ua en ru

From Bayraktars to F-16s: Allied weapons that can change course of war in Ukraine

From Bayraktars to F-16s: Allied weapons that can change course of war in Ukraine American HIMARS became one of the first "game changers" in the war in Ukraine (Photo: Getty Images)

Ukraine's ability to effectively combat Russia depends on Western support. Thanks to it, the Defense Forces continue to defeat the enemy in the air, on land, and at sea, and victory is unattainable without increasing supplies and expanding the range of equipment.

More details on the iconic armaments capable of changing the war's course in the material by RBC-Ukraine.

In preparing the article, materials by CNN, Forbes, The Telegraph, The Economist, Business Insider, the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), and statements by Ukrainian and Western officials were used.

Over the past two years, Ukraine has received many samples of Western armaments; however, long-range missiles, such as the German Taurus or the American ATACMS (with a range of 300 km), are needed for a new qualitative breakthrough. Additionally, as it became known in December, the Ukrainian side requested the advanced THAAD missile defense system from the United States.

According to Reuters, Ukraine has also requested additional Abrams tanks, 155mm artillery, F-16 and F-18 aircraft from US stocks. Considering the issues the $60 billion aid package faces, the delivery of the aforementioned expensive armaments is in question. However, European F-16s are expected this summer.

Drone warfare: How UAVs became precision weapons in Ukraine

The Turkish-made Bayraktar combat drone has become a real star in the information space during the first months of full-scale war. This drone can stay in the air for over 12 hours and deliver strikes with anti-tank missiles or guided bombs. In the spring of 2022, videos of attacks on Russian convoys became popular on social media, with songs dedicated to these "combat birds."

"Viral videos of the TB2 are a perfect example of modern warfare in the TikTok era," wrote a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), Aaron Stein, in an article for the Atlantic Council.

According to him, these drones were not "magic weapons" but "good enough." He highlighted the drawbacks of insufficient speed and vulnerability to air defense systems. According to OSINT investigators, in the first year, Russians managed to destroy about 20 units. However, the number of losses is outweighed by the relatively low cost of UAVs.

Russians spread fakes about the alleged inability of Bayraktars and complained to Turkey, but deliveries continued. They are credited with numerous successful sorties, particularly highlighting their role in liberating Snake Island and sinking the cruiser Moskva. It is believed that they distracted air defense systems while Neptune missiles rushed towards the flagship of the Black Sea Fleet.

After two years, they are almost not used on the front line. At least not as a combat unit. According to military intelligence, Russia significantly strengthened its air defense systems. Currently, Bayraktars mainly fly for reconnaissance, but this does not mean that Ukraine will abandon them. On the contrary, a factory will be launched by 2025, producing 120 units annually.

A revolution in the use of drones as weapons has taken place on the battlefield in Ukraine. According to the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI), the Ukrainian Armed Forces spent about 10,000 drones per month last year, with the need on the front line potentially twenty times higher.

The current war marks the beginning of the mass use of drone mortars. Typically, these quadcopters drop mines of 60 or 80 caliber with precision up to a meter. There was information about delivering 800 Revolver 860 drone mortars (Taiwan), capable of carrying up to eight mines for up to 20 km. Currently, the Armed Forces also use more powerful UAVs of Ukrainian production. Their quantity is unknown, but in conditions of ammunition shortage, they can become an alternative to artillery.

Another type is barraging ammunition. These are small drones with an integrated warhead. Russia also uses them, for example, Lancets that strike Ukrainian howitzers and armored vehicles. The United States has a much more effective Switchblade 600, which carries a Javelin missile warhead, but they have not yet been serially supplied to Ukraine. Their cost maybe $220,000, equivalent to the price of a Russian BMP, and the means of destruction should not cost the same as its target. Polish Warmate is effectively used. In the video below, such a drone destroys an enemy Tor anti-aircraft missile system.

One of the most notable innovations is the Ukrainian unmanned kamikaze boats. The need for them arose because Ukraine lacked long-range missiles in sufficient quantities to neutralize the Russian Black Sea Fleet. They have all the advantages and disadvantages of aerial drones, but the chances of success are quite high in the widespread use of stealthy boats. As a result, they were used to attack the Crimean Bridge and destroy several ships, which forced Russia to withdraw its fleet from Crimea partially. Last week, Magura V5 boats sank the large landing ship Tsesar Kunikov.

Airborne kamikaze drones are actively used. The first attacks on Russian oil bases, presumably, were carried out by Chinese Mugin-5 PRO drones, modified for explosive strikes. For a long time, heavy kamikaze drones were the only feasible way to strike at distances of over 300 km. As in the case of strikes by the TU-141 Strizh jet drones on rear airfields. But it is already known that Ukraine has started serial production of such drones as Bober (Beaver - ed.) (an analog of the Iranian Shaheed), which were used, among other things, to attack Moscow, Rubak, and others. As Vice Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov stated, in 2024, the military will receive thousands of UAVs with a range of 300 to 1000 km.

However, given the shortage of ammunition on the front lines, FPV drones have come to the forefront. These are small quadcopters used to drop ammunition or to strike with an integrated warhead. Today, their role is so significant that the production of a million units has been announced for 2024. Of course, drones of all types affect the situation on the battlefield but are unable to provide a decisive advantage.

"This won't happen. Why? Because, just like in the Middle Ages, until a person goes on foot to plant a flag in an enemy trench, you can launch a million drones over it, and no one will take it back," said the head of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense, Kyrylo Budanov, in a recent interview with Liberation.

Technological advantage. How Western artillery ensured success in 2022

Since the beginning of the invasion, Ukraine has been subjected to massive artillery bombardment. The Russian arsenal included self-propelled howitzers MSTA, towed M1955, Grad rocket launchers, heavy flamethrower systems, and Pion artillery systems. Ukraine could respond with similar Soviet weapons, but the stocks were significantly smaller than those of the Russian Federation. The situation in Donbas was becoming increasingly grim, so Western allies were asked for more support.

In the spring, artillery, and missile launchers began to arrive by the dozens, including M777 from the United States, Australia, and Canada, Polish self-propelled howitzers Krab, and French CAESAR. In the summer, partners dared to deliver long-range rocket systems HIMARS, M270, and MARSII, which hit targets up to 80 km away with GPS-guided missiles. After they started destroying enemy depots, supply lines, command centers, and bridges across the Dnieper, Ukrainian troops immediately felt the pressure on them weaken.

"Now we have HIMARS, we destroy their material and technical support," said the commander on the Kherson front with the call sign Psyh (ed.- Psycho) in a conversation with The Telegraph in the summer of 2022.

Western analysts' forecasts have proven accurate. The deliveries allowed Ukraine to overcome the gap in Russian firepower and reclaim territories in the Kharkiv region, with plans to liberate Kherson, the only regional center captured since 2022, by November.

Yagil Henkin, a professor at the Command and Staff College of the Israeli Defense Forces, wrote for the publishing office of the US Marine Corps University that HIMARS had two critical effects. Firstly, the strikes forced Russians to move their depots further into the rear, reducing firepower near the front. Secondly, strikes on bridges undermined Russia's logistical capabilities.

However, by the second year of the war, it became clear that Russia had created physical and robust electronic countermeasures (ECM). As stated by the commander of the 59th Motorized Brigade, Pavlo Petrychenko, in an interview with CNN, Western weapons became particularly vulnerable to electronic warfare systems. In particular, HIMARS and Excalibur 155 projectiles are GPS-guided, and ECM usage reduced their accuracy, nullifying smart weapons' advantages. The Russians actively employ jamming and GPS signal spoofing, and even Pentagon spokesperson Charlie Dietz acknowledged that Russian ECM assets rendered HIMARS ineffective. However, he noted that the US is taking steps to mitigate vulnerabilities.

Most likely, HIMARS has not yet had its final say in the Russian-Ukrainian war. In January, it became known that partners had provided Ukraine with lightweight Ground-Launched Small Diameter Bomb (GLSDB), which have not yet been used in conflicts. And videos of strikes on enemy Grads, drone launchers, and the like regularly appear online. Recently, two HIMARS rockets likely struck a training ground near Volnovakha, resulting in the possible deaths of over 60 occupants.

Self-propelled artillery, such as the French Caesar, which has a technological advantage, also helps change the war's course. In particular, it has become an indispensable element in counter-battery warfare (against enemy artillery). With the advent of Caesar, the game's rules have changed—they can shoot up to 40 km, and when using Excalibur, up to 50 km. In one of the first battles, they destroyed two tanks, BMPs, and APCs with crews. Russian Lancets target Caesar, but the rapid rate of fire and mobility allow the howitzers to evade strikes.

No less attractive are the Swedish Archer Self-Propelled Howitzers (SPH), called sniper rifles in the artillery world. Retired US Army Colonel Michael Jacobson says they are much more advanced, faster, accurate, and deadlier than their Russian counterparts. They excel in counter-battery fire and feature modular components that can be removed and replaced with new ones in case of damage, keeping the weapon in action. However, there are still challenges. Western artillery requires 155mm caliber ammunition, and delays in deliveries from the US and other partners put Ukraine in a precarious position. Despite Russia's technological backwardness, it advances due to its numerical superiority in barrels.

Armored fist.Why Western tanks haven't become "game changer" yet

In early 2023, the then Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, stated that he needed 300 tanks to repel the Russians by February 24, 2022. He was generally referring to tanks, but there were particular hopes for Western models. Armored vehicles can change the situation, especially when an offensive is planned. Without them, any attempt to significantly advance is doomed to failure and colossal losses.

During the Counteroffensive-2023, Ukraine received Challenger 2, Leopard 1, and Leopard 2 tanks and combat support vehicles such as Bradley and Marder. American Abrams tanks arrived in the country only in the fall. Overall, Western armored vehicles have not significantly impacted the war's course. At least not yet.

Western media write about the problems faced by the Ukrainian Army. For example, tanks arrived without armor, and spare parts were scarce for repairs. As Forbes notes, at least 12 Leopard 2 tanks were lost, and some were damaged.

The summer counteroffensive began with 78 Leopard 2 tanks in various versions. The Leopard 2A4 equipped the 33rd mechanized brigade in the south, the Strv 122 - the 21st mechanized brigade in the east, and the 47th mechanized brigade, deployed to the east, had Leopard 2A6 tanks. All three brigades lost tanks to Russian mines, drones, artillery, and missiles. As a result, at least seven Leopard 2A4, four Leopard 2A6, and one Strv 122 were completely written off due to fire.

But in reality, potentially dozens of tanks were put out of action for another reason. As stated by the head of the German Ministry of Defense crisis center, Christian Freyding, before sending them for repairs to Lithuania and Poland, Ukrainian military personnel remove parts to repair less damaged Leopards on-site. This means that not only damages need to be fixed at the repair centers, but also missing elements need to be replaced. As a result, repairs may take several months.

Gian Gentile, the associate director of RAND's Arroyo Center and a retired US Army officer with experience on the Abrams, believes that Ukraine is holding most of the received tanks for a future offensive in 2024, reported Business Insider.

"These Western type of tanks are qualitatively superior to even the best Russian tanks that the Russians are using in Ukraine. They have better armor protection using advanced active protection systems, fire control, optics, and munitions," he said.

The Abrams tank has proven experience hitting Soviet-made tanks during the Persian Gulf War. However, it has not yet changed the game rules in Ukraine. According to Gentile, it is difficult to imagine a future offensive if the Defense Forces do not neutralize the enemy. This should likely be the focus until the end of winter. And dealing with the primary headache associated with Abrams. The problem is that they perform poorly in mud, the filters require constant cleaning, and the engine may need replacement if not done within 12 hours. The nearest service center is also located in Poland.

Long-range missiles in action. Results of 2023 and plans for the future

In 2023, the Ukrainian arsenal of long-range weapons was supplemented with missiles. First, British Storm Shadow and French SCALP analogs with a range of over 250 km are mentioned. The cruise missile has a warhead weight of 450 kg, an inertial navigation system, GPS, infrared guidance, and automatic target recognition based on uploaded imagery. It is launched from a modified Su-24 aircraft.

The Ukrainian forces successfully used SCALP/Storm Shadow missiles to strike the Chonhar Bridge, the headquarters of the 58th Army in occupied Berdyansk, warehouses in Crimea, and the Kherson region. In September, several missiles hit the ship repair plant in Sevastopol, resulting in the destruction of the VDK Minsk and serious damage to the submarine Rostov-on-Don. As part of Operation Crab Trap, they hit the Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters. In November, the shipbuilding plant in Kerch and the small missile ship Askold were hit, and in December, the VDK Novocherkassk in the port of Feodosia.

SCALP/Storm Shadow missiles are expected to continue to play an essential role in 2024. Ukraine's task is to pinpoint attacks on rear targets to undermine the enemy's combat capability by destroying warehouses, command nodes, and personnel. The most crucial target remains the Crimean Bridge, vital for the Russian occupation of Crimea and parts of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions.

Support columns and sections are the most resilient. Even a powerful bomb cannot destroy the bridge, and short spans allow quick replacement of damaged sections. Therefore, Ukraine needs missiles capable of carrying heavy warheads and in sufficient quantity to smash the Russian air defense systems and prevent bridge repairs. All of this can be provided by German Taurus air-to-ground missiles, according to the article by the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA).

Taurus has a warhead for bunker and infrastructure destruction, low-observability technologies to bypass air defense systems, and other electronic countermeasures. Most importantly, Germany has around 600 such missiles with a range exceeding 500 km. However, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has not yet seen how they can change the situation in the war.

"Ukraine needs Taurus, and it needs it now. Storm Shadow is not an equivalent replacement. In this regard, the proposal is unacceptable," said Bundestag Defense Committee Chair Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann.

BILD reported that the ruling coalition was preparing a secret package including ammunition, vehicles, and weapon systems. The project does not explicitly mention Taurus missiles. Still, there is a reference to long-range weapons needed for Ukraine to "conduct targeted attacks on strategically important targets far behind the Russian aggressor's lines." This week, the Bundestag voted to recommend the transfer of missiles. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba assured that Taurus missiles would not be used for strikes on Russian territory but only for destroying military infrastructure near the front lines.

In October, the Defense Forces first used ATACMS missiles. Rockets with a range of up to 150 km targeted military airfields in Berdiansk and Luhansk. According to OSINT analysts, the strike destroyed nine helicopters, while another 15 were damaged. After this, the adversary relocated aviation to Taganrog. In the same month, Russian propaganda circulated conflicting reports about intercepting ATACMS and, on the night of October 30, about strikes on air defense systems at Cape Tarkhankut in Crimea. ASTRA reported hits on the S-300, but the Ukrainian or Russian side did not officially confirm the strike.

In the President's Office, it was anticipated that the transfer of ATACMS would address two key objectives: signaling to all that Russia is destined to lose and accelerating the destruction of resources. The Armed Forces of Ukraine are confident that strikes with such missiles will disrupt Russian logistics.

"The appearance of such powerful weapons as ATACMS is a significant game-changer, similar to what HIMARS used to be, then became Patriot," said the spokesperson for the Eastern Military Group, Illia Yevlash.

ATACMS will not be the "wunderwaffe" that ensures Ukraine's victory like any other weapon. However, it can help expel the occupiers. Much depends on the quantity of missiles transferred. According to Western media reports, American partners have moved about two dozen missiles. And it has been reported that Washington is working on supplying a longer-range variant - up to 300 km.

Closing the sky. What has been achieved with Western air defense systems, and why F-16s are still necessary

At the time of the full-scale invasion, Ukraine's air defense comprised 29 divisions of the S-300P, ten divisions of the Buk, and some S-125 and Tor SAM systems. The actions of the anti-aircraft defense units in the first months were exemplary, as they managed to preserve the complexes and influence the battle for Kyiv. In the spring of 2022, most of the cruise missiles, dozens of helicopters, and aircraft were successfully intercepted.

Western partners focused on transferring Soviet-made air defense systems - S-300, Osa, S-125, and others. However, the mass attacks on energy infrastructure pushed towards the transfer of Western-made systems. By the end of 2022, Ukraine received modern systems like NASAMS and IRIS-T, as well as "veterans" in the form of the MIM-23 Hawk.

In the first five months of operation, NASAMS has successfully intercepted over 100 missiles and drones. Military personnel state that the system is easy to operate and highly effective. The SAM system has proven itself well and has received high praise, and it was recently announced that Norway will transfer several more launchers and control centers.

Ukraine became the world's first operator of the German IRIS-T SLM system. The complex became operational in October 2022 and has shown excellent results over the past six months. Air Force Commander Mykola Oleshchuk stated that out of 51 missiles fired, all reached their targets. In January 2024, Ukraine received three IRIS-T SLM systems and two IRIS-T SLS launchers. The transfer of five more IRIS-T SLM systems and 22 IRIS-T SLS launchers is planned.

However, the peak of air defense reinforcement came with the deployment of the American Patriot system. This immediately affected the effectiveness of Russian attacks. Since the arrival of the Patriot in Ukraine, "analog non-interceptor" ballistic missiles like Kinzhal and Iskande" have been successfully intercepted over Kyiv and beyond.

Likely, in May, a complex of this type participated in the destruction of Russian Su-34s, Su-35s, and a pair of Mi-8 helicopters over the Bryansk region. And in December, on the southern front, three Su-34s were destroyed in one day, also attributed to the Patriot. The version involving its missiles is considered a possible scenario for striking a long-range reconnaissance aircraft A-50, which became the most expensive loss after the cruiser Moskva. By the end of December, it was known about the delivery of three Patriot batteries and several additional launchers. In February 2024, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy hinted at the arrival of two more systems capable of "shooting down everything."

Even more, air defense can be strengthened by Western fighter aircraft. Ukraine relies on F-16 fighters, complementing the air defense, "chasing" Russian missiles and being involved in frontline operations. As the experience of 2023 showed, an advance on fortified positions without air superiority dooms it to failure. At the same time, massive air strikes on the Armed Forces in Avdiivka obliterated positions and forced Ukrainian troops to retreat from the city.

Western partners assure that the issue of F-16s is progressing according to schedule. Only the Netherlands is ready to transfer at least 24 units in 2024. The first Western fighter aircraft is expected to appear in the Ukrainian sky by summer. According to CNN, the first group of pilots will have completed their training by that time. Air Force spokesman Yurii Ihnat notes that the aircraft will not be the latest modifications, and there won't be 40, 60, or 120 of them immediately.

"No one knows for sure when Ukraine will get the F-16. We expect it as soon as possible," he added.

The F-16s won't bring instant victory but can change the war's course. They can provide the most needed air superiority over the occupied territories. If currently 8-9 aircraft fly there, dropping guided bombs and missiles, with the presence of F-16s, the enemy will no longer be able to do so freely, as they do now.

"So air superiority is the key to success on the ground," Ihnat said.

The main thing is that Western aircraft will enhance their capabilities to combat enemy aircraft, UAVs, and missiles.

"The F-16 aircraft has potent capabilities for aviation support of ground operations, fire support. This is a significant improvement in the firepower of the Armed Forces as a whole," emphasized the Ukrainian pilot with the call sign Munfish, who is undergoing training on the F-16.