The Ukrainian Navy’s Killer Drone Has Arrived

The drone that helped to win the Nagorno-Karabakh war for Azerbaijan last year has joined the Ukrainian navy. It’s destined to spend its time patrolling the Black Sea.

The Turkish TB-2 drone is the only major new warplane the Ukrainian fleet has acquired in 30 years. The arrival of the first naval TB-2s heralds a possible sea change in Ukrainian defense plans.

The radio-controlled, single-prop TB-2 can fly as high as 27,000 feet for 24 hours while carrying 300 pounds of small, precision munitions. A single 1,400-pound TB-2 costs around $1 million.

Turkish firm Baykar developed the TB-2 as an alternative to U.S.- and Chinese-made medium drones. The Turkish navy is considering embarking an air wing on its new assault ship Anadolu made up mostly of TB-2s or derivative unmanned aerial vehicles, which would make it the world’s first drone aircraft carrier.

But it’s in the Caucasus that the drone has had its greatest impact so far. Azeri forces deployed TB-2s in a brief but bloody war over long-disputed territory in the so-called “Nagorno-Karabakh Republic”—an Armenian-majority region that many countries recognize as belonging to Azerbaijan.

Azeri TB-2s and loitering munitions pulverized Armenian forces, forcing Armenia to give up much of the NKR.

Kiev clearly hopes the TB-2 proves equally decisive in the next war between Ukraine and Russia. Ukraine’s aging air arm, entirely made up of ex-Soviet aircraft, suffered heavy losses during the Russian invasion of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

Kiev lost more planes and helicopters battling Russian-backed insurgents in Ukraine’s Donbass region. Losses were so steep that the Ukrainians essentially stopped flying over Donbass.

Today the Ukrainian air force and navy together possess around 125 warplanes, many of them dating to the 1980s. Kiev cannot afford to buy new manned planes, but it can afford to buy drones. The Ukrainian air force in 2019 ordered the first of potentially dozens of TB-2s.

The drones arriving in Ukraine this summer are forming a squadron within the navy. A TB-2 with the code 403 Red appeared in a photo at Mykolaiv air base on Ukraine’s Black Sea coast on June 30, an ancient Be-12 sea plane rusting behind it.

A week later on July 8, that or another naval TB-2—401 Red and 402 Red also have appeared in photos—flew over the Black Sea around Odessa, where NATO and Ukrainian forces had assembled for the Sea Breeze war game that ended two days later. A TB-2 repeated the feat the following day.

The navy reportedly has received four TB-2s, so far.

It’s not surprising that the navy would get TB-2s just a year or so after the air force did. Ukraine is hardening its coastline against Russian invasion. Rather than deploying large numbers of big warships, which probably wouldn’t last long in a pitched battle with the Russian Black Sea fleet, Kiev is fielding new, locally-made anti-ship missiles.

But the Neptune missiles require cueing. Radars and patrol boats can help to spot targets for the 175-mile Neptunes, but drones are faster, more flexible and could fire their own missiles to complement the land-based munitions.

Navy TB-2s are the aerial component of an evolving coastal-defense system that could deter further Russian aggression in the Black Sea. Kiev hopes its TB-2s can do to Russian warships what Azeri TB-2s did to Armenian tanks.

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