A process of high-speed evolution is taking place in Ukraine as new, agile technology erases older lumbering hardware. This is getting played out quite literally as increasing numbers of Russia’s biggest artillery pieces are getting taken out by Ukraine’s smallest attack drones. The numbers may be too small at present to draw strong conclusions, but it looks as though the status of artillery – and how it can survive counter-battery fire – may now come into question.
Ukrainian forces are making increasing use of FPV kamikazes, racing quadcopters modified into loitering munitions by the addition of an RPG warhead and an outsize battery. They look ungainly, but FPVs are highly effective at hitting targets several miles away; a skilled operator can put one right through a specific window. And volunteer groups are making them in vast numbers – one group, Escadrone, say their production alone is up to 1,500 a month and rising and there are several others equally active. Each drone costs less than $400 to produce, just add your own RPG warhead.
Heavy metal: The 240mm Tyulpan
The 2S4 Tyulpan (“Tulip”) is the largest mortar in use in the world today and is something of an antique as the last one was entered service in 1988. Like other self-propelled artillery It is mounted on a tracked, armored vehicle. The weapon is a 240mm mortar which lobs a 500-pound bomb to a range of 11 miles.
The Tyulpan takes 25 minutes to prepare for firing, and fires just one round per minute. It resembles a medieval siege gun, being brought in to batter down fixed defenses over a prolonged period. It looks fearsome, and the bombs cause massive damage, being notably effective in the siege of the Azovstal steel plant in May 2022. The ammunition is handled manually, and the weapon requires a crew of nine.
This lumbering weapon is not suitable for modern mobile warfare and ‘shoot and scoot’ fire missions, and its short range means it has to be dangerously close to the front line. However, possibly due to a shortage of other types of artillery, increasing numbers of Tyulpans are being brought forward – and destroyed.
A total of nine Tyulpan were recorded as destroyed up to this June according to the meticulous open-source analysis by Oryx. Since then the loss rate has accelerated dramatically to 20 destroyed – more than a 10-fold increase in the losses-per-month. There are believed to be 60 in service.
FPV drones record the entire mission up to the point of impact, and since many Ukrainian operators put videos on social media, we get to see the strikes in detail. These include 5 videos where the target can be clearly identified as a 2S4 Tyuplan and seen to be destroyed, most recently on August 22nd near Bakhmut. Videos of the other FPV-Tyulpan strikes can be seen here, here, here and here. The Tyulpan’s stored ammunition tends to catch fire, leaving no doubt about the kill.
Not all FPV videos are posted online, so it is possible that some of the other Tyulpan kills were also by FPVs. But on this data, at least 25% of the losses were to FPVs, including all three of the most recent. This may indicate that FPV operators are getting better at locating and hitting these slow-moving mortars.
TOS-1A: Heavy Flamethrower
The proportion of FPV losses is even higher with another Russian heavy multiple rocket launcher, the TOS-1A Soltspek (“Sunshine”) . This is another assault weapon mounted on a tracked T-72 tank chassis, and is officially described as a ‘heavy flamethrower’ because it is specifically designed to launch 24 thermobaric rockets filled with liquid explosive which produce a distinctive powerful blast wave.
The TOS-1 is designed to destroy fortified positions. The thermobaric blast wave travels around corners and through firing slits, making it far more effective against troops in trenches and bunkers than standard explosive. Again this is a short range weapon with a range of 6 miles.
Russia is believed to have around 45 TOS-1A in service. Only two were recorded as lost in 2022, but since then the tally has risen to eight, four destroyed and four damaged and captured.
There is also video of a recent FPV kill of a TOS-1A on Sept 6th which has not yet made it to Oryx.
On this basis, something like 80% of TOS-1A destroyed are being lost to small kamikaze drones. This is understandable given the TOS-1A’s short range and highly visible firing signature, and its status as a high-value target means it will attract every FPV nearby – and there are now a lot of them about.
At least some TOS-1A are equipped with ‘cope cages’, improvised mesh armor intended to stop small drones, including some of the ones destroyed. This does not appear to work.
Playing Havoc With Howitzers
At the start of the war, most of Russia’s artillery consisted of 152mm and 122mm weapons, both of which come in towed and self-propelled versions. These included about 100 towed and 800 self-propelled 122mm howitzers, and 300 towed and 1,300 self-propelled howitzers for a total of something over 2,500.
Russia also had several thousand artillery pieces in reserve, including over 4,000 122mm guns, but it is not known what condition these were stored in. Shortage of trained crews and, more recently, ammunition may have limited Russia’s ability to put these stored weapons into action.
Oryx notes Russian losses of roughly 170 towed guns and 370 self-propelled to date.
In general, artillery is positioned well back from the front line . 122mm weapons have a range of around 10 miles and the 152mm can hit targets from 17 miles away or more. At these distances they should be safe from attacks by short-ranged FPV drones – in theory.
In practice, we are starting to see FPV strikes on long-range artillery. The overall numbers are still low, but the trend looks significant
Oryx’s figures for artillery show 30 towed guns and 40 self-propelled guns damaged and destroyed between August 1st and Sept 6th.
A trawl of social media shows 9 FPV attack videos hitting towed guns , which would account for 30% of the losses of this type. Another 11 showed FPV strikes on self-propelled artillery, or 28% of losses.
These numbers are the minimum. There may be other videos out there which have not been correctly labelled or where the target was not identified. And there may be FPV drone operators who have other demands than posting on social media, or who choose not to advertise their successes.
Long-Range Strikes in Ukraine
How is this possible? In many cases the strikes can be precisely geo-located, and the artillery turns out to have been badly positioned.
Or as one Twitter poster commented about a hit on an MSTA-B 152mm howitzer: “Bonus points if you can tell me why a Msta-S was 5 km [3 miles] from the front.”
In other cases though geolocation shows that the artillery pieces were some distance from the front.
A strike on a Russian 2S3 self-propelled gun on August 15th is described as “Destroyed with an FPV drone at a distance of at least 14km [8.6 miles] from the LBS [front line]”
A compilation of strikes on towed howitzers by an OSINT analyst using the handle ‘Special Kherson Cat’ is accompanied by the comment: “It’s an interesting example as usually such targets as towed howitzers are located beyond the reach of standard FPV drones.”
Others remarked on the same thing: “Lion Research Co yesterday noted the unusually long range of recent Ukr FPV strikes. This was confirmed today by the destruction of a potent 2S19 152.4mm SPG by a FPV. This illustrates a sizeable range of at least 15km [9.3 miles] .”
It is hard then to avoid the conclusion that Ukraine’s FPV drones are hitting targets well beyond the supposed 6-mile maximum. One FPV video from the Birds of Magyar strike group is claimed to show a hit from 10.6 miles away; this is impossible to verify, but seems plausible.
There are two limits to FPV drone range: how far radio control reaches, and how far the drone can travel on one battery charge. The main limitation has been the former, but the use of other drones to act as flying radio relays can greatly extend range. That means the only limit is the battery.
According to the specs of DJI’s FPV drone it can fly a maximum of 10.4 miles (16.8km) in windless conditions, and that is flying clean without the added burden of an RPG warhead. A favorable wind might increase this somewhat, and a headwind could reduce it considerably. In Ukraine the prevailing winds are Northerly or Northeasterly, which may help when the opponent is to the south.
Commercial racing FPVs are designed very much for speed and agility rather than range. Ukrainian engineers will have their own priorities, and some recent designs may be optimized for long-range strike. Exactly how much performance they can squeeze out of a small drone is anyone’s guess.
In the longer run though, several Ukrainian groups are already working on aircraft-type FPVs which will be able to strike much further. Again, how far is a matter of speculation, but some hobbyists claim ranges of 100km from the Skywalker X8. This is a drone which is popular among developers and previously been outfitted as a loitering munition by ISIS.
Clearly, there will be an increasing threat to artillery from FPV drones. Artillery is big, obvious and difficult to hide, especially when it fires, and can be pinpointed in seconds by counter-battery radar. Drones are small and easy to conceal, and give no clue where they were launched from. The duel of drones and artillery has started. So far it looks like going the way of the drones…and the number of drones is still increasing while the artillery is gradually eroded.
David Hambling, Expert Biography of Author:
David Hambling is a London-based journalist, author and consultant specializing in defense technology with over 20 years’ experience. He writes for Aviation Week, Forbes, The Economist, New Scientist, Popular Mechanics, WIRED and others. His books include “Weapons Grade: How Modern Warfare Gave Birth to Our High-tech World” (2005) and “Swarm Troopers: How small drones will conquer the world” (2015). He has been closely watching the continued evolution of small military drones