Ultralight drone fighter aircraft now in use in Ukraine

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Ukraine’s unorthodox efforts to develop ways to defeat Russian drones have taken a new twist, with the appearance of an ultralight aircraft equipped with a sniper gun to intercept unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Few details about the concept are available at this time, but it’s notable that the aircraft in question – the Ukrainian-made Aeroprakt A-22 – is a type we’ve seen modified as a one-way attack drone in the past, something you can read more about here. Footage shows a Ukrainian HUR MO operator shooting down a UAV with an automatic rifle from the Aeroprakt-type ultralight aircraft during a training exercise. pic.twitter.com/pIwKxLuqTb— Status-6 (Military & Conflict News) (@Archer83Able) July 7, 2024 A video that recently emerged shows the drone-hunting ultralight carrying out a training mission and intercepting a small fixed-wing UAV being used as a target. The sniper is seated to the left, next to the pilot, and takes aim as the aircraft maneuvers into position with the drone attached to its left wing. By the end of the video, the drone has been successfully hit and is falling to the ground as the pilot and gunner congratulate each other with a high-five. The gunner opens fire on the target drone, indicated by the blue reticle. via X According to Ukrainian journalist Roman Bochkala, the idea behind placing a sniper on an ultralight aircraft came from the Defense Intelligence Agency of Ukraine (GUR); we’ve reached out to the organization for confirmation. On his Telegram channel, Bochkala also reports that the aircraft in question was purchased with $35,000 donated by volunteers. In the meantime, the video shows the sniper armed with what appears to be a Malyuk rifle, a bullpup design widely used by Ukrainian special operations units, among others, which you can read more about here. In his analysis, Bochkala points to a series of recent Russian ballistic missile attacks on several airfields in Ukraine — Myrhorod, Poltava, Kryvyi Rih, Yuzhny, and Pavlograd — and notes that Russian reconnaissance drones searched for targets “for five to six hours” and provided coordinates for these strikes. You can read more about these attacks and how they rely on drones to determine their targets here. Myrhorod Air Base. This is not the first time that Russian reconnaissance drones have been able to silently observe before striking with an Iskander cluster missile. At least one Ukrainian Su-27 appears to have been destroyed, while several others are also believed to have been damaged. pic.twitter.com/OsZeeuCMp1— NOELREPORTS (@NOELreports) July 1, 2024 Bochkala says there are too few man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS), Patriot air defense systems are too expensive and risk attack, while other ground-based air defense systems are not necessarily effective against drones. “Non-standard actions are required,” Bochkala says, with the drone-hunting ultralight being the latest example of this. The armed ultralight in particular would provide an effective solution against Russian Orlan, ZALA and SuperCam types of drones. A Russian Orlan-10 surveillance drone is ready for flight. Russian Defense Ministry The Aeroprakt A-22, also known by its nickname Foxbat, is classified as an ultralight and is produced as a factory-built aircraft and as a kit. As we previously reported, the small and relatively cheap A-22 is a good candidate for modification as a one-way attack drone, also known as a kamikaze drone. A modified A-22 was used to attack the Shahed drone production facility in Yelabuga, in Russia’s southeastern region of Tatarstan, in April. According to the Kyiv Independent, there may have been at least one more such attack using an A-22 Foxbat since then. The aircraft used does indeed bear some resemblance to the one I fly. I really hope this doesn’t have any negative consequences for the aircraft manufacturer. pic.twitter.com/3oJjsJE8qX— Julian Röpcke (@JulianRoepcke) April 2, 2024 Now, the same design also seems to be useful as a fighter drone, as we see in the new video. The A-22 is not only relatively easy and cheap to obtain, but also stable and easy to fly; with its high wing and ample cockpit glazing, it also offers a very good field of view and fire for the gunner. A British-operated Aeroprakt A-22 ultralight. Arpingstone/Wikimedia Commons With maximum fuel, the standard A-22 has a range of around 680 miles, providing very useful endurance for drone patrols. As we have seen with Ukraine’s increasing use of the Yak-52 to counter drones, particularly in the south of the country, deploying a light, slow-flying, agile platform against UAVs makes sense, especially in areas where Russian drones are most prevalent deep behind the front lines. A Yak-52 with a sniper, seen here from the perspective of a Russian drone attempting to intercept it. via X As an element within Ukraine’s layered air defenses, a light aircraft carrying manually-operated rifle-caliber armament could help fill some of the gaps during daytime operations in lower-threat areas, but areas where Russian drones are likely to appear. It is conceivable that cannon-armed A-22s could be deployed to valuable Ukrainian airfields and then used in the surrounding area to patrol for the surveillance drones used to guard these facilities from ballistic missile attacks. However, the same caveats we raised in the case of the Yak-52 would seem to apply to the A-22 as well. These include the high level of skill required to shoot down a moving aerial threat from another aircraft (albeit a slow-moving threat that may not be able to maneuver or take evasive action). This is something that has required extensive training since World War I. Fast forward to 2024, and using cannons to shoot down drones from other aircraft is something that both sides in the war in Ukraine are now focusing on, and something we have seen happening over the Red Sea as well. Then there is the problem of detecting drones in time, prioritizing them, and warning the aircraft crews before they are deployed. This may be less of an issue if the A-22s are used for airfield patrol as proposed. A detailed view of the gun used in the A-22 — a locally made Mayluk. The gun is equipped with a silencer. via X Surprisingly, we haven’t seen any sort of gun mounting and sighting system on any of these drone fighters, though such devices may be in development, if they don’t already exist. On helicopters, for example, a strap that runs across the door to support and stabilize the gun is often used by airborne snipers. In the meantime, it appears the Mayluk gun is being used as an anti-drone weapon aboard the A-22, though other options are clearly available. The Mayluk is about 28 inches long and weighs just under 8.4 pounds empty, making it generally well-suited to the limited space in the cockpit. It is unknown how far Ukraine’s drone-hunting ultralight program has progressed, let alone how many aircraft are available and — just as importantly — how many gunners are trained to shoot down UAVs. However, given the level of Russian drone activity in Ukraine of various types, and their proliferation far beyond the front lines, this is highly unlikely to be the last time we see this type of ad hoc UAV interceptor. Especially now that Ukrainian airfields are at increased risk from Russian drone-guided missile strikes, the appearance of an armed ultralight missile that can help defend these and other high-value targets is highly timely. Contact the author: thomas@thewarzone.com



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