The Ukrainian air force is working overtime to rebuild its aging, vintage arsenal. That’s led Kiev to bring back some almost ancient robots that date to the communist era.
This week, Kiev’s Ministry of Defense announced the Ukrainian air force is restoring 68 mothballed military aircraft of various types. They include a Soviet-era Tu-141 drone, according to photographs accompanying the statement.
If the Ukrainians can successfully restore it, the Red Army robot could support Kiev’s offensive against eastern separatists. The drone could also bolster Ukraine’s recon abilities in the event the country goes to war with Russia on a wider scale—although the chances of the latter appear to be receding in the short term.
The Tu-141 is not like a modern-day Predator or Reaper drone, which can orbit for long periods while scanning with high-tech sensors.
Nor is the Tu-141 capable of killing. The 47-foot-long, delta-wing Tu-141 is purely a reconnaissance vehicle. With its powerful KR-17A turbojet, it zips over a target at a height of nearly 20,000 feet and a top speed of more than 600 miles per hour—all while snapping pictures.
The drone doesn’t even land like a conventional aircraft. Instead, it relies on a parachute and retro rockets to gradually descend—while still floating in the upright and horizontal position.
It’s unclear how many Tu-141s remain in Ukraine. The Soviet Union first flew the drone in 1974 as a prototype and began regularly producing it in 1979.
The Soviets went on to make 152 of them, largely basing the drones near its western borders. This made sense. Ukraine was also Moscow’s primary zone for staging of reserve troops and repair depots.
Naturally, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, huge stockpiles of Soviet military equipment ended up in independent Ukraine.
Similarly, the Ukrainian air force absorbed several Tu-141s. But Kiev hasn’t used the drones much. Some are museum pieces, and others made sporadic appearances at air shows during the 1990s.
But just because the drone is old, doesn’t mean it isn’t useful.
The Tu-141 has a PA-4 panoramic camera and an A-86-P foward-looking camera, according to Russian aviation researcher Yefim Gordon’s encyclopedic book Soviet/Russian Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. These are nothing to sneeze at, and are comparable to the KA- and KS-series high-altitude reconnaissance cameras the United States used during the Cold War.
There are drawbacks. First, these cameras use old-school film. They’re optically powerful—if you have the technology to digitize the pictures into high resolution.
The other two issues are the drone’s IR sensors and data-links. There’s little publicly available information regarding the specific gear aboard the drone, but Russian arms Websites and an aviation analyst whom War is Boring consulted indicate that the Tu-141 likely shares a similar airborne radar and infrared sensor with the Soviet-era Su-24MR Fencer E reconnaissance jet.
Redundancy was big in the Soviet Union, and the Red Army systematically re-used equipment when it could. If the sensors are similar, this would date the Tu-141’s gear to the late 1980s. The problem is, that means the equipment is likely not resistant to modern Russian jamming.
The Ukrainians likely have the skills and infrastructure to upgrade their aging drones. This also wouldn’t be too expensive. But the Ukrainian government is—to put it bluntly—broke. It’s so broke, it’s resorted to online fundraising to pay its army.
Kiev would also need to secure export approval for equipment from drone manufacturers in the U.S., European Union or Israel. That’s not impossible, but would mean convincing Western capitals to take a chance at antagonizing Russia.
But Ukraine has few options, and everything is on the table—including vintage Soviet super-drones.