It was an open question, in the days leading up to Russia’s wider invasion of Ukraine on the night of Feb. 23, whether Ukraine’s small force of Turkish-made TB-2 drones even would survive the first volley of Russian missiles.
Nearly a month later, it’s apparent the TB-2s not only survived—they quickly flew into action. Today Ukraine’s killer-drone fleet arguably is its most potent force.
TB-2s belonging to the Ukrainian air force and navy in recent days have dismantled whole swathes of Russia’s front-line air-defense network and now relentlessly are smashing Russian tanks and supply trucks.
And with credible reports that Turkey has sent fresh shipments of drones, it’s possible Kyiv’s drone campaign is just beginning.
Back in 2020, Azerbaijan’s small fleet of TB-2s was instrumental in that country’s victory over Armenia in a short but violent territorial war. Drone history might be repeating itself in the much bigger war in Ukraine.
Ukraine acquired its first TB-2 in July 2021. By February this year the navy and air force reportedly possessed around 20 of the 40-foot-span, 1,400-pound, propeller-driven drones armed with 14-pound, laser-guided Smart Micro Munition missiles, whose Turkish acronym is “MAM.”
It was unclear whether the TB-2s and their ground stations and operators would survive the air strikes and missile barrages that preceded the Russian ground offensive.
But they did. In fact, it seems the drone force suffered no major losses as it dispersed from its permanent bases, such as Mykolaiv in southern Ukraine, to smaller facilities likely concentrated in the country’s west.
It took a few days for the TB-2 operators to set up their gear and prep their drones for ops from austere sites, possibly including little-used civilian airstrips. Once they did, the drones opened an ever-widening aerial offensive. By March 20, foreign observers had confirmed—via photos and videos—nearly 60 tanks, air-defense systems, helicopters, supply trucks and trains that had fallen victim to TB-2 strikes.
In fact, the actual number of drone kills undoubtedly is much, much higher. We don’t know the real total because Ukraine doesn’t want us to know where and how often its drones are striking. “In an effort to attract as little attention to its operations as possible, very little footage of TB2 strikes over Ukraine has been released,” noted the analysts at Oryx blog, a leading source of open-source intelligence.
The drone campaign has expanded in stages. First, the TB-2s went after the short-range air-defense systems protecting Russian tank formations and supply convoys. The drones have plinked no fewer than 10 SAM launchers, including Buks, Tors and a Pantsir.
“Once they were free of Russian air-defenses, the Ukrainians … began deploying their TB-2s for their other two important tasks—for reconnaissance and for close-air-support,” wrote Tom Cooper, an author and expert on the Russian military. Stripped of their air-defenses, Russian tanks and supply trucks are easy pickings.
“In the Kyiv area, they have mauled many of Russian armored formations; in the south they have directed massive and precise artillery barrages on the Kherson airport and the [Russian] units besieging Mykolaiv.”
TB-2s also lobbed MAMs at several field headquarters. The effect on the Russians has been profound. “TB-2s are also wrecking the Russians’ nerves,” Cooper wrote. “We’ve seen several videos shown entire Russian [battalions] turning around and fleeing after losing only a few vehicles to TB-2s.”
There don’t seem to be major limitations on where the TB-2s can strike within the Ukraine war zone. Kyiv has released videos depicting drone strikes as far south as Kherson and as far north as the Kyiv suburbs.
The distance the drones are flying seems to hint that Turkey provided Ukraine with the latest version of the TB-2 with satellite-communications capability, as well as access to Turksat satellites. The alternative is line-of-sight radio, which can take a drone out to just 100 miles or so.
Russia’s longer-range SAMs—S-300s and S-400s—still are intact. But for a variety of reasons, they’re powerless to stop the TB-2s. For one, the TB-2 operators appear to be flying their drones at low altitude, below the horizon of long-range radars, until it’s time to attack.
Low flight prevents wide surveillance, of course. But the TB-2 appears usually to avoid detection even when it does fly high.
This makes sense. The TB-2’s small size and modest horsepower means it’s quiet, not overly hot on infrared sensors and also hard to detect for many radar operators. It is, in its own way, a stealth warplane. Flying mostly at night helps, too.
The same stealth qualities that protect a drone from air-defenses also allow it to loiter, undetected, over a stretch of highway for 24 hours at a time, silently waiting for the Russians to roll past.
The TB-2 isn’t invulnerable, of course. But unlike a 12-ton MiG-29 and its pilot, the drone is easy to replace. The Russians claim they’ve shot down lots of TB-2s, but there’s photographic evidence of just one wrecked drone.
In any event, Ukraine clearly still has most of the TB-2s it had at the start of the war, plus any additional airframes it got from Turkey in the last few weeks. The stable—or even growing—drone force, plus the steady degradation of Russian air-defenses, could mean that Ukraine’s drone campaign might actually escalate in coming weeks.
In a heady 44 days in late 2020, Azerbaijan’s 10 or so TB-2s knocked out no fewer than 567 Armenian tanks and other vehicles. It was a potentially decisive contribution to a winning campaign. Ukraine has even more TB-2s and has worked out highly effective tactics for them.
The doubt that hung over Kyiv’s nascent drone force on the eve of the Russian attack is gone. The TB-2 is a fearsome weapon. And in the hands of skilled and creative operators, it’s wreaking havoc on the Russian army in Ukraine.