Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year and the fighting that has followed has yielded some remarkable imagery, sometimes providing suggestions of what future warfare might look like, and other times seemingly recalling warfare of a previous age. Among the latest such video shows a close-quarters ‘duel’ fought between a pair of quadcopter unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, the kind that are familiar to hobbyists, but which now are also firmly established as critical capabilities in conflicts in all corners of the globe.
The video, just 16 seconds long, began to circulate widely on social media today and has attracted much commentary in the process. The footage is reportedly shot from a Ukrainian Armed Forces UAV, a Chinese-made DJI Mavic-type quadcopter, but no details about the type are discernable from the video. The camera aboard the drone observes what is purported to be a Russian (or pro-Russian) controlled quadcopter, which approaches the Ukrainian UAV before seemingly moving to collide with it, losing at least one rotor blade as a result, then plummeting toward the ground. The footage is undated but is said to have been taken in the skies over the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine.
Descriptions of the incident as a “WW1-style duel” or of the Ukrainian drone “destroy[ing] a Russian opponent” are a little fanciful, to say the least. It isn't clear to what degree the operator of either the Russian or the Ukrainian UAV was attempting to take down their opponent, but, based on the video, it’s not inconceivable that it was the Russian drone that was trying to knock down the Ukrainian Mavic. Moreover, there is evidence that on the pro-Russian side, at least, they are developing tactics to use drones against each other in aerial combat. A simple collision between two drones, even when operating in close vicinity, leading to an accidental kill seems somewhat unlikely, especially based on the video evidence we do have, but it's not an impossibility.
Regardless, in aerial combat, when it comes to destroying the opposition, ‘they all count.’ Whether deliberate or otherwise on the part of the Ukrainian drone operator, and whether either of these drones was actually armed with any kind of weapons or not, the result was one (apparently Russian) drone destroyed.
As far as we are aware, there are no previous examples of footage depicting the destruction of one drone by another while in the air in a real combat environment. Indeed, this may even be the first incident of this kind that has happened, ever.
But it was only a matter of time before air-to-air combat entered this new domain. After all, there are various developments around the world right now that seek to give drones the means of destroying other drones, whether kinetically or otherwise; in some cases, these weapons are already blurring the definitions between UAVs and missiles. In Ukraine, too, there have been efforts to create a so-called ‘interceptor UAV,’ known as the Fowler, with the mission of destroying enemy drones in mid-air using either a deployable net or via simple collision.
In the Ukrainian conflict, both sides have made extensive use of smaller drones, both for surveillance and attack missions. In many cases, these UAVs are ‘jury-rigged’ with existing grenades or mortar rounds and used against enemy troops and vehicles, often achieving astonishing accuracy and devastating results.
Not only are drones of all sizes increasingly being deployed over the battlefield by belligerents — as well as off the battlefield by nefarious actors — the expanded weapons options available to these UAVs make them much more dangerous adversaries. As such, a premium is finally being placed on lower-tier drone defense.
As we highlighted in 2017, as this threat continues to evolve, one of the best defenses against small drones will become small drones. And this video from Ukraine shows just how quickly that prediction is becoming a reality.
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