France’s Minister of the Armed Forces, Sébastien Lecornu, announced on his X social media account yesterday that Delair is in the process of shipping more than 150 drones to Ukraine.
The Minister also posted a photo showing him with Delair CEO, added to good effect, “Our drones are designed for continual use in all seasons, are robust and easily repaired, with quality and industrial sensors.”
Ukraine’s Impressive Use of Drone Warfare
As far as drone warfare is concerned, Ukraine has remained well ahead of Russia since the start of the Russian Special Military Operation (SMO) on February 24, 2022. It used Bayraktar TB2 drones effectively to maraud Russian forces that had advanced deep into Ukrainian territory without establishing air superiority.
Ukraine was the first to use kamikaze drones and weaponize freely available Chinese drones. It was also the first to use FPV kamikaze drones.
Ukraine’s latest drone acquisition reveals a trend – Ukraine is leveraging its access to the best in Western drone technology to counter Russia’s air dominance along the battlefront.
Ukraine appears to be betting heavily on the superiority of Western drone-based ISR technology to increase the effectiveness of its Western-supplied weapons. HIMARS rockets, JDAM glide bombs, Storm Shadow, and Scalp cruise missiles can hit their targets far more accurately than their Russian counterparts, provided Ukraine can geolocate them.
Operating at a great height, displaced well away from the battlefront to avoid falling prey to Russian air defenses, MALE drones such as the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 cannot geolocate targets with great precision. For that matter, neither can US RQ-4 and MQ-9 drones operate high over Romania and the black sea.
Ukraine needs stealthy, silent drones that can slip in and out of and operate unscathed in heavily contested airspace, geolocating targets from close proximity using laser ranging techniques. And that is where Delair drones come in.
Delair manufactures unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and is an asset-management company based in Toulouse, France.
Delair offers high-performance fixed-wing UAVs for border surveillance, reconnaissance, intelligence, and special operations forces. A Delair drone likely to be of great interest to Ukraine would be the DT-46. There are two variants – vertical launch and catapult launch. The former has an endurance of 3 hr 50 min, the latter, 7 hr 30 min.
The DT-46 features a gimballed dual-sensor ISR payload combining EO/IR and LiDAR (Laser Detection and Ranging).
The most outstanding feature of the drone is its low audio and radar signature and high endurance. The drone can stay airborne for hours, day or night, undetected, finding targets and accurately guiding MLRS rockets and barrelled artillery laser-guided shells onto the targets using precision ranging from DT-46 LiDAR.
When it comes to range and accuracy, Ukrainian artillery already enjoys a significant advantage over Russian artillery – both in terms of range and accuracy. Using drones, such as the DT-46, will act as a force multiplier that will make each shell fired very dangerous to the well-being of the Russian forces.
The DT-26 is a smaller variant of the DT-46 that features the same stealth and silence but can carry an EO/IR sensor or a LiDAR. It has an endurance of 170 min.
Earlier this year, Ukraine similarly procured Tekever AR-5 and AR-3 drones from Portugal. Tekever drones are technically advanced and very capable.
The Tekever AR5 is a SATCOM-equipped MALE ISR drone with a 50 kg payload designed for optical & SAR imaging. The drone has 20 hours of endurance. It can take off and land on unprepared surfaces.
The Tekever AR3 is a 25 kg drone with a 4 kg payload that can be launched using a catapult or configured to take off vertically using a detachable quadcopter layout propulsion unit. The AR3 is the smallest UAS in the market to feature a high-performance, dual-side-looking SAR. The drone has a flight speed of 75-100 kph, flight endurance of up to 16 hrs, and a communication range of 100 km.
Due to its small size, the AR3 is challenging to track using AD radars.
On August 28, Ukraine attempted a daring strike on Cape Tarkhankut, Crimea, that pivoted around the advanced capabilities of the Tekever drone. Ukraine used the two variants of the Tekever in a well-coordinated attempt, which failed due to Russian alertness.
A Tekever AR5 launched from south of the Odesa region flew over the sea, headed towards Cape Tarkhankut. Russian radars picked up the large drone and reportedly shot it down southwest of Razdolnoye.
A Tekever AR3 that reportedly took off from the Mykolaiv region had somewhat better luck. It flew right through Russian-controlled airspace of the Kherson region undetected to the Karkinitsky Bay and Crimea before being shot down by a Pantsir AD missile system 23 km north of Evpatoria.
The fact that the AR3 could fly through the Russian-controlled Kherson region is significant.
Lately, Ukraine has also experimented with stealthy drones capable of swarm attacks. Ukrainian forces are believed to operate an Australian drone built using cardboard. Since Radar waves go right through cardboard, the drone cannot be detected using radar. The drone, however, is capable of swarm operations.
On the night of August 30, a swarm of around 20 UAVs struck Pskov International Airport in Russia around 0:30 AM Moscow time, reportedly damaging/destroying 4 Il-76 airlifters.
Pskov is located about 700 km from the Ukrainian border, about 200 km from the Belarusian border, about 60 km from the Latvian border, and about 30 km from the Estonian border.
It’s believed that the attack was executed by Ukrainian agents operating near the airfield. It’s suspected that they used Australian cardboard drones.
Not all drone operations being undertaken by Ukraine are convincing from a military point of view. For example, its UJ-22 drone strikes deep into Russian territory are essentially political statements.
There are bombastic claims, such as the one made in December 2022, that Ukraine had successfully tested a drone with a 1000 km range capable of carrying a weapon load of 75 kg. The drone was to be operationally deployed by the end of last year but has not been heard of since then.
The above notwithstanding, Ukraine has notched up many successes with drones during the course of the SMO. Ukraine’s use of diminutive, stealthy, and silent long-endurance ISR drones has a lot of military potential. It’s a potential that Russia lacks the technology to counter or match. But then, the ability of smart drones to change the game is also highly questionable.
- Vijainder K Thakur is a retired IAF Jaguar pilot. He is also an author, software architect, entrepreneur, and military analyst. VIEWS PERSONAL
- Follow the author @vkthakur