Small uncrewed Ukrainian plane likely used in attack deep inside Russia - experts


  • World
  • Thursday, 04 Apr 2024

FILE PHOTO: A view of a damaged building following a Ukrainian drone attack, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Yelabuga, Tatarstan, Russia in this handout picture released April 2, 2024. Ostorozhno Novosti/Handout via REUTERS

KYIV (Reuters) - A Ukrainian uncrewed aerial vehicle (UAV) that hit Russia's Tatarstan region this week was likely a modified Aeroprakt A-22 Ukrainian-made light aircraft, several experts said, offering insight into one of Kyiv's deepest drone strikes to date.

Russia said the attack hit an industrial site's dorms and hurt 13 people. A Kyiv intelligence source said it struck a site used to produce Russian long-range drones that have been used in the thousands to pound Ukraine during the 25-month war.

Russian media reported that two drones struck the dormitory at Russia's Alabuga Special Economic Zone, which is located more than 1,200 km from Ukraine's northeastern city of Kharkiv near the Russian border. It was unclear what the second drone was.

Video shared online showed a winged aerial vehicle flying towards the site as onlookers watched before it exploded on impact.

Reuters was able to confirm the location of the video from the nearby buildings, roof, windows, road layout and greenery that match the satellite and file image, but it was not able to confirm the date of the video.

Janes, the defence intelligence company, told Reuters it had tentatively confirmed from the video that the aircraft used was the A-22, a family of two-seat ultra-light aircraft developed and manufactured by Aeroprakt in Ukraine.

Aeroprakt's founder and chief designer Yuriy Yakovlyev told Reuters the silhouette of the drone looked similar to the A-22, but that his company was not involved in UAV production as it did not have any knowledge of producing UAV navigation or control systems.

He said it was possible someone had adapted one of the nearly 1,600 planes produced by Aeroprakt, which include 100 sold inside Russia before the war, to serve as an uncrewed vehicle.

A senior government official told Reuters earlier this year that Ukraine hoped to produce thousands of long-range drones in 2024, part of a priority defence programme in its war with Russia.

Unable to rapidly produce long-range missiles and with limited access to those made by Western allies, Kyiv has focused on developing long-range uncrewed vehicles to strike back at Russia, which has used a sprawling arsenal of missiles and drones to bomb Ukraine.

Ukraine has stepped up its attacks deep into internationally recognised Russian territory in recent months, focusing mainly on oil installations in an attempt to reduce Russia's ability to raise revenues to fund its war.

SIMPLE TECHNOLOGY

A Ukrainian long-range developer who asked not to be named said adapting a light aircraft to function as an uncrewed aerial vehicle would not be difficult for a UAV company from a technological point of view.

"There's nothing special in terms of engineering about this. You can have a piloted plane with auto-pilot and a navigation system from a smaller UAV and connect them up. It's not a very hard task," the drone developer said.

He also noted that Ukraine's airspace was closed because of the war, which has made used light aircraft easier to buy.

Samuel Bendett, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, told Reuters that the A-22 was the likely aircraft used for the attack and that such planes could have relatively long ranges if properly refitted.

"There are also questions why such a significant target as the Alabuga site did not have good air defence protection, considering attacks that already took place on many targets inside Russia," Bendett said.

That, he said, raised the possibility that Russia had seen the site as out of Ukraine's range. It was unclear why air traffic controllers in Russia had missed an aircraft flying through its airspace, he added.

"It appears that using a civilian light aircraft converted to a UAV enabled this plane to fly relatively undisturbed in the Russian airspace - it may have looked like many other light civilian aircraft flying across Russia."

Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, noted it was still unclear where the aircraft had been launched and that it was even possible it had come from somewhere inside Russia.

He said one reason to use an aircraft instead of a UAV was that it might be able to carry a larger amount of ammunition or explosives.

"I think Ukraine will keep looking for cheap solutions. That could mean existing aircraft that they can find, it could be UAVs they have used before that they can adapt for this kind of mission. And also of course developing bespoke options as well," he said.

He added that Russia would likely try to better defend facilities, forcing Ukraine to adapt.

(Additional reporting by Sergiy Karazy; editing by Mike Collett-White and Sharon Singleton)

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