A new Ukrainian jet-powered drone called the UJ-25 Skyline appears to have entered service. The UJ-25 represents another evolution in Ukraine's steadily growing arsenal of uncrewed capabilities. If it is configured as a kamikaze drone, it would be able to reach targets over hundreds of miles quicker than its prop-powered cousins and it would be harder for Russian forces to defend against. It also has attributes that would make it an ideal decoy to confuse, distract and stimulate enemy air defenses, and help glean information about their capabilities.
Pictures and video of the UJ-25, which had reportedly crashed into a roof of a house in the Russian-occupied Ukrainian city of Berdyansk in the eastern Zaporozhye region, emerged today. What the drone's exact destination may have been is unknown and any warhead it might have been carrying did not detonate. Russian ships and other forces in Berdyansk, which is a valuable port city on the Sea of Azov, have certainly been targeted by Ukrainian forces in the past.
The UJ-25 first emerged publicly in the background of a CNN interview with Mykhailo Fedorov about drone warfare in Ukraine in September. Fedorov is currently Ukraine's Deputy Prime Minister for Innovation, Education, Science and Technology and Minister for Digital Transformation.
No details about the UJ-25 specifically were provided in the interview. However, the design is clearly derived from the Ukrjet UJ-23 Topaz, which was originally developed as a target drone for use in training exercises and test and evaluation activities. Ukrjet also says that Topaz can be configured for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions.
How the UJ-25 differs from the UJ-23, if at all functionally, is unknown. They both have the same general planform with missile-like main bodies, forward-swept main wings, v-shaped tail configurations, and top-mounted air intakes at the rear of the fuselage that feeds into a single small turbojet jet engine. The UJ-25 seen in the background of the September CNN interview with Fedorov has additional canards at the front end of its fuselage. However, the nose on the one that hit the house in Berdyansk was severely damaged, making it still unclear whether or not it also had this feature.
The UJ-23 and UJ-25 also look to be around the same general size. Both drones appear to have some stealthy design characteristics, including their prominent chine lines around their fuselages and the recessed intake on top. The tail ends of Topaz and Skyline are very reminiscent of that of the Kratos XQ-58 Valkyrie, a general configuration that traces back to the dawn of stealth. The UJ-23 and UJ-25 designs otherwise have a broad resemblance to the XQ-58, overall.
The UJ-23's manufacturer, Ukrjet, does not appear to list the UJ-25 on its public website. The company does provide details about the UJ-23, which it says has a cruising speed of around 370 miles per hour (600 kilometers per hour), a maximum speed of nearly 500 miles per hour (800 kilometers per hour), and the ability to stay in the air for up to 90 minutes at a time. The UJ-23 is designed to be manually controlled via a line-of-sight link, but can also be set to follow a preprogrammed route. Topaz is runway independent, though its exact launch mechanism is not immediately clear (a catapult or rocket-assisted launcher arrangement would seem most likely).
As a target drone, Topaz is designed to be recoverable (via parachute) and reusable, and Ukrjet says the maximum combat radius for a single sortie is around 248.5 miles (400 kilometers). If the UJ-25's capabilities and performance are otherwise similar, this could potentially give it a one-way range of up to nearly 500 miles (800 kilometers). This would put all occupied areas of Ukraine and much of Russia proper, including the capital Moscow, within its reach.
Regardless, adapting a target drone into a weaponized uncrewed aerial system of some kind is hardly unheard of, with U.S. manufacturer Kratos being one of the best examples of firms doing just this today. The UJ-23 has a readily reconfigurable payload bay, which Ukrjet says has a total weight capacity of around 22 pounds (10 kilograms), would could easily be loaded with an explosive warhead. Creating a kamikaze drone from a runway-independent design like Topaz would open up many more potential launch zones, increasing the system's operational flexibility.
Ukraine has already been launching long-range kamikaze drone strikes at targets inside Russian-occupied Ukraine and deep into Russia itself for months now. Ukrjet's piston engine-powered UJ-22 is among the types that have been actively used in the past, including in strikes aimed at targets in and around Moscow.
The UJ-25's overall design would make it a choice platform to turn into a decoy, especially with the addition of some type of small active electronic warfare payload. Even as a basic, passive decoy, the Skyline could confuse enemy forces, draw their attention away from real incoming drones or or cruise missile strikes, or even just bait them into expending valuable anti-air munitions. Decoys helping improve the likelihood that actual weapons reach their intended targets, especially in more densely protected areas, is an established practice for Ukraine.
Ukraine has already received at least a small number of U.S.-made air-launched missile-like ADM-160 Miniature Air Launched Decoys (MALD) that it has been using for these purposes. In particular, they have been used to help Storm Shadow and SCALP-EG cruise missiles reach their targets.
Just stimulating an opponent's air defenses provides opportunities to glean information about their capabilities and their tactics, techniques, and procedures. It can also expose the locations of key air defense systems for real-time actionable intelligence collection. If paired with weapons like the High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missile, such a combo can prove deadly.
Ukraine is not alone in its use of decoys. For instance, earlier this year, Russian forces were observed employing balloons with tethered radar reflectors to stimulate Ukraine's air defenses and such up valuable interceptors.
Whatever the available configuration or configurations for the UJ-25 might be, the biggest thing is its jet propulsion. Skyline's jet engine gives it the ability to get to potential target areas faster. Its speed, combined with its relatively small size and stealthy characteristics, would make it more challenging for enemy forces to spot, track, and attempt to intercept them. When used in a kamikaze configuration, reduced available reaction time would also limit opportunities to take other kinds of action, including seeking cover or otherwise relocating assets.
The War Zone highlighted exactly these issues in reverse back in November when talking about Iran's new jet-powered Shahed-238 kamikaze drone. The Shahed-238 is derived from the piston engine Shahed-136, a design that Russia has been very actively employing against targets in Ukraine and is now producing examples of domestically. If Russia were to begin fielding Shahed-238s, it would present many of the same kinds of additional challenges for Ukrainian defenders.
Long-range drone strikes have long offered the Ukrainians one of their most effective ways for not just targeting critical assets in Russian-occupied areas of their country, but for driving the war home into Russia itself. UJ-25 is hardly the only new long-range kamikaze drone to be developed and fielded by Ukraine, even just recently. Ukrainian forces also just began receiving examples of the AQ 400 Scythe. This aircraft is on the opposite end of the spectrum, being slow and crude, but extremely cheap and efficient to mass-produce. Ukrainian authorities have recently said they want to acquire more than 11,000 medium and long-range attack drones in the coming year.
At the same time, Ukraine's long-range drone strikes deep into Russia have largely subsided in recent months as the country's armed forces have focused their attention more on making battlefield gains as part of their ongoing counter-offensive. This has put precious longer-range munitions to work closer to home. This has begun to change as any progress on the ground continues to be relatively slow and Russia has began its Winter attacks on Ukraine's power infrastructure, which Kyiv may look to respond to directly to deter them in the future.
It will be interesting to see where the Skylines show up next and to learn exactly how they are being employed against Russia's nearly two year-long all out invasion of Ukraine.
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