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Loitering Munitions (AKA Suicide Drones): A Game-Changer in Ukraine?

Loitering Munitions (known as Suicide Drones) Continue to Make Waves in Ukraine – At first glance, the grueling battle currently evolving in Ukraine’s Donbas region and elsewhere in the country evokes memories of the First and Second World Wars. The battle there is a fight for territorial control involving massed formations of troops fighting in trench fortifications and urban environments. Some troops from the DNR and LNR statelets propped up by Russia in Ukraine have even been spotted fighting with Mosin rifles, which were first used in the Russo-Japanese War.

However, this does not mean that new weapons of war have not found their place in the fighting. Ukraine’s armed forces have made use of loitering munitions, otherwise known as suicide drones, to spectacular effect in their defense against Russia’s invasion.

June 22 Novoshakhtinsk Suicide Drone Attack

On June 22, videos emerged which appear to depict an attack by a Ukrainian suicide drone on a Russian oil refinery in Novoshakhtinsk, in Russia’s southern Rostov Oblast.

In the video of the actual strike, a drone floats through the air towards its target before making a steep dive towards the plant’s infrastructure. A large explosion erupts, and voices off-camera can be heard cursing profusely as a fire rages.

While the refinery in question is only about five miles from Russia’s internationally recognized border with Ukraine, the drone would have needed to fly over a significant stretch of Russian-occupied territory to reach its target and avoid Russian air defenses in Donbas.

Russian state media immediately began to try and assign blame for the attack, insinuating that updated American commercial satellite imagery of the area aided in the strike.

At the time of writing, it is unclear what drone model, in particular, was used in the attack, although the governor of Rostov Oblast raised the possibility that it was Ukrainian-made.

How Has Ukraine Been Using Loitering Munitions?

In early May, the Pentagon decided to provide loitering munitions to the Ukrainian Armed Forces. This included 700 Switchblade and 121 Phoenix Ghost drones. The Switchblade is a small, tube-launched system which comes in two variants – the Switchblade 300 and Switchblade 600. The 300 version is smaller and is designed to strike living targets and light vehicles, while the Switchblade 600 is designed to destroy armored targets.

While the Switchblade has been in U.S. service since at least 2011, the Phoenix Ghost appears to have been tailored for the sort of fighting currently occurring in Ukraine’s Donbas. The Pentagon has suggested that the Phoenix Ghost was rapidly developed to suit Ukraine’s mission requirements, and the first 20 users of the system officially finished their U.S.-run training on the system in early May.

While other countries such as the United Kingdom have stated their intention to provide Ukraine with loitering munitions, additional models operated by the Ukrainian armed forces remain unconfirmed or unknown.

Suicide Drones: A Game-Changer in Ukraine?

It is too early to make full conclusions on the effectiveness of loitering munitions in Ukraine, as the details of their use have been hazy to outside observers. While footage continues to emerge which shows Ukrainian suicide drones in use, it will likely take more time for expert opinions to be formed on whether Ukrainian loitering munitions have played a decisive role in the war, or if they were merely a helpful tool in Ukrainian hands in cooperation with other tools. Russia has also made use of loitering munitions of its own such as the KUB-BLA over the course of its invasion.

Whether or not loitering munitions are decisive in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, they will likely see significant use in the future of this conflict. Both parties as well as international military observers will undoubtedly take away valuable lessons on the utility of loitering munitions from their use today in Ukraine.

Wesley Culp is a Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. He regularly writes on Russian and Eurasian leadership and national security topics and has been published in The Hill as well as in the Diplomatic Courier. He can be found on Twitter @WesleyJCulp.

Written By

Wesley Culp is a Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. He regularly writes on Russian and Eurasian leadership and national security topics and has been published in The Hill and the Diplomatic Courier. He can be found on Twitter @WesleyJCulp.