker, activist, editor of the German civil rights journal Bürgerrechte & Polizei/CILIP.