Last week, Germany was concerned with Ukraine’s first combat use of an unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) in the east of Ukraine against Russian-hybrid forces. Since 2014, plenty of drones have been used by both Russian and Ukrainian sides in the Donbas war, but up until Ukraine’s recent strike, the conflict lacked the usage of precise weapons for air attacks.
Euromaidan Press spoke to military expert Mykhaylo Samus, Deputy Director for International Affairs of the Center for Army, Conversion, and Disarmament Studies, about the use of drones in the ongoing war in the Donbas, possible reasons of official Germany’s selective concern with the Donbas affairs, and the implications of possible incremental usage of UCAVs by Ukraine in the future.
Since the beginning of the Russo-Ukrainian war in late spring 2014 in the east-Ukrainian region historically known as the Donbas, the Russian-hybrid forces have been massively using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for reconnaissance and adjusting their artillery and rocket attacks. Sometime later, the Ukrainian military started witnessing attacks of the makeshift strike drones on their positions, and such attacks keep occurring on regular basis to this day.
The most recent ceasefire accord effective since July 2020 banned using any UAVs even for reconnaissance, but it didn’t stop the occasional aerial attacks on Ukrainian positions.
It was the video shared by the Ukrainian military showing a Ukrainian airstrike on the Russian piece of artillery some 10 kilometers away from the frontline that upset the German foreign ministry so much so that it expressed the country’s concern regarding the “increase in the intensity of hostilities” and “the message of the General Staff of the Ukrainian army,” in which the military confirmed the first instance of their combat usage of the Turkish-made strike drone Bayraktar TB2 on 26 October.
Meanwhile, the German diplomats weren’t concerned with the fact that in this aerial strike, Ukraine had destroyed a 122mm D30 howitzer proscribed by a number of ceasefire accords, including the one from July 2020. Moreover, of no concern was the fact that the Russian-hybrid forces used Russian-made and makeshift drones to attack Ukrainian positions before the Ukrainian attack, as well as after it.
For example, on 11 September 2021, according to the communiqué by Ukraine’s Joint-Forces Operation Command, one of the Russian drones dropped an 82mm mortar shell near New York, Donetsk Oblast. And on 5-6 November, according to the Ukrainian Delegation in the Trilateral Contact Group (Ukraine-Russia-OSCE), “Russian armed groups actively used their UAVs to attack the positions of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.”
Ukraine’s army lacked drones prior to 2014
At the time when the war started in the Donbas, the Ukrainian Army didn’t have any UAVs. However, as Mykhaylo Samus points, private and state-owned companies never stopped developing drones in Ukraine. The country’s Ministry of Defense and the Armed Forces of Ukraine were interested in obtaining the aerial vehicles, but the government didn’t allocate any funds for purchasing military equipment prior to 2014,
“Not only the UAVs, nothing was purchased at all, despite the need for them being understood. The military command, research and development organizations, military officers, and others all understood that the drones were needed because of the notion of the network-centric warfare,” says Mr. Samus.
Network-centric warfare[quote]The central point of the doctrine of network-centric warfare is turning the armed forces into a unified reconnaissance-strike complex where intelligence operates in real-time, producing coordinates of enemy targets and transferring them automatically to battle command posts, which, in turn, can automatically transmit them to the means of destruction so that the decision to destroy the enemy is made effectively in a matter of seconds.[/quote]
Only now has Ukraine started implementing this network-centric warfare approach.
“Arguably, one of the best recent examples of applying it is the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war as it was very typical: two post-Soviet countries, Armenia and Azerbaijan, went to war with one another. Armenia fought a war of the 20th century, while Azerbaijan, aided by Türkiye, waged its war based on network-centric warfare,” Mykhaylo Samus says.
According to Mr. Samus, Azerbaijan achieved superiority thanks to the UAVs that permanently surveyed the battlefield, monitoring and controlling all enemy targets, and by rapidly conveying information to the command post. According to Mykhaylo Samus, this approach allows a troop commander to see the full picture of the developments and to be able to maneuver friendly forces and hit enemy targets. Meanwhile, Armenia fought trench warfare like it was still stuck in the Soviet era.
“This war clearly demonstrated what is the right direction for development is, and the fact that Ukraine is following it is very positive,” adds Mr. Samus.
Ukrainian civil volunteers attempted to meet the army’s initial demand for drones
At the beginning of the war in the east of Ukraine, Ukrainian civil volunteers raised funds for buying drones, sought where they could purchase them, and supplied them to the army and special forces. Nevertheless, such drones were usually developed, even if on a volunteer basis, by private companies.A1-SM Furia was designed by the private company Research and Production Enterprise Atlon Avia. We can also mention the Leleka-100 UAV, which is also developed by the private company DeViRo. These are now the standard drones adopted by the Ukrainian army.”[/quote]
“Additionally, volunteers indeed supply a lot of items to the army, but these are mostly modified civilian quadcopters. They are very useful, of course, because they also provide an opportunity to conduct reconnaissance and even use ordnance,” adds Mr. Samus.
Russian UAVs[quote]As for the weaponized Russian drones in the Donbas, they mainly repurpose civilian quadcopters to which a grenade or mortar shell can be attached. They fly such quadcopters to our positions or some facilities to drop the ordnance there — in fact, that’s all just makeshift: they print additional parts on 3D printers, or glue everything with insulating tape, or something like that. Compared to Ukrainian capabilities, it’s all amateurish.[/quote]
One of the Russian most widely used drones is the Forpost, which is the Israeli tactical UAV IAI Searcher produced in Russia since 2012, as back then Russia managed to buy the whole production line from Israel.[quote]In the wake of the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, Russia realized that its intelligence situation was bleak. In Georgia, its Tupolev Tu-22-M30, a strategic bomber that acted as a reconnaissance craft, was shot down. The reason for that was that Russia didn’t have trivial intelligence capabilities to specify the coordinates of the targets. Their manned aircraft, like the Sukhoy Su-25, had to circle for 2-3 times over the area of weapon application, which allowed the Georgian air defense to hit the plane. [/quote] [quote]The aircraft losses were due to the fact that the aircraft actually flew into the area of application not having coordinates of the targets. Just like it used to be in the First and Second World Wars, they had to seek visual contact with the target and then approach it. And it proved to be disastrous for them, so in 2008 they took very intensive steps to obtain effective UAVs and they decided to do it in a rather straightforward way. The decision came in 2010 when the reset in the US-Russian relations was underway, so Russia started massively adopting Western technologies.[/quote]
“The Forpost is purely reconnaissance. Russia doesn’t have strike UAVs on par with the Bayraktar. In Russia, there are only prototypes of combat drones. For example, they tried to fit missiles to their Forposts, but these prototypes didn’t reach mass production due to unreliability in real battle conditions,” says Mr. Samus.
Using the open-source intelligence methods, volunteers of the Inform Napalm initiative were able to identify and confirm the presence of at least eight Russian-made types of unmanned aerial vehicles in the Donbas.[/editorial]
Asked why the German foreign ministry could have been so much concerned with the first battle use of the UCAV Bayraktar by Ukraine, Mykaylo Samus replied,
“I believe that’s because Germany’s main strategic interest in the conflict between Ukraine and Russia is freezing it by any means and, in my opinion, doing it primarily at the expense of Ukraine’s interests. Germany has many common economic interests with Russia, so freezing the conflict is the most attractive scenario for Germany.
“What does Bayraktar mean in the zone of the Ukrainian-Russian conflict in the Donbas? It gives an advantage to Ukraine, giving it the opportunity to change the balance of power. And a change in the balance of power means that the conflict might not be frozen, as Russia, therefore, will be forced to deploy additional air defense systems in the Donbas.
“And this, as viewed from the German perspective, will mean that the conflict won’t be frozen, but would rather escalate, and not at the expense of Ukraine’s interests, but of Russia’s. After all, Russia will be forced to admit its participation in the conflict, and not as a moderator under the Normandy format and the Minsk accords, but as a party to the conflict, as an occupier, an aggressor who exercises effective control over the territory in both military and civilian ways. That is why Germany started concerning that Ukraine would use the Bayraktars on a permanent basis, which would change the balance of power as Russia simply doesn’t have such systems physically,” Mr. Samus says.
Mykhaylo Samus says that now Ukraine already has more Bayraktars than Azerbaijan was using in the course of the recent Nagorno-Karabakh war, and Russia is very worried about this fact because Azerbaijan was able to completely change the warfare in Karabakh.
Another Russian fear, according to the expert, is the fact that the Ukrainian Navy will start receiving systems that will not only conduct reconnaissance for the Neptune anti-ship cruise missiles indicating their targets but will also have strike capabilities themselves. The P-360 Neptune is the Ukrainian cruise anti-ship missile system adopted by the Ukrainian Defense Ministry in August 2020 and since March 2020, this missile system is in service in the Ukrainian Navy.
“When a rocket hits your ship’s board at sea, it is an unusual situation for Russia, in other words, the Russian monopoly of control of the situation in the Black Sea gets broken. Of course, the Neptune system will play the main part, but it needs its targets to be determined; without UAVs the Neptune will be blind. So the role of drones, including the Bayraktars, is crucial here, as Bayraktars are capable of monitoring the situation 24/7, keeping track of traffic at sea. Meanwhile, now the Bayraktars are conducting full reconnaissance of the Donbas, and of the Ukrainian border with Russia… Russia doesn’t have systems like this, all they can do now is dropping grenades on the heads of our soldiers, but even this is at the level of makeshift stuff,” Mr. Samus says.
Radioelectronic warfare and the future of Ukrainian Air Force[quote]And, by the way, the key piece in combatting unmanned aerial vehicles is the jamming systems that disable the usage of drones. In Ukraine, even before the war, there were several designs of electronic warfare stations, including those developed by private companies. They are present in the armed forces, but I believe that the Ukrainian armed forces should have stations of this kind in every unit at least at the company level. For them, countering enemy drones is crucial as the aerial reconnaissance of you means that you are now being discovered as the UAV gets the coordinates of the targets and that a missile may hit you in just a few seconds. If you’re capable of destroying such a drone, then no missile would home in on you. That’s it.[/quote]
Türkiye and Ukraine have been developing an even heavier unmanned combat aerial vehicle called Akinci, which, in practice, is going to be a replacement for the manned close air support aircraft, Sukhoy Su-25, which has been in service since the early 1980s.
“This would be a huge leap forward as Ukraine won’t have to consider a replacement for the Su-25. In general, I believe that unmanned aerial vehicles will replace manned ones. Fighter jets performing air defense tasks would still probably be piloted, yet the strike, assault, and bombing aviation can be definitely replaced by unmanned aerial vehicles already now,” Mykhaylo Samus shares his views on the future of the Ukrainian military aviation.
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