Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Russia Has Shot Down A Second TB-2. It’s Too Little, Too Late To Stop Ukraine’s Killer Drones.

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A TB-2.

Ukrainian navy photo

As the war in Ukraine enters its sixth week, Ukraine’s Bayraktar TB-2 drones still are in action. We know that because the Russians recently shot down one of the 1,400-pound drones—and also recovered relatively intact guided missiles either from the wreckage of that downed TB-2 or another drone Ukraine has lost.

At the same time, someone in the Ukrainian government or military has leaked a new video from a TB-2 strike on an apparent Russian convoy.

We can’t confirm the dates for the shoot-down, the missile-recovery or the drone strike, but together they seem to tell a story: that despite Russia’s claims that it has shot down more TB-2s than Ukraine has admitted to acquiring, the Turkish-made, propeller-driven robot still is part of the fight.

Indeed, it’s entirely possible the pace of TB-2 operations is increasing, thanks to reported shipments of new airframes. “The Turkish way of drone warfare has proven to be an offense-dominant regime with a clearly advantageous defense economics bill,” analyst Can Kasapoglu wrote for the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, D.C.

That is to say, the TB-2 wrecks a lot of enemy vehicles, more than justifying the cost of a few lost drones.

Ukraine acquired its first TB-2 in July 2021. By the time Russia widened its war on the country on the night of Feb. 23, the Ukrainian navy and air force together possessed around 20 drones and well as a stockpile of 14-pound, laser-guided Smart Micro Munition missiles, whose Turkish acronym is “MAM.”

Kyiv’s drone operators and their robotic warplanes escaped the initial Russian bombardment, reportedly by scattering away from the big air bases to smaller airstrips or even roadways in Ukraine’s safer western half.

It took a few days for crews to set up operations—but once they did, their impact on the war was significant. Circling over the highways around Kyiv in the north and Kherson in the south, the drones destroyed—often with the help of artillery—no fewer than 60 Russian vehicles that independent observers have been able to verify via photos and videos. “The TB-2 is a dangerous system against Russian weaponry,” Kasapoglu wrote.

In light of the thousands of vehicles Russia has lost in Ukraine, 60 might not seem like a lot. But the TB-2’s victims disproportionately are surface-to-air missile systems, command vehicles and artillery. In other words, high-value targets whose removal from the battlefield exposes tanks, trucks and infantry to attack by other means.

In retaliation, the Russians have managed to shoot down just two TB-2s that analysts have verified. The most recent documentation of a wrecked TB-2 circulated on social media beginning Wednesday. A day prior, photos appeared online of MAM missiles in Russian hands, possibly from the same destroyed TB-2.

It’s worth noting that the Kremlin claims it has destroyed many, many more TB-2s than the two we can confirm. Four on Feb. 24. Three on Feb. 27. One on March 5. Three on March 23. And so on. By now the Russians claim they have shot down more TB-2s than Ukraine probably ever has possessed.

It’s unclear how many TB-2s are on Kyiv’s books, of course. The Ukrainian navy and air force started the war with around 20 airframes and have lost at least two. But there have been multiple reports that Turkey quietly has sold or donated additional TB-2s to Ukraine since Feb. 23.

Most tellingly, on March 4, a Ukrainian An-124 transport flew the long way from Poland to Turkey and back, bypassing Hungary—which has close ties to Russia and apparently rejected an overflight request. It’s widely assumed the Antonov was delivering to Poland a fresh batch of TB-2s, which then rode trucks or trains into Ukraine.

Turkey’s support of Ukraine’s TB-2 force—which reportedly also includes access to TurkSat satellites that help to extend the drones’ range—shouldn’t come as a surprise. Turkey is wary of Russian aggression along Turkey’s borders. Secretive shipments of drones are a great way of leaning on the war’s outcome while maintaining a degree of deniability.

Maybe Ukraine still has 20 TB-2s. Maybe it has more. Maybe it’s down to a dozen. In any event, the TB-2s still are at work. The Ukrainian defense ministry makes an effort to keep recordings of drone video-feeds under wraps in order to prevent the Russians from zeroing in on the operators.

But lots of TB-2s videos have leaked, the most recent on March 23. That footage, reportedly from southern Ukraine, depicts a TB-2 surveilling what appears to be a battery of Russian artillery. Ukrainian rockets streak in, damaging or destroying the Russian guns.

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