Ukraine Claims MiG-29 Pilot Downed Five Drones Before Ejecting
Accounts from the Ukrainian Air Force provide further indications of a burgeoning aerial drone war being fought over the country.
The fact that Iranian-supplied Shahed-136 ‘kamikaze drones’ were apparently an integral part of Russia’s onslaught against Ukrainian cities earlier this week suggests that they have cemented their place alongside ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and (to a lesser degree) strikes by manned aircraft as a fundamental means of attacking military and civilian targets in the country. Now, it appears, the Ukrainian Air Force is on the hunt for the 440-pound drones, and has so far achieved mixed success.
A report, posted today to the Facebook account of the Ukrainian Air Force, claims that a Ukrainian MiG-29 Fulcrum pilot shot down five Shahed-136s and two cruise missiles of undisclosed type before being forced to eject from his fighter, for “technical reasons” that are so far unclear. The pilot’s killing streak is said to have come to an end over Vinnytsia yesterday evening, during another mission to destroy enemy drones.
According to the official Ukrainian account, the pilot downed the five Shahed-136s in the course of a single day. While this recalls the fanciful air-to-air victory tallies that accompanied the semi-mythical ‘Ghost of Kyiv’ at the start of the war, the huge numbers of these drones that have been supplied to Russia, and the advantage of using them en masse, means it’s possible, at least, that this could have happened, although it doesn’t mean that it did.
Unconfirmed reports suggest that the MiG-29 in question was painted in the colors of the Ukrainian Falcons display scheme, or more specifically, judging by the video below, it was the refurbished jet that was painted in a pseudo-Falcons scheme, which we looked at in detail earlier in the conflict. As we reported at the time, these non-standard colors were added as a morale booster, reflecting the continued ability of the Ukrainian Air Force to fight against overwhelming odds, and of the local maintenance, repair, and overhaul facilities to keep the MiGs serviceable, even when facing Russian attacks.
Whether directly related or not, video has also recently surfaced of a MiG-29 allegedly involved in an air-to-air engagement against a Russian drone. The exact content of this video has been subject to considerable debate. Pro-Russian observers have described it as showing the MiG being ‘downed’ by the drone. The Shahed-136 has no means of engaging a hostile aircraft in the air, although it’s conceivable that a fighter jet could collide with one, ingesting it into its engines or taking a critical hit sufficient to bring it down.
Looking at the video evidence, however, that is not the case here. The MiG-29 itself fires a missile, with its telltale missile exhaust plume visible, which then streaks off ahead of it. There’s nothing in this footage to say with any certainty that the MiG was attacking a drone. While it remains possible this footage does show the jet that was involved with the multiple drone kills and subsequent ejection, and it may have been engaging a drone, there’s simply no evidence that this was the moment it was lost. This would also not be the first time a snippet of video showing a confused air combat situation has led to some mistaken or extravagant claims. Such is the ‘fog of war’ in the social media age.
One obvious limitation in a drone-killing spree such as the one described is the MiG-29’s armament. These jets normally fly air defense sorties with two radar-guided R-27R (AA-10 Alamo) missiles and four heat-seeking R-73s (AA-11 Archers). However, as has been shown in anti-drone combat in the Middle East, heat-seeking missiles aren’t always the best option for shooting down small drones with limited infrared signatures, while the minimum range of the R-27R might necessitate the pilot backing off from the target before firing. Perhaps the MiG’s onboard 30mm cannon would be the best option in these kinds of engagements, although that would require plenty of gunnery practice and its magazine is limited.
A video from the cockpit of a Ukrainian MiG-29 showing the typical air-to-air armament:
Even detecting drones like these is far from easy, especially with the MiG-29’s dated radar with limited look-down, shoot-down capability. Hunting at low level for these drones may be necessary, bearing in mind their flight profile and the jet's radar limitations. It’s also unclear how effective the fighter’s infrared search and track sensor would be against targets like these, although they have been used to detect cruise missiles.
Then there is the question of how many air-to-air missiles Ukraine has and to what degree it will be willing, in the longer term, to burn through its stocks against drones. This is an issue that has affected Saudi Arabia, in particular, as it tackles Houthi drones and cruise missiles, although Ukraine, at least, has established domestic production facilities for air-to-air missiles, with evidence that some of these appear to be very much active. On the other hand, these are also the kinds of facilities that are likely to come under Russian attack.
This Ukrainian Ministry of Defense video, while primarily showing S-125 surface-to-air missiles, apparently in a production facility, also includes an R-73 (at the 0:07 mark):
Around the world, the proliferation of drones of all sizes is leading to a significant mismatch when efforts are made to counter them with more conventional means. Increasing thought is being given to providing non-kinetic counters to UAVs, including electronic warfare jamming, lasers, and high-power microwave weaponry.
Smaller drones can theoretically be engaged using small arms (or potentially even more basic measures), but the Shahed-136 is bigger and faster than many of the drones being used in this conflict, with a fairly substantial warhead and big standoff range. But when even the simplest drone has the capacity to deliver a lethal blow against personnel or infrastructure, it assumes a shoot-down priority that’s entirely asymmetric to its own cost and complexity.
Speaking to The War Zone back in March, the Ukrainian MiG-29 pilot known to the outside world only by the callsign ‘Juice’ was already reflecting on the particular challenge of using a manned fighter to down UAVs and cruise missiles.
“Drones are also a great problem for us, but I think it’s a much bigger problem for them, our Bayraktars are much more capable than their UAVs,” Juice said at the time.
Now, with reportedly hundreds of Iranian-made drones in Russian hands, the tables have likely turned somewhat, and the challenge of countering drones is only set to grow for Ukraine, with Moscow likely to receive many more and perhaps also establish local production and/or assembly facilities for Iranian designs.
As to whether or not the story of Ukraine’s drone-hunter Fulcrum pilot is real, we cannot say for sure, but the threat they were said to be trying to counter is definitely becoming more of a priority.
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