April 9, 2021
The Ukrainian air force hasn’t acquired a new manned warplane since 1991. Its 125 Cold War-vintage fighters, attack planes and combat helicopters are old and getting older—and the air force with its $300-million-a-year budget simply can’t afford to replace them. Nor should it replace them, advised Tom Cooper, an independent aviation expert.
Huge numbers of modern Russian warplanes are just a short flight away. Russian surface-to-air missiles are so close they could target Ukraine’s aircraft while they’re taking off. For Kiev, buying new manned warplanes is “neither economic, nor makes sense,” Cooper said.
Instead, the Ukrainian air force should convert to drones and loitering munitions, Cooper said. In the event of a major war, Ukraine’s robots could swarm Russian army formations, overwhelming air-defense systems and knocking out tanks and other vehicles.
The brief, bloody war between Armenia and Azerbaijan last fall could offer a preview of a possible Ukrainian drone campaign. During fighting over long-disputed territory in the so-called “Nagorno-Karabakh Republic”—an Armenian-majority region that many countries recognize as belonging to Azerbaijan—Azerbaijan’s Turkish and Israeli drones and loitering munitions wreaked havoc on Armenian forces.
High-flying, Turkish-made Bayraktar Tactical Block 2 drones firing tiny missiles, plus two kinds of loitering munitions—Israeli-made Harops and Orbiter-1Ks—destroyed hundreds of Armenian tanks, fighting vehicles, artillery pieces and air-defense systems.
Azeri forces surged into the gaps, capturing much of the NKR ahead of the November ceasefire.
Ukraine could adopt Azerbaijan’s organization and tactics. Indeed, there are signs that transformation already is underway. The open question, of course, is to what extent Kiev will commit to drone air power—and how effectively Moscow might counter that move.
The 1,400-pound, propeller-drive TB2—a kind of Turkish mini-Predator costing around $1 million—is the backbone of Azerbaijan’s drone strike force. Ukraine in 2019 began buying dozens of TB2s from Turkish firm Baykar. Kiev and Ankara in December signed a deal allowing Ukrainian industry to make its own copies of the TB2. The Ukrainian military last fall organized its first field trials with the new drones.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian industry is developing loitering munitions—in essence, tiny, self-propelled drones packing warheads with the explosive force of a mortar shell. A loitering munition flies lazy circles over a battlefield until it detects a viable target—then zooms down to attack.
The hardware is available. Only time will tell if Kiev is serious about acquiring, integrating and deploying it.
It’s equally unclear how Russia might respond. Cooper for one claimed Moscow’s surface-to-air missile systems can’t defeat swarms of drones and munitions. “Sure, these have multi-target engagement capability and lots of reloads—and the Russians are currently doing their best to make them capable of countering such small targets,” Cooper said.
“However, they can’t outmatch the latest generation of Western weapons. So, in worst case, their SAMs would be easy to run dry.” Ukrainian troops could deploy so many drones and loitering munitions—and add unarmed decoy bots to the mix, too—that there simply would be more targets than Russian missiles. “Even the Russians can’t just go on reloading forever.”
Russian forces could try jamming the radio links between Ukraine’s drones and their operators. All that is to say, Moscow might need new and better air-defenses and jammers. If Ukraine goes all in on drones, Russia might have to go all in on defenses against drones.