Footage from the skies above Ukraine may show an instance of air-to-air combat solely involving uncrewed aircraft – in this case, small drones.
The video, posted on Ukrainian website Censor.net, reportedly shows a drone being attacked by a second, quadcopter-style drone resembling a commercially available Da-Jiang Innovations (DJI) Mavic Air model.
The attacking drone makes several unsuccessful approaches before ramming the other. It then falls from view, appearing to losing a chunk of propeller during the encounter. The defending craft remains hovering with its camera panning downward when the video ends.
The footage, which was not verified by FlightGlobal, was posted on Censor.net but came from social-messaging platform Telegram user Sergei Prytula, according to available information. Prytula claims it shows a Mavic drone operated by Ukrainian DShV paratroopers engaging and destroying a Russian quadcopter.
The outcome of the engagement is not clear from the footage, nor is it apparent which craft belongs to which side in the conflict.
Heather Penney, a former US Air Force Lockheed Martin F-16 pilot who now studies the defence implications of uncrewed aircraft in warfare at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, says tactics shown in the video do not appear to be practical for regular battlefield use.
“Ramming another drone is a loss for the winner too,” she notes, adding that more-effective countermeasures exist.
However, the contact may prove to be the start of something more significant. A Ukrainian start-up claims to be developing a so-called “drone interceptor”, called Fowler, designed to take down small drones like the Mavic.
Small, remotely-piloted aircraft (RPA) like those shown in video have become an integral part of the eight-month war, which began when Russia invaded Ukraine in late February. In August, the head of US Special Operations Command said unmanned aircraft are shaking up the traditional military order.
The US Army has deployed swarms of small “lethal munition-capable” quadcopters against troops during training exercises at Fort Irwin, California.
“Drones will be as important in the first battle of the next war as artillery is today,” Fort Irwin commander Brigadier General Curt Taylor tweeted in September. He also posted footage of the swarm.
While larger, armed RPAs like Turkish manufacturer Baykar Technologies’ Bayraktar TB2 and Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Industries’ Shahed-136 have been heavily employed by Ukraine and Russia respectively during their war, so have smaller commercial drones like the Mavic.
The sides have used those types for observation, including for artillery spotting and troop-movement reconnaissance. However, video available on social media also shows Ukrainian troops modifying commercial types to carry explosives to be dropped on enemy ground troops.
At sunrise this morning a swarm of 40 quadcopters all equipped with cameras, MILES, and lethal munition capable launched in advance of 11th ACR’s attack on a prepared defense by 1AD. Drones will be as important in the first battle of the next war as artillery is today. pic.twitter.com/zPQ2I8SoqN— NTC Lead 6 (@NTCLead6) September 11, 2022
With the proliferation of military and commercial RPAs, numerous counter-UAS solutions have emerged in recent years, most being ground-based systems.
The USA sent a new L3Harris-made truck-mounted rocket system called the Vampire to Ukraine in August.
An anti-drone “gun” called the Electronic Drone Mitigation-4 System from Lithuania’s NT Service has also been reported on the battlefield. The rifle-like device uses electromagnetic radiation to disrupt a drone’s flight and guidance systems.