Ultralight Drone Hunting Planes Now In Use In Ukraine

Ukraine’s unorthodox efforts to develop ways of defeating Russian drones have taken an apparent new turn, with the appearance of a ultralight airplane carrying a sharpshooter to intercept uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs). At this stage, few details about the concept are available, but it’s notable that the aircraft in question — the Ukrainian-made Aeroprakt A-22 — is a type that we have seen in the past adapted as a one-way attack drone, something you can read more about here.

A video that appeared recently shows the drone-hunting ultralight carrying out a training mission, intercepting a small fixed-wing UAV used as a target. The sharpshooter is seated on the left, side-by-side with the pilot, and takes aim as the aircraft is maneuvered into position with the drone off its left wing. At the end of the video, the drone has been successfully hit and tumbles toward the ground as the pilot and gunner congratulate each other with a high-five.

The gunner opens fire on the target drone, indicated by the blue crosshairs. via X

According to the Ukrainian journalist Roman Bochkala, the idea behind putting a sharpshooter in an ultralight came from the Defense Intelligence of Ukraine (GUR); we have reached out to the organization for confirmation. On his Telegram channel, Bochkala also reports that the aircraft in question was purchased using $35,000 donated by volunteers.

In the meantime, the video shows the sharpshooter armed with what appears to be a Malyuk rifle, a bullpup design that is being heavily used by Ukrainian special operations forces units, among others, and which you can read more about here.

In his analysis, Bochkala points to a spate of recent Russian ballistic missile strikes on different airfields of Ukraine — Myrhorod, Poltava, Kryvyi Rih, Yuzhny, and Pavlograd — observing that Russian reconnaissance drones were searching for targets “for five to six hours,” providing coordinates for these attacks. You can read more about these attacks, and how they rely on drones for targeting, here.

Bochkala says that man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) are too few in number, Patriot air defense systems are too expensive, and risk being attacked in return, while other ground-based air defense systems are not necessarily effective against drones. “Non-standard actions are required,” Bochkala says, with the drone-hunting ultralight being the latest example of this.

In particular, the armed ultralight is claimed to offer an effective solution against Russian Orlan, ZALA, and SuperCam types of drones.

A Russian Orlan-10 surveillance drone is prepared for flight. Russian Ministry of Defense

The Aeroprakt A-22, also known by its nickname, the Foxbat, is classified as an ultralight and is produced as a factory-built aircraft and as a kit.

As we reported in the past, the small and relatively inexpensive A-22 is a good candidate for adaptation as a one-way attack drone, also known as a kamikaze drone.

A converted A-22 was used to attack the Shahed drone production facility in Yelabuga, in Russia’s southeastern Tatarstan region, in April.

There may have been at least one more such attack using an A-22 Foxbat since, according to the Kyiv Independent.

Now, the same design would also appear to have found utility as a drone hunter, as we see in the new video. As well as being fairly easy and inexpensive to source, the A-22 is stable and simple to fly; with its high wing and ample cockpit glazing, it also provides a very good field of view and field of fire for the gunner.

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A British-operated Aeroprakt A-22 ultralight. Arpingstone/Wikimedia Commons

With maximum fuel, the standard A-22 has a range of around 680 miles, providing a very useful endurance for drone patrols.

As we have seen with Ukraine’s expanding use of the Yak-52 to tackle drones, especially in the south of the country, operating a light, slow-flying, agile platform against UAVs does make some sense, especially in areas where Russian drones proliferate most deep behind the front lines.

A Yak-52 carrying a sharpshooter seen here from the perspective of a Russian drone that it was attempting to intercept. via X

As one element within Ukraine’s multilayered air defenses, a light aircraft provided with hand-operated rifle-caliber armament can help fill some of the gaps during daytime operations in lower-threat areas, but ones in which Russian drones are likely to appear. Conceivably, gun-armed A-22s could be deployed at high-value Ukrainian airfields and then used to patrol the local area against the surveillance drones that are used to surveil these facilities for ballistic missile strikes.

However, the same caveats that we raised in the case of the Yak-52 would seem to apply to the A-22 as well. These include the high skill level required to down a moving aerial threat from another aircraft (albeit a slow-moving threat that may well not be able to maneuver away or take evasive action). This is something that has required extensive training since World War I. Fast forward to 2024 and using guns to fire on drones from other aircraft is something that both sides in the Ukraine war are now focusing on, and which we have also seen play out over the Red Sea.

Then there is the problem of detecting drones in a timely manner, prioritizing them, and alerting the aircraft’s crew before vectoring them onto it. This may be less of an issue if the A-22s are, as suggested, used for standing airfield patrols.

A detail view of the gun used from the A-22 — a locally made Mayluk. The rifle is fitted with a suppressor. via X

Surprisingly, perhaps, we are yet to see any kind of gun mounting and sighting system in any of these drone-hunting aircraft, although such devices may well be in development, provided they don’t exist already. On helicopters, for example, a strap that goes across the door to support and stabilize the gun is frequently used by aerial snipers. In the meantime, the Mayluk rifle would appear to be in use as an anti-drone weapon aboard the A-22, although other options are clearly available too. The Mayluk is around 28 inches overall and weighs just under 8.4 pounds empty, making it generally well-suited to the confines of the cockpit.

It is unknown how far Ukraine’s drone-hunting ultralight program may have advanced, let alone how many aircraft are available and — just as importantly — how many gunners have been trained to shoot down UAVs. However, given the level of Russian drone activity inside Ukraine involving a variety of types, and their proliferation well beyond the front lines, this is very likely not the last we will see of this kind of ad-hoc UAV interceptor. Especially now, with Ukrainian airfields under increased risk from drone-directed Russian missile attacks, the appearance of an armed ultralight that could help defend these and other high-value targets is very timely.

Contact the author: thomas@thewarzone.com