Thursday, 28 October 2021

Baptism By Fire - Ukraine’s Bayraktar TB2 See First Use

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
A video uploaded on the 26th of October 2021 depicts a meanwhile all too familiar sight for those following armed conflicts: A Bayraktar TB2 striking an unsuspecting foe on the ground. [1] The difference to past drone strikes carried out by the TB2 is that this one took place in Eastern Ukraine, the first strike to have occurred here since the delivery of TB2s to Ukraine in 2019. Less novel was the target of the drone strike: A 122mm D-30 howitzer operated by separatist forces. The successful destruction of the howitzer marked the 56th D-30 to have been destroyed by TB2s over Nagorno-Karabakh, Syria and now Ukraine. [2]

The drone strike reportedly was in response to the shelling of the village of Hranitne in the Donetsk Oblast with D-30 howitzers earlier that day. Interestingly, the TB2 only struck one out of the three D-30 howitzers positioned in the field, evidently judging this a proportionate warning to separatist forces not to violate the Minsk argeement rather than a serious attempt to destroy and degrade the DNR's inventory of artillery in this region. Equally interesting was the type of munition used in the strike, which appears to have been a MAM-C munition rather than the more commonly used MAM-L.
The Bayraktar TB2 can be armed with up to four MAM-L or MAM-C munitions. These highly maneuverable smart munitions can hit their targets with pinpoint accuracy at ranges as far as 15+ kilometres away, well outside the range of the types of air defence systems operated by separatist forces in the region. In order to hit the D-30 howitzer the TB2 did not even have enter separatist-controlled airspace, with the 15+km range of the MAM munition being larger than the distance of the howitzer's from the Ukrainian frontline (13km).

The ill-fated D-30 howitzer shortly after being hit by a MAM-C munition.

The drone strike took place near the settlement of Boykivske (formerly known as Telmanovo after German communist Ernst Thälmann) located in an area currently under control by the Donetsk People's Republic. No attempt appears to have been made at shooting down the TB2 from the DNR side. Although the separatist forces in Eastern Ukraine operate a significant number of anti-aircraft (AA) guns and surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems, most notably the 9K35 Strela-10 (NATO designation: SA-13), most of these lack the engagement ceiling to target UCAVs like the Bayraktar TB2 flying overhead at some 5 kilometres.
Yet one would be mistaken for thinking the separatist's air defence consists solely of short-range SAM systems, with a number of Russian electronic warfare (EW) systems currently deployed to separatist-held Eastern Ukraine. However, given the lack of success of even Russia's most modern EW systems in combatting the Bayraktar TB2 over Nagorno-Karabakh while in service with the Armenian Army, there is little reason to suggest that these would present a grave danger to the operations of the TB2. 
In case of a future escalation or the continued use of the TB2 by Ukraine to strike separatist targets, the Russian Army could deploy its own SAM systems to the region. In 2014 Russia already deployed Pantsir-S1s, Tor-M1s and Buk-M1s to Eastern Ukraine. The latter system was responsible for downing several Ukrainian Air Force planes including Su-25 close air support aircraft. The deployment of Russian air defence systems to Eastern Ukraine gained notoriety after a Russian Buk-M1 shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, resulting in the death of the 298 passengers and crew onboard.

The drone strike took place some 13 kilometres inside DNR-held territory. [3]

Ukraine currently operates a fleet of twelve Bayraktar TB2s equally divided between its air force and naval aviation. [4] In September 2021 it was revealed that the country plans on acquiring an additional 24 TB2s over the coming years, for a total of 54 systems ultimately to be acquired. [5] In addition to purchasing the drones themselves, Ukraine also struck a deal with Baykar for the establishment of training and maintenance centers in Ukraine. [6] The acquisition of the TB2 arguably is the most significant addition to Ukraine's Armed Forces since their founding in 1991, and is certain to provide the country with economical and realistic wartime capabilities.

The strike on the howitzer could be the first indication of a new norm, paving the way for future (retaliatory) drone strikes on DNR and LPR targets, with the Minsk agreement being enforced by Bayraktar TB2s if need be. While some have argued that the Bayraktar TB2 has yet to face a true peer-level threat environment, previous experience in neutralising Tor-M2s, Buk-M2s and Pantsir-S1s among a host of other SAM and electronic warfare systems specifically designed to counter UCAVs like the TB2 suggests that the successes booked in Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh could one day be repeated over Eastern Ukraine. Though an escalation of the mostly dormant conflict in Ukraine's East is far from the only possibility, the TB2's career in the country is certain to be a remarkable one. Future aggression or no: the TB2 can add another notch to its kill list.

[1] Перше застосування "Bayraktar" на Донбасі проти артилерії найманців
[4] Black Sea Hunters: Bayraktar TB2s Join The Ukrainian Navy