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Ukraine’s Bayraktar TB-2 drones firing tiny guided missiles have wreaked havoc on Russian forces in Ukraine.
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The Russians are also flying armed unmanned aerial vehicles over Ukraine—and they’re chalking up kills, too.
But there’s a difference of scale—potentially a big one. The Ukrainian air force and navy probably can keep TB-2s in the air around the clock. Russian forces, by contrast, “are flying few Orion drone sorties over Ukraine,” tweeted Samuel Bendett, an expert on the Russian military with the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C.
The proof is in the videos and photos of Russian drones and their victims that have circulated on social media in recent weeks. The Kremlin has released several drone video feeds depicting successful strikes on Ukrainian vehicles.
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But only several. Evidence of Ukrainian drone strikes is much more abundant. The analysts at the Oryx blog have documented around 60 kills by TB-2s, but only six by Orions.
At the same time, there’s photographic evidence that the Ukrainians have shot down at least one of Russia’s killer drones. Yes, the Russians have shot down at least three TB-2s, but the Ukrainians can afford to lose more drones.
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The Turkish-made TB-2 is a 1,400-pound, propeller-driven UAV with a 39-foot wingspan, a sensor gimbal with a laser designator and underwing pylons for 14-pound MAM missiles.
Steered via satellite or line-of-sight radio, a TB-2 can patrol for 24 hours, tracking enemy forces, designating targets for laser-guided artillery shells and plinking tanks and other vehicles with its own munitions.
The closest Russian analog is the Kronstadt Orion. Fifty feet from wingtip to wingtip, the one-ton, propeller-driven Orion has roughly the same sensors as a TB-2 and Kornet guided missiles that are similar to the MAM, but the first generation of the drone lacks satellite communications.
That means a first-gen Orion can’t range farther than a couple hundred miles from its operators. Newer Orions have SATCOM, but it’s not clear Kronstadt has delivered any of these upgraded airframes yet.
The possible range limitations haven’t stopped the Russians from deploying Orions in Ukraine. Videos confirm Orions knocking out at least three Ukrainian vehicles in separate attacks starting in mid-March.
And then the Ukrainians struck back. On Friday, photos appeared on social media clearly depicting the wreckage of an Orion. Losing even one of the drones is “significant,” according to Bendett, as prior to this loss Russia’s entire Orion fleet reportedly numbered only 30 or so airframes.
True, Ukraine had only 20 TB-2s going into the current war. But Kyiv has continued to take delivery of fresh airframes—and Bayraktar has no problem sustaining production. Kronstadt by contrast could struggle to meet Russian demand for new Orions, owing to Russia’s longstanding problems sourcing high-tech components.
New Western sanctions likely will only deepen the shortages. So yes, there are separate and competing drone campaigns playing out in the sky over Ukraine. But Kyiv’s is sustainable. Russia’s … not so much.
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