You don’t expect to see creaky, Soviet-made drones in action in 2014. But that’s exactly what’s happening in eastern Ukraine as Kiev carries out its counter-offensive against Russian-backed separatists.
In videos taken by the rebels on Aug. 1, a Ukrainian delta-wing Tu-141 can be seen flying overhead as separatists fire on it with automatic weapons. The video cuts to the gunmen inspecting the drone’s parachute capsule, which it apparently deployed before landing.
A second video shows the drone lying in a field. There appears to be scattered bullet holes in the fuselage—but it’s not entirely clear. The Ukrainian coat of arms is painted on the drone’s vertical stabilizer.
The journalists at The Interpreter translated some of the video and indicated the gunmen belong to rebel commander Arsen Pavlov’s Motorola unit within the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic.
The desperate Ukrainian military pulled the unarmed Tu-141 reconnaissance drones out of its mothballed reserves earlier this summer as Russian-supported insurgents began tearing eastern Ukraine apart.
It’s unclear how many of the ‘bots the Ukrainians have in flying condition, or whether this was their only Tu-141. These are also very much relics from the late 1970s—machines largely based in the western Soviet Union—left over after the end of the Cold War. Some are literally museum pieces.
The Tu-141 shot down last week was also flying at a lower altitude than it could have. The drone’s maximum altitude is around 20,000 feet. Maximum speed: Around 600 miles per hour. But this flew well within range of rebels with light weapons.
The video also shows the drone carrying out a steady pass. This is not a modern, maneuverable military drone. It’s a high-speed robot that makes a pass, clicking away with an on-board PA-4 camera. As we noted earlier this year, this camera takes sharp photographs captures them in archaic film.
It’s a small victory. Rebels with the the DPR and the affiliated Luhansk People’s Republic are fighting for their collective lives as Ukrainian troops press towards the cities of Donetsk and Lunhansk.
“Donetsk has turned into a dark hole where you can be taken prisoner, robbed, killed or have your home destroyed,” one local who used to support the separatists told the AP.
But the reason why the rebels are doing badly is because the Ukrainian military appears to have gotten its act together. And it’s sending everything it’s got—including some seriously old hardware.