Ukraine May Now Be Using WWI-Style Air Combat Tactics Against Drones

Ukraine appears to have used the propeller-driven Soviet-era trainer in an effort to down Russian aerial drones.

byHoward Altman, Thomas Newdick|
Yak52 engages orlan drone
Via X


Drones, as we have reported frequently, are a ubiquitous presence in the skies of Ukraine, and in many respects they are changing how modern war is fought. This is only going to accelerate going forward as even lower-end drones gain greater autonomy.

However, Ukraine appears to have potentially taken one decidedly old-school approach to this very modern threat. Recently published videos appear to show Ukraine using a propeller-driven Soviet-era Yak-52 training aircraft to attack a Russian Orlan-10 drone, reportedly in the Odesa region of southwest Ukraine.

One video, taken by the Yak-52 pilot, was posted on Telegram by Ukrainian military blogger Serhiy “Flash” Beskrestnov. The plane is seen circling around the Russian Orlan surveillance drone, which has deployed its orange-colored landing parachute. The video is embedded below:

What’s unclear is whether the Orlan drone was engaged by the Yak-52 while in normal flight, after which its parachute deployed, or if it was only attacked once it had deployed its chute. Either way, it would seem to be the first instance of this kind of encounter during the war so far.

Another video seems to show the same maneuver seen from the ground, emphasizing the tight circle flown by the Yak-52 around the drone as it floats down.

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Not immediately obvious from either of the videos is the purported kinetic part of the engagement.

According to Ukrainian journalist Andriy Tsaplienko, the drone was shot down by a machine gun fired from the (presumably rear) cockpit of the Yak.

Whether it’s from the same engagement or not is unclear, but the next video shows a Yak-52 flying at low level, behind a treeline, accompanied by what sounds like gunfire.

The crew of the propeller plane that is said to have downed the drone were reportedly from the Civil Air Patrol of Ukraine, a civilian organization that consists mainly of amateur aviators and private aircraft owners.

According to the group’s Facebook page, which also shows another video (seen below) of a low-level Yak-52, the Civil Air Patrol now includes a Tactical Aviation Group set up to “destroy enemy UAVs.”

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Whether the Yak in question was successful in destroying or damaging the Russian drone, or even if it only managed to cut short its mission, the incident is reminiscent of some of the very first aerial duels fought over the trenches in World War I.

Before aircraft were fitted with purpose-designed gun mountings (let alone fixed forward-firing guns), aircrew would resort to using standard infantry weapons, fired by hand, to try and bring down enemy aircraft.

While we don’t know what type of gun was used in the encounter over Odesa, provided the accounts of the weapon being fired from the rear cockpit are true, it’s possible that the aircraft was fitted with some type of gun mounting or supporting gear that would at least make such gunnery a little easier.

An early French machine gun mounting on a parasol monoplane during World War I. Public Domain

At least two photos that have been circulating purport to show a ‘militarized’ Yak-52 in Ukrainian markings, with a blue and yellow roundel (with an added outer blue ring compared with the standard Ukrainian Air Force roundel) as well as a digital-type camouflage scheme. However, these appear to depict a civilian-owned warbird that received this scheme before the full-scale Russian invasion, with other sources suggesting that the aircraft involved in the drone kill was the Yak-52 registered UR-ODS, which features distinctive blue and yellow wing stripes.

As it is, aiming a weapon by hand, using iron sights, with the slipstream of the aircraft to contend with is far from easy. This presupposes that the pilot is even able to maneuver into a position from which an effective shot could be taken, bearing in mind the range of the weapon involved, closing speed, and the geometry of the engagement.

Nevertheless, with aerial drones proliferating, and with ground-based air defense systems as well as combat aircraft in short supply, arming light planes like the Yak-52 might make some sense. There would certainly appear to be no shortage of suitable light aircraft at flying clubs and civilian organizations around the country, although the training requirements to form effective units of aerial sharpshooters would be significant.

It should be noted that, in Soviet times, an armed version of the same aircraft was developed, with a view to using it for counterinsurgency missions in Afghanistan. This was the Yak-52B, tested in 1982 with an armament of UPK-23 23mm gun pods and UB-32 pods for 57mm unguided rockets on pylons under a strengthened wing. An optical sight was also fitted, but the aircraft was never produced in quantity. Nonetheless, it indicates that a more bespoke armed modification of the Yak-52 is certainly possible.

A preserved Yak-52B. Commons

Using a light, slow-flying, agile platform — be it a fixed-wing aircraft or a helicopter — to counter drones is something that many air forces have also explored, in a variety of contexts, but mainly for homeland defense.

There have also been a handful of other examples from postwar conflicts in which basic infantry weapons have been deployed successfully during air-to-air engagements.

Perhaps most famously, during the Vietnam War, a CIA-operated Air America UH-1 helicopter downed a North Vietnamese An-2 biplane in January 1968. On that occasion, the An-2 was successfully engaged by a flight mechanic aboard the UH-1 armed with an AK-47 assault rifle.

The Ukrainian Air Force, too, while heavily engaged in a tough battle against Shahed series of one-way attack drones has also targeted the Orlan in the past, as seen in the video below, from the cockpit of one of its MiG-29 Fulcrum fighters.

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The major limitations to using a Yak-52 or similar against Russian drones would seem to include an inability to effectively counter such threats at night, but there are still more than enough day-flying Russian drones to deal with.

At the same time, the inherent vulnerability of the Yak-52, and platforms like it mean that such drone-hunting missions cannot realistically be flown in any airspace that is remotely contested. This will dramatically reduce the number of scenarios in which this kind of mission can be practically flown. Add to that the time that a propeller-driven aircraft might require to get into a position to intercept a potentially fleeting target, and the options for interception become smaller still.

That’s before addressing the issue of how the pilot should actually find the target, and how any available targeting data should be relayed to the cockpit. On the other hand, in some areas of Ukraine, Russian drone activity may be sufficiently intense to justify the use of regular patrols, with armed light aircraft flying ‘free hunt’ missions against targets of opportunity.

A Ukrainian-operated Yak-52 in Zhytomyr prior to the war with Russia. Oleg V. Belyakov/AirTeamImages/Wikimedia Commons

Clearly, many questions remain about the incident at the center of this story, exactly how it played out, and with what type of weapon.

It does, however, potentially point again to Ukraine's willingness to use all means at their disposal to further their defensive efforts. The incident also underscores the continued battle fought by both sides against the proliferation of different kinds of aerial drones.

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