Military drone crash update: Ukraine war toll and and ‘hidden crashes’

Bayraktar TB2 reportedly shot down near Kursk, April 2022

Updated – see below

We’ve added details of another 21 crashes to our drone crash database for the first half of 2022  – although 14 of them occurred in the context of the on-going war in Ukraine, so many will have likely been shot down.

It’s important to be aware that we only include larger (Class II and Class III) drones in our database, typified by medium altitude/long endurance drones like the Reaper MQ-9 and Bayraktar TB2.   There have been dozens of verified reports of smaller drones being shot down or crashing in that conflict but they are outside the scope of our study. However, it is extremely likely that other large drones have also crashed/been shot down in that conflict but have not been verified.

In addition, as we regularly try to explain, there are many crashes of large drones that simply aren’t made public and so don’t make it into our database. More on this below.

Ukraine

As in any armed conflict, there is a significant amount of disinformation and confusion surrounding on-going events.  We are only including details of large drone crashes that have been verified  – primarily through use of images.  @robLee@UAVTracker and @Oryx have done sterling work detailing on-going events.  Significantly, older Soviet-era reconnaissance drones have also been pressed into service by both sides, with indications that they may be being used as ‘flying missiles’.  One of these flew off course, crossing several European borders before crashing in the Croatian capital, Zagreb.  Both Russia and Ukraine have denied responsibility.  In a similar case, a Ukrainian operated Bayraktar TB2 went off course and ended up crashing off the coast of Romania.

Large UAVs crashed/shot down relating to Russia/Ukraine war (till 30th June)

Date Operator Drone type Details/source Location
Jun 28, 2022 Ukraine Tu-143 Reys Mid-flight (shot down) Russia
May 10, 2022 Russian Tu-141 Strizh Mid-flight (shot down?) Ukraine
May 7, 2022 Ukraine Bayraktar TB2 Mid-flight Romania
May 1, 2022 Ukraine Bayraktar TB2 Mid-flight (shot down?) Ukraine
Apr 27, 2022 Ukraine Bayraktar TB2 Mid-flight (shot down?) Russia
Apr 27, 2022 Ukraine Bayraktar TB2 Mid-flight (shot down?) Russia
Apr 25, 2022 Ukraine Bayraktar TB2 Mid-flight (shot down?) Russia
Apr 12, 2022 Ukraine Tu-143 Reys Mid-flight (shot down) Ukraine
Apr 7, 2022 Russia Inokhodets (Orion) Mid-flight (shot down?) Ukraine
Apr 2, 2022 Ukraine Bayraktar TB2 Mid-flight (shot down) Ukraine
Mar 30, 2022 Ukraine Bayraktar TB2 Mid-flight (shot down) Ukraine
Mar 17, 2022 Ukraine Bayraktar TB2 Mid-flight (shot down) Ukraine
Mar 11, 2022 Russia Forpost Mid-flight (shot down?) Ukraine
Mar 10, 2022 ? Tu-141 Strizh Mid-flight Croatia

Elsewhere, during the first six months of 2022, large drones operated by the US, India, France, Saudi Arabia and Philippines air forces have crashed or been shot down.  The variety of operators and types of UAVs crashing gives an indication of how difficult it is to operate these systems.  Remotely controlling aircraft is incredibly complex and a huge variety of problems can arise leading to an abrupt termination of the flight, including  mechanical issue, electrical failure, lost-communication link, weather problems and human error.  Read more

Loitering munitions, the Ukraine war, and the drift towards ‘killer robots’.

Switchblade loitering munition flies towards target area. The operator views video feed and then designates which  target the munition should strike.

Loitering munitions are now hitting the headlines in the media as a result of their use in the Ukraine war.  Vivid descriptions of ‘kamikaze drones’ and ‘suicide drones’ outline the way in which these weapons operate: they are able to find targets and fly towards them before crashing into them and exploding.  Both Russia and Ukraine are deploying loitering munitions, which allow soldiers to fire on targets such as tanks and heavy armour without the predictability of a mortar or artillery round firing on a set trajectory.   Under some circumstances these ‘fire and forget’ weapons may be able operate with a high degree of autonomy.  For example they can programmed to fly around autonomously in a defined search area and highlight possible targets such as tanks to the operator.  In these circumstances they can be independent of human control. This trend towards increasing autonomy in weapons systems raising questions about how they might shape the future of warfare and the morality of their use.

Loitering munitions such as these have previously been used to military effect in Syria and the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war.  Although they are often described as drones, they are in many ways more like a smart missile than an uncrewed aircraft.  Loitering munitions were first developed in the 1980s and can be thought of as a ‘halfway house’ between drones and cruise missiles.  They differ from drones in that they are expendable, and unlike cruise missiles, have the ability to loiter passively in the target area and search for a target.  Potential targets are identified using radar, thermal imaging, or visual sensor data and, to date, a human operator selects the target and executes the command to destroy the target.  They are disposable, one-time use weapons intended to hunt for a target and then destroy it, hence their tag as ‘kamikaze’ weapons.  Dominic Cummings, former chief advisor to the Prime Minister describes a loitering munition as a “drone version of the AK-47: a cheap anonymous suicide drone that flies to the target and blows itself up – it’s so cheap you don’t care”.  Read more

Armed drones proliferation update – May 2022

Click to view full list.

Today we are publishing a fully revised and updated list of countries operating medium altitude, long endurance (MALE) armed drones as typified by the MQ-9 Reaper and Bayraktar TB2. Please note our list does not include states operating loitering munitions (sometimes dubbed ‘suicide drones’ by the media) or other, one-off use systems.

According to our data, 26 countries currently possess armed drones although for four of these, it is not clear if the drones are actually operational. Out of the 22 states known to operate armed drones, 11 have used them for cross border strikes, while 9 have used them to launch strikes within their own borders.

Since our last update just under a year ago, Ethiopia, Kyrgyzstan, Morocco, Russia and Turkmenistan now possess armed drones.  Of these, Ethiopia and Russia are known to have already used them to launch strikes, while Morocco appears to have launched a drone strike in Algeria.  Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan join Kazakhstan on the list of those who possess the capability seemingly for prestige purposes without any evidence that the systems are operational. Jordan’s CH-4 armed drones are non-operational and have been put up for sale, and while were rumours that they were purchased by a Libyan militia this has not been confirmed.  The full list –  and brief details for each country –  are on our page: ‘Who Has Armed Drones?

Turkey’s armed drone exports surge

Since developing and deploying the Bayraktar TB2 armed drones, Turkey has becoming a significant exporter of armed drones.  As the table below shows, 22 states have acquired armed drones in the nine years between 2013 and 2021.  All bar two of the eleven countries to gain the capability between 2013 and 2018 obtained their armed drones from China.

countries by year - exporter May22c

However, in the last three years, only three of the eleven countries to gain the capability imported their armed drones from China, while six imported from Turkey. In addition, at least three other countries that were already operating Chinese armed drones have now also imported Turkish armed drones (Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Ethiopia).  Read more

Ukraine and the ethical debate on armed drones: some early reflections

Images of Bayraktar TB2 strike in Ukraine – undated.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has rightly been condemned across the globe.  The on-going war is horrific, with verified reports of indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas and a number of reports of killings which amount to war crimes.  At the time of writing, the UN reports that around 2,000 civilians have been killed since the invasion began although the actual figure may be much higher.  It is good to see so see such widespread condemnation of the war, although it is hard not to ask why there is little condemnation of other wars and not come to the obvious conclusion.

After seven weeks, there is a great deal that can be said about this awful war and the initial reaction to it. But our primary focus, as always, is on the use of armed drones and the ethical debate that surrounds their growing use.

Bayraktar drone use in Ukraine

While a variety of small unarmed drones have been used in Ukraine by both sides for surveillance and intelligence gathering, it is the use of the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drone by Ukrainian forces that has gained most attention.  Multiple news articles have reported that the Bayraktar drone has been used to deadly effect against Russian heavy weapons with headlines such as ‘Ukraine’s Drones Are Wreaking Havoc On The Russian Army’ and ‘Ukraine’s Secret Weapon Against Russia: Turkish Drones’Read more

On the Edge: Security, protracted conflicts and the role of drones in Eurasia

Click to open report

Our new report, ‘On the Edge: Security, protracted conflicts and the role of drones in Eurasiaexamines the proliferation of drones and loitering munitions (often descried as suicide drones) across Eurasia. It charts their increasing use along the borders of separatist areas, aims to shed some light on the acquisition of large Medium-Altitude Long-Endurance (MALE) Chinese drones in Central Asia, and asks why this has happened and what the likely consequences might be.

Thirty years after the collapse of the USSR, the people of Eurasia still live with conflict and repression that are part of the post-Soviet legacy. The year 2020 saw the most serious violence since 1994 erupt between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region also saw an upturn in violence, whilst Russia maintains its hold over Crimea. Georgia’s separatist regions – Abkhazia and South Ossetia – are also the site of ongoing clashes. These multiple conflicts impact the lives of civilians and abuses of human rights are common in the contested border regions. Moreover, the political cultures of the five Central Asian states – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – remain autocratic and opaque, limiting democracy and human rights.  Read more

Armed Drone Proliferation Update, June 2019

New users include Algeria with the El Djazair 54 drone

It’s been a year since we published Drone Wars: The Next Generation, which gave our assessment of who is operating armed drones. This update adds four new States to those with the ability to operate large MALE or medium sized armed drones, as well as an update on significant exports, use, new models and proliferation controls over the last year. Read more