Our Best Look At Ukraine’s Shadowy ‘Alibaba Drone’ Used For Long-Range Strikes

The mysterious ‘available on Alibaba’ twin-tail-boom drone that gained notoriety last summer for being tied to long-range ‘kamikaze’ strikes likely carried out by Ukrainian forces has emerged once again. This time, however, instead of blurry faraway video footage and pictures of it high over territory Ukraine does not control, including over Russia itself, or crashed parts of it, new photos show the drone fully intact on the ground. This offers us the best look yet at the shadowy improvised long-range precision strike weapon.

The images are said to have been taken today in the Saki district of Russian-occupied Crimea. This is the same area that has come under attack multiple times, including the now famous attack on Saki Airbase that did extensive damage.

In the new photos, the drone appears completely intact with there being no damage that is immediately visible. It is seen on the ground in a grassy field and seems to be only a few feet from the person who took the photo, which helps in gauging the overall size of the aircraft. 

Interestingly, markings that look to be black ribbons can be seen on the drone’s wings and tail. While it is unclear exactly what these markings represent, if anything noteworthy at all, it’s worth highlighting that some of the other drones that have been spotted and are believed to be of this type were decorated with various symbols in similar general placements. These have included black Xs and green chevrons, both with meanings just as inconclusive.

Where exactly the drone reportedly downed in Crimea came from is also unconfirmed. But reports coming out of Russian state media would suggest that it may have been tied to a recent mass long-range drone attack in the area launched by Ukrainian forces. Russia’s Defense Ministry on Wednesday claimed its military “prevented a massive drone attack on Crimea” by shooting down six drones using air defenses and disabling another four using electronic warfare capabilities

The Russian ministry’s statement said that there were no casualties accrued during the air defense operation, but offered no information beyond that. No photos of the downed drones were provided and any details about where exactly the aircraft fell weren’t included either. However, Twitter users have since shared images of what are reportedly remnants of some of the drones that were used in this attempted attack. 

As can be learned in The War Zone’s past reporting on this shadowy drone, it is largely believed to be a commercial type that can be bought on the Chinese marketplace website Alibaba. Potential names have even been nailed down since it made its first documented appearance last June, with Mugin-5 being the most commonly used today. 

Mugin-5 drones, which are made of carbon fiber, vary in price depending on the model and listing. On Alibaba, the standard fixed-wing Mugin-5 costs just under $9,500, but past prices have ranged anywhere between $5,000 and $10,000. It seems like they have increased markedly since their first documented weaponized use. This may be due to demand from the conflict, inflation and production hurdles, or a mix of both.

The site puts the drone’s wingspan at about 16 feet, its fuselage length at just over 11 feet, and its maximum payload capacity at about 55 pounds. The listing says Mugin-5 can fly for up to seven hours at 74 miles per hour. There is also a hybrid vertical takeoff and landing variant of the same design, but that is not the same configuration that we have seen being used against Russian targets over the last eight months.

The Mugin-5 standard fixed-wing listing on Alibaba. Credit: Alibaba screenshot

We must stress that these drones do not come armed. They are commercial types made by Mugin UAV and then sold on Alibaba and elsewhere, and the company itself claims on its website that its aircraft are designed to be “capable of carrying a wide variety of payload configurations.” This means that Ukrainian technicians are likely behind their weaponization, arming the drones with unspecified explosives that turn the aircraft into improvised long-range ‘suicide drones’ or slow cruise missiles of sorts.

It’s worth highlighting that Russian forces may be adapting drones of entirely different variants from Mugin UAV, or another similar off-the-shelf type, for war, as well. In June of last year and then again in mid-February of this year, pictures emerged on social media showing what could be an orange Mugin-4 drone judging by its outward appearance. The Mugin UAV website shows that the company has four Mugin-4 models, two of which look similar to the one in the photos with Russian forces, but it isn’t obvious which exactly it could be if any. This configuration is not uncommon, especially from China.

In the June images, the drone appeared alongside a group of operators near Belgorod. In February, the aircraft was photographed carrying a munition after reportedly being downed by Ukrainian forces in Kherson. 

Regardless of the model, the employment of such drones is increasing at a rapid pace. The platforms are affordable, accessible, expendable, and in large part effective when they can slip by air defenses and reach their intended target. This was made especially clear last year when Ukraine used its Alibaba drones to strike a Russian oil refinery and Russia’s Black Sea Fleet headquarters in Sevastopol, Crimea. 

The ‘Alibaba’ drone was also the only long-range propeller-driven ‘kamikaze’ drone that was known to be used for such long-range attacks by Ukrainian forces — that is until recently. This week alone there have been two specific cases where drones different from this type were found downed many miles from Ukrainian-controlled territory. 

On Monday, multiple improvised ‘kamikaze’ drones were reported to have come down in Russia’s Belgorod region. While the exact type is unknown, photos would suggest that the drone may be a model that exists in Ukrainian service but has been weaponized with explosive charges. You can read our full report on those drones here.

Then, on Tuesday, a Ukrainian-made UJ-22 drone was downed just 70 miles outside of Moscow in what could be the closest a Ukrainian drone has gotten to Russia’s capital. It’s unclear if the UJ-22 was armed, but weapon options for the drone do exist. 

Explosions rocked this same area just tonight, although it isn’t clear if indeed it was a successful drone attack.

The ‘Alibaba drones,’ though, were likely responsible for a significant number of the mysterious strikes and secondary explosions that have occurred in the last year. These being at strategic targets like fuel depots and ammunition dumps either in Russia or deep inside Russian-controlled territory, as well as strikes on Crimea. This makes these very humble off-the-shelf drones historic flying machines for Ukraine, ones that have become a key vengeance weapon and a sign of the country’s defiance and ingenuity under fire.

Contact the author: Emma@thewarzone.com