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A Russian helicopter fought an unusual Ukrainian drone armed with heat-seeking missiles, war watchers say

Jake Epstein   

A Russian helicopter fought an unusual Ukrainian drone armed with heat-seeking missiles, war watchers say
  • Ukraine used exploding drone boats to attack Russian naval assets on Monday.
  • Footage and imagery from the attack appeared to show drones with an unusual adaptation.

Ukraine appears to be arming its naval drones with heat-seeking missiles to defend against air attacks, an unusual innovation for Kyiv's growing arsenal of explosive unmanned systems.

The newly upgraded drone boats were first observed in combat on Monday during a Ukrainian attack that resulted in a hit on a Russian military speedboat in the occupied Crimean peninsula.

Russia's defense ministry published footage of a helicopter defending against one of the Ukrainian drones during the attack. In the video, the unmanned boat can be seen evading heavy fire slightly above the waterline while carrying a white object that appears to resemble a missile. Eventually, there's an explosion. Moscow claims it destroyed five drones during the engagement.

After the attack, various open-source intelligence accounts, Russian military bloggers, and other observers began to point out on social media that the Ukrainian drone boats had been outfitted with R-73 short-range air-to-air missiles.

Photos circulating online showed at least one drone with two launching rails and a single missile, and additional video footage that surfaced online appeared to capture the engagement from inside a Russian helicopter.

Business Insider was unable to immediately verify the footage and images published from the attack, nor could it independently confirm that the Ukrainian drones were outfitted with R-73 missiles.

Called the AA-11 Archer by NATO, the Soviet-era R-73 missile is equipped with infrared homing technology and is typically carried by fighter aircraft like the MiG-29 or Su-35. Equipping the Ukrainian drones with this kind of air-combat munition could help them defend against aerial attacks, war watchers suspect.

"Russian milbloggers claimed that Ukrainian forces had adapted the drones to defend against Russian strikes, particularly from helicopters, with heat-seeking missiles and to break through containment booms," conflict analysts at the Institute for the Study of War think tank wrote in a Monday assessment.

They added that "several prominent Russian milbloggers expressed anger that the Russian military bureaucracy is causing Russian forces to respond too slowly to Ukrainian maritime drone adaptations."

One milblogger affiliated with Russia's Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper noted on Telegram that the Ukrainian missile innovation for sea drones came in response to increased Russian helicopter patrols around the Black Sea.

"From the air they are easier to detect and quickly destroy," they said of the drones, noting that the Ukrainian uncrewed vessel managed to fire a missile at the helicopter but missed. They said these drones might be used to provide cover for other uncrewed vessels.

A general in the Security Service of Ukraine, or SBU, previously told BI that Russia constantly has planes and combat helicopters patrolling around the western Black Sea as it struggles to protect its naval assets from Kyiv's fleet of exploding drone boats.

Ukraine doesn't have a proper navy, so it has relied heavily on exploding drone boats and long-range cruise missiles to wreak havoc on Russia's Black Sea Fleet. Kyiv has damaged and destroyed scores of warships and forced Moscow to relocate many of its vulnerable capabilities away from the fleet headquarters in Crimea to positions across the Black Sea to the Russian port city of Novorossiysk.

Monday's naval drone attack marked the latest strike on a Russian naval asset. A Ukrainian Magura V5 drone boat struck a smaller, $3 million Russian combat vessel.

Kyiv's military intelligence agency said after the attack that "since the fear of Ukrainian attacks forces the occupiers to hide large ships of the Black Sea Fleet away from the peninsula, combat work continues against the high-speed maneuverable military vessels of the Russians."


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