Can Ukraine use old Soviet-era drones to strike targets in Russia? – Technology Org

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Several recent publications asserted that incidents during which two Russian military aviation bases were hit by explosions were, in fact, performed by the Ukrainian Army.

Tu-141 Strizh (Swift) drone. Image credit: Armed Forces of Ukraine

Tu-141 Strizh (Swift) drone. Image credit: Armed Forces of Ukraine

One of the Russian air bases – Dyagilevo – is located approximately 500 km (310 miles) from the Ukrainian border, nearly at the same distance as Moscow, the capital of the Russian Federation.

The Ukrainian Armed Forces have not confirmed this presumption from the side of mass media. But if we analyze this possibility theoretically, would Ukraine have the technical capabilities necessary to accomplish an attack at such a long range?

The Ukrainian Army currently has a range of modern weapons provided by its allies. The main source of military aid is the U.S., followed by Germany, Poland, and many other countries. Among the supplied arms, however, there is no equipment that could be used to conduct long-range warfare.

ATACMS Army Tactical Missile System. Image credit: U.S. Army

ATACMS Army Tactical Missile System. Ukraine does not have such weapon. Image credit: U.S. Army

For example, the U.S. government has repeatedly denied sending ATACMS missiles to Ukraine that have a maximum reach of up to 300 km (190 miles). Even if Ukraine had them, this weapon would not be enough to hit the Dyagilevo air base.

The U.S. certainly has long-range weapons capable of flying much longer distances, but their supply to Ukraine is out of the question, at least for now.

Even for weapons provided several months ago – such as modern multiple launch rocket systems HIMARS, M270 and similar, there is a condition imposed that they cannot be used against targets located in the territory of the Russian Federation.

Is there any other option? It turns out, there is.

Tu-141 Strizh (Swift) in flight.

Tu-141 Strizh (Swift) in flight. Image credit: Armed Forces of Ukraine

Missile-turned-drone

The leading hypothesis is that Ukraine used the modified Soviet-era unmanned surveillance aircraft Tu-141 in both strikes against Russian air bases.

Tupolev Tu-141 Strizh (also known as “Swift”) is a drone – one of the first produced in the former Soviet Union from 1979 to 1989. In total, 152 units were manufactured but were quite soon retired from the military service of the Soviet Union right after its collapse.

These drones, however, remained intact and were apparently stationed in the territory of Ukraine. Ukraine officially reinstated Tu-141 into its military service, following the earlier Russian invasion of Ukraine in March 2014 which resulted in the Russian annexation of Crimea.

Tu-141 Strizh (Swift) in a museum.

Tu-141 Strizh (Swift) in a museum. Image credit: Ukrainian Armed Forces

Different sources mention that Ukrainian aviation specialists performed multiple upgrades of this Soviet-era drone, most likely those related to improved guidance and targeting.

The first re-appearances of Tu-141 were recorded just a couple of weeks after Russia started its wide-scale invasion of Ukraine in February of this year.

On March 8, 2022, one Tu-141 was reported crashed in Ukraine, and its origin was not confirmed. Two days later, another UAV of the same model crashed in Zagreb, Croatia, at a distance of over 550 kilometers (340 miles) from the Ukrainian border. Before it hit the ground, it had flown over the territories of Romania and Hungary.

The range of reach of Tu-141 compared to Tochka-U missile system.

The range of reach of Tu-141 compared to Tochka-U missile system.

Then, the Russian embassy in Croatia asserted that Russia does not possess any of those drones in its armed forces. Later the Croatian media published unofficial information that this drone supposedly took off from Ukraine, but instead of hitting Russian positions, it strayed off its course and ended up completely elsewhere.

It is highly likely that Ukraine is the only country that has Tu-141 Strizh in its military service. The first flights could have been initial attempts to test this technology in practice. And even when these attempts were failures, they still proved the fact that this old tech can quite easily fly at least several hundred kilometers.

According to the original documentation, Tu-141 was designed to achieve a flight range of up to 1,000 km (620 miles) while flying at a cruise speed of 1,000 km/h (620 mph). It could carry approximately 100 kg (220 pounds) of payload.

Final thoughts

Did Ukrainian engineers succeed in resolving all technical issues? It is possible, because they had nine months on their hands to determine drone deficiencies and introduce necessary design updates. The strikes on Dyagilevo and Engels-2 air bases were performed with an extremely high level of accuracy that was not possible with the original model of Tu-141. But everything changes if you supplement it with modern technology.

Did Ukraine perform these strikes? It could be. However, we will have to wait for an official confirmation in order to know the definitive answer.




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