Ukraine Reviving Retro Drones to Spy on Rebels

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In the skies above Eastern Ukraine, 30-year-old drones are being flown in a desperate attempt to gain an upper hand on Russia-backed rebel forces. These unmanned vehicles, which look more like small aircraft, shoot old-style film instead of digital images and land with a small parachute, are leftovers from the Soviet Union when it ruled Ukraine until the early 1990s.

In fact, rebels say they shot down one of these Ukrainian retro-drones recently as shown in this video.

The TU-141 was introduced in the early 1970s by the Soviet military, according to Paul Schwarz, a non-resident fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. It's sent aloft by rocket engines from a mobile missile-launching platform.

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"This is a pretty rudimentary drone," Schwarz said. "The use of this drone is more a sign of desperation than an equalizer. It has a short flight range and certain models only take photographic pictures so that when the thing lands you retrieve the pod and have to develop it."

The Ukrainian military has had trouble paying for weapons and announced in June it was taking some of its older aircraft and drones out of retirement, according to the blog War is Boring. Military officials also launched an online crowdfunding campaign last month that successfully raised $35,000 for a quadcopter "People's Drone" to help with surveillance along the country's Eastern border.

The Russia-backed rebels have operated their own modern-day drone fleet as well, several of which have been shot down by the Ukrainian military. So far, all of the drones involved in the conflict have been designed for reconnaissance missions. Neither side has the capability of launching Predator-type attacks on ground targets, as the United States has done in places like Pakistan and Yemen.

Shwartz doesn't see the drone v. drone battle as a game-changer for either side. That's because the Ukrainian armed forces still control the airspace above the battlefield.

One advantage of 1970s-era drones is they are both easy to use and rugged, according to Chris Dougerty, research fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

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"Older Russian hardware has a beauty in that they are robust because they are designed to function even if poorly maintained," Dougherty said. "Whereas U.S. hardware is built to be operated by technicians with a lot of education and training."

He notes that the TU-141 (and its successor the TU-143) rely on internal gyroscopes instead of GPS readings and advanced terrain-following computer software. Instead of sending back real-time HD video to commanders on the ground, they carry film cameras that need someone to transfer to digital images.

"They are literally designed to fly a certain distance and turn around and come back," Dougherty said. "They aren't terribly accurate at what they look at."

The drone warfare in Ukraine is the latest conflict in which unmanned vehicles are playing a key role for both sides. Georgia flew drones in its brief war with Russia in 2008, as did Israel against Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2008 and currently in Gaza against Hamas. Both sides in the Syrian conflict are also employing reconnaissance drones.

In the Middle East, drones are one way for militant groups to attempt to equal the playing field against the much better-equipped and armed state military, according to Amos Guiora, a law professor and co-director of the Center for Global Justice at the University of Utah.

"Drone warfare is the future of warfare," said Guiora, author of "Legitimate Target: A Criteria-Based Approach to Targeted Killing." "But there's a difference between a drone that takes picture and a drone that comes into your house."