There are signs that the hype surrounding the lethality of Turkish TB-2 Bayraktar drones is being shattered. Cracks have emerged in the Ukrainian military over their continued use after upgraded Russian air defenses shot down dozens of Bayraktar drones.
This manifests in the reluctance to use the US-made $10 million Gray Eagle strike drones against “layered” and “massive” air defenses including the S-300 air defense systems, Buk, Tor-M2 and Panstir.
These are controlled by Russia’s Western Military District bordering the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine, where the fighting has now shifted.
A Foreign Police report said differences had emerged between frontline troops, airmen and Ukraine’s General Staff, where the latter continues to push for a heavy reliance on drones.
The Bayraktar TB2 drone had been effective against Russian armored and logistical columns in the early days of the war before it began to be rapidly shot down, forcing the Ukrainians to reduce their employment to 20-30 sorties per day.
Moreover, their success was purely tactical. Russia achieved most of its strategic and tactical objectives, the most important being the fall of Mariupol, where nearly 2,000 Azov Brigade fighters rendered in mid-May.
In the east in the Donbass, Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky himself admitted that the Ukrainian armed forces were losing “100 soldiers every day.” Russia is making slow, painful but gradual progress and is on the verge of fully securing the breakaway people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Interestingly, US Pentagon officials are reluctant to sell the MQ-1c Gray Eagle drones to Ukraine, fearing that Russia could gain access to sensitive technologies if they are shot down. An option to replace sensitive electronics with less advanced ones would degrade their capabilities.
More pilots, fewer jets
Saying they have ‘more pilots than jets’ now, Ukrainian military officials say they need legacy platforms like the F-15 and F-16 jets to perform more missions complexes, possibly taking the fight to Russia. Their Air Force was engaged primarily in Close Air Support (CAS) missions.
However, the risks associated with the acquisition of conventional multirole fighter aircraft are twofold. Throwing them straight into the fray without proper training to understand each aircraft’s flight characteristics and advantages and develop tactics takes many months.
This is after the lengthy congressional process to authorize their sale, followed by commercial terms and the eventual arrival of the planes, which takes years. The worst Ukrainian pilots and ground crew are accustomed to Soviet-era aircraft with radically different piloting, design, control and maintenance philosophies.
Second, President Joe Biden had refused the sale of the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) component of the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) to prevent Ukraine from using it to strike inside Russia and escalate the conflict. .
It is therefore unlikely to be able to support even larger and more destructive platforms like jets.
Bayraktar TB2 UAV
But it also draws attention to the hype around unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), which are vulnerable to a peer adversary commanding a conventional army.
The TB-2 rose to fame during the September 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, where videos show the drones destroying dozens of Armenian artillery, armor, bunkers and air defense systems.
Tactical successes, nevertheless, their role in Azerbaijan’s overall victory was also greatly exaggerated, with many battlefield victories achieved by long-range fire and artillery – apparently something also heavily used by Russia with devastating effect in Ukraine.
In the early days of the war, Russia fired several dozen Kalibr cruise missiles into Ukraine, mitigating military and industrial targets that degraded Kyiv’s defense manufacturing capability.
The Army “Artillery First” has successfully used its unorthodox doctrine of executing its ground operations around cannon and rocket artillery, where infantry, armored and mechanized forces engage and degrade weapons. first enemy targets before calling in strikes to mop up what’s left.
Ordnance lying around can’t turn the tide of a war like this either, mostly because it will be limited in supply when the UAF runs out of it at some point. At the same time, the Russian defense industry can quickly produce the lost platforms.
Their way of “long war” and not looking for quick and decisive victories gives them time to keep fighting until their strategic goals are achieved. It’s different; ammunition lying around itself cannot always be called drones.
AeroVironment, the American manufacturer of Switchblade systems, calls it a “wandering missile”.
And Ukraine, having admittedly almost lost all of its Artillery, ammunition and armored, Russia can rely on infantry and long-range artillery to engage them, limiting the use of their tanks and mechanized infantry.
This would provide fewer targets for drones and floating munitions, which have limited use against ground troops, as they are armed to destroy heavier targets.
New weapons and new concepts have given a new face to modern warfare, but they have proven to be merely disruptive, with some traditional practices remaining relevant. This does not mean that drones are useless, but it clearly indicates that they remain very vulnerable to surface-to-air missiles.