The video shows a Russian missile launcher sitting in the open. Suddenly, it is enveloped in a huge fireball.
Ukrainian officials say what looked like a video game was actually the work of a small, relatively cheap Turkish-made drone that has had a surprisingly lethal impact on Russia forces.
A U.S. defense official said Monday that Ukraine has made “terrific” use of Turkish Bayraktar TB2 unmanned aerial vehicles, which can loiter over tanks and artillery and destroy them with devastatingly accurate missile fire. The official said the U.S. is working to help keep the drones flying.
Ukraine received a new shipment of the drones this month, Ukraine’s defense minister said on Facebook. He didn’t say how many. It’s unclear whether the U.S. has made efforts to facilitate the supply of the Turkish drone or other similar systems to Ukraine, in addition to the Javelin anti-tank and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles it is providing.
Before the war began, military experts predicted that Russian forces would have little trouble dealing with Ukraine’s complement of as many as 20 Turkish drones. With a price tag in the single-digit millions, the Bayraktars are far cheaper than drones like the U.S. Reaper but also much slower and smaller, with a wingspan of 39 feet.
As so often has been the case in this war, however, the experts misjudged the competence of the Russian military.
“It’s quite startling to see all these videos of Bayraktars apparently knocking out Russian surface-to-air missile batteries, which are exactly the kind of system that’s equipped to shoot them down,” said David Hambling, a London-based drone expert.
That is confounding, Hambling said, because the drones should be easy for the Russians to blow out of the sky — or disable with electronic jamming.
“It is literally a World War I aircraft, in terms of performance,” he said. “It’s got a 110-horsepower engine. It is not stealthy. It is not supersonic. It’s a clay pigeon — a real easy target.”
If nothing else, the Russians should be able to down the drones with fighter jets, Hambling said. But without air superiority, Russia hasn’t been flying regular combat air patrols. As for electronic jamming, one of the mysteries of the Ukraine invasion is why the Russians haven’t made more use of what experts believe is their advanced electronic warfare capability.
Bayraktar TB2 drone performs during TEKNOFEST 2021 the Aviation, Space and Technology Festival at Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, Turkey on September 21, 2021. (Photo by Muhammed Enes Yildirim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
The bottom line is that the Turkish drones continue to star in videos shared across Twitter and other social media platforms that feature them blowing Russian vehicles to smithereens. Ukrainians have even praised them in song. It’s unclear how many have been shot down, but some, at least, remain effective, U.S. officials said.
“It is puzzling,” Hambling said. “It may be massive incompetence by the Russians. It may be that the Ukrainians have discovered some sneaky tactics they can use.”
It’s hardly the first time the Bayraktar has played an important role in an armed conflict.
Azerbaijan used small Turkish-made drones to devastating effect against the Armenian military in 2020, bringing a decisive end to a stalemate over a disputed enclave that had gone on for years.
Video released by Azerbaijan shows the drones pummeling artillery, tank and troop emplacements surrounded by trenches that offered no protection whatsoever from the fiery death raining down from above.
The Turkish drones also had a significant impact in battles against Russian-made military gear in Libya and Syria.
The drones are manufactured by Baykar Technology, whose chief technology officer, Selçuk Bayraktar, is a son-in-law of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
“I’m sure it’s going to be selling extremely well,” Hambling said.
Many experts have argued that another type of unmanned weapons system would be even more helpful to Ukrainian forces: a so-called kamikaze drone, a vehicle packed with explosives that is essentially a smart guided missile launched miles away from a target. Two Israeli companies make versions of those drones, the Harop and the Hero. The U.S. military fields a system called the Switchblade, the larger version of which can destroy tanks. That weapon isn’t approved for export except to the U.K.
Turkey, which has sought to maintain friendly relations with both Russia and the West, was sanctioned by the U.S. in December 2020 over its purchase of Russian S-400 missile defense systems. Erdoğan declined to say Monday whether Turkey would buy more Russian weapons.
“Under the current circumstances, it would be premature to talk about what the future shows right now,” he said Monday during a visit to Germany, according to Reuters. “We have to see what the conditions bring. We have to maintain our friendship with Mr. Zelenskyy and Mr. Putin.”