Eastern Europe

Kamikaze Drones Now Rule The Battlefield

From Syria To Ukraine Kamikaze Drones Come Into Their Own
Granat-4 drone at exhibition
Image by
Льошко Нікіфоров

From the Russian perspective, by 2018 the Syrian Civil War was all but over, which is why the sophisticated drone attack on the Khmeimim Air Base in 2018 came as such a surprise. Syria’s Mediterranean province of Latakia, where the base is located was considered a stronghold of the Assad regime. 

Russian defense officials were initially shocked by the audacity of the attack which involved 13 armed drones and was halted by Russian electronic warfare measures. However, Russian media accused a U.S. Poseidon P-8 reconnaissance plane of coordinating the attack, a statement which seemed to dismiss the ingenuity of Syrian rebels.

Such drone attacks on the base have continued. A Russian military spokesperson told the media that as of September 2019 the Russian military has shot down 58 drones and 27 rockets aimed at Khmeimim. Syrian drone technology has improved with drones deployed that have a range of 155 miles and capable of reaching altitudes of 13,123 feet.

Rebel drones pose one of most series threats to Russian forces fighting to support Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. Russian authorities saw Khan Sheikhoun and Latamna in the northwestern province of Idlib as the likely base of the drone cockpits used in the attacks against the airbase.

This may explain some of the impetus behind the main Syrian army offensive last summer which recaptured these regions with Russian support.

A recent two day conference in London organized by SMi looked at many of the emerging issues in drone warfare.

“Our Russian adversaries understand the importance of robotics and autonomous systems,” said Lieutenant Colonel Richard Craig who works on Robotics and Autonomous Systems with the British Army. Craig was one of many noted speakers on the topics of UAVs at the UAV Technology conference in London on Tuesday, October 1st.

The British Army deployed man-deployed drones with its forces in Afghanistan in 2011, and the United States and other NATO countries have pursued a similar policy. The Red Army is taking tactical drones a step further and has announced plans to issue armed drones to soldiers in the field.

Indeed the Russian military has shown much innovation in its use of smaller drones such as quadcopter vehicles.

“Helicopter drones have been used for terrorist strikes and intelligence gathering in [Ukraine],” said Major General Borys Kremenetskyi during a briefing at UAV Technology conference in London. He noted one incident in which a large stockpile of munitions detonated far from the front line with Russian drone attack the likely culprit. Nano-sized and other small drones can be very difficult to detect and even harder to intercept.

During an excellent briefing on Ukranian counter UAS measures, Kremenetskyi described some of these innovations such as kamikazee attacks; the conference was well attended by military officers and officials from a number of NATO member states.

The term kamikaze focuses attention on the critical tactical element — that the drones in such attacks are not meant to survive the assault.

Twice in military history have two conventional armies deployed armed drones against each other, and both incidents have occurred in Europe. The current example is in the Ukraine where Russia has used a variety of armed drones (many built with foreign parts) against Ukraine. Ukraine has responded with locally produced drones and may soon deploy Turkish drones it acquired this year. Kremenetskyi said the training for those systems is ongoing.

However, the first drone kamikaze drone attack in a conventional conflict likely occurred during the so-called April War of 2016 between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

In that conflict an Israel Aeronautic Industry’s Harops (“Harpy”) kamikaze drone used by Azerbaijan attacked a transport full Armenian soldiers killing seven. 

In a few days of fighting, Azerbaijan managed to recapture part of its internationally recognized territory that was under the control of Armenia. Armenian force also deployed drones using Russian technology against Azerbaijan. Israeli capabilities may have impressed Russia’s drone operators as some of the downed drones in Ukraine show that Russia has used (commercially available) Israeli parts, Kremenetskyi said.  More recently Israel has deployed kamikazee drones to knock out Syrian Air defenses.

Kamikaze attacks are not daily phenomena in the Ukraine conflict, but drones are. Kremenetskyi said that on average two to three drones are launched against Ukraine each day mostly for reconnaissance. Far less than a swarm, but, still serious cause for concern for Ukrainian forces.

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