Russia can't seem to stop this Ukrainian Cessna-style drone that, compared to missiles, is basically a 'flying brick' with a bomb onboard

  • Ukraine has increasingly attacked Russian military and energy facilities with long-range drones.

  • One weapon Ukraine has turned to is essentially a small sport aircraft packed with explosives.

  • Kyiv has recently relied on this Cessna-like drone to carry out at least two successful strikes.

Ukraine has in recent weeks relied on an unusual weapon to conduct strikes deep inside Russian territory: a small unmanned aircraft packed with explosives that resembles some variants of the propeller-driven Cessna aircraft.

The light, fixed-wing planes observed in attacks this spring travel at low altitudes and move significantly slower than a long-range missile might, yet they have proven capable of evading Moscow's air-defense systems and traveling unscathed for hundreds of miles to reach their targets deep in enemy territory.

Experts say these aircraft underscore the success of Ukraine's innovative long-range drone program, which Kyiv has employed to go after Russia's military and energy facilities.

In early April, Kyiv used a modified Aeroprakt A-22 Foxbat to attack a drone-making factory in the Republic of Tatarstan in Russia. The small, ultralight sport aircraft was developed and is manufactured in Ukraine and costs less than $90,000 per unit.

The plane can also travel at speeds up to 130 mph (much slower than a cruise missile, which can fly at speeds in excess of 500 mph, or a ballistic missile, which is significantly faster) and be configured with explosives inside the cabin.

Ukraine reportedly attempted additional strikes with drones like this later in the month, though it is unclear how successful these actually were. Last week, an aircraft that looks similar to the A-22 was spotted in an attack on an oil refinery in the Republic of Bashkortostan, even deeper inside Russia. Multiple open-source intelligence shared footage of the plane soaring unopposed over the facility.

Fabian Hoffmann, a doctoral research fellow at the University of Oslo and security expert, previously wrote that "in the world of missile systems" the aircraft is "basically a flying brick."

But while the aircraft may appear crudely put together, it's still a "rather complex weapon system" because the existing airframe and engine still need to be combined with explosives and guidance technology, he later told Business Insider in an interview.

The aircraft seems to operate at a relatively low altitude, as seen in the footage, making it more difficult for radar to track. And if Ukraine can find a corridor that lacks proper air-defense coverage, then the drone can effectively penetrate right through Russian territory, Hoffmann said. Additionally, given its design, the aircraft could also be mistaken for a civilian plane rather than a threat.

That doesn't really excuse Russia's apparent failure to engage them though. In the Tatarstan and Bashkortostan attacks, the aircraft managed to fly for several hours, hundreds of miles into Russian territory without getting shot down by Russia's formidable air-defense systems, which have been a headache for Ukrainian forces on the battlefield.

These drones are loud and slow, rendering themselves vulnerable to visual confirmation along the way, even if a radar doesn't pick them up. Hoffmann said these aircraft should be relatively easy to pick off or defend against by placing air defenses like anti-aircraft guns around critical infrastructure.

Ultimately, he said, that these systems are slipping through suggests that Russia has a capacity issue — with assets tied up either defending the battlefield or key population centers like Moscow and St. Petersburg — and may also be underestimating the Ukrainian threat.

"Once you have countermeasures in place, it should be really easy to shoot this thing down," Hoffmann said. "And the problem is they don't appear to have that."

But establishing adequate countermeasures to consistently and effectively defend against low-altitude, slow-moving threats can be a challenge, and not just for Russia, explained Gordon Davis Jr., a retired US Army major general.

"That's a vulnerability at the moment that the Ukrainians are exploiting to their advantage," Davis, a non-resident senior fellow with the transatlantic defense and security program at the Center for European Policy Analysis, said at an event on drone warfare this week.

Notably, the Cessna-style drone underscores the success of Ukraine's ever-evolving drone program. Since the war began more than two years ago, Kyiv has developed a robust arsenal of homemade, unmanned systems that are capable of long-range strikes on Russian targets in the sea and on the ground.

These unique weapons have proven to be an invaluable component of Ukraine's war efforts, especially in recent months as the country continues to face some restrictions by Western countries on how to use their military assistance.

The US, for example, has said that it does not want Kyiv to use American-made weaponry to conduct strikes on Russia's sovereign territory, fearing that it could escalate the war. Instead, Washington wants its long-range munitions to be limited to use in Russian-occupied territory of Ukraine. This has so far been the case.

"They're leveraging their domestic capabilities to good advantage, and to strike key infrastructure within Russia," Davis said.

Lance Landrum, a retired US Air Force lieutenant general and another non-resident senior fellow with CEPA's transatlantic defense and security program, hailed the Cessna-style drones as just one example of Ukraine's "innovation and creativity."

"That's one thing about these drones of all different sizes — the small, medium, and large — they can exploit gaps and seams in traditional air-defense systems in ways that traditional offensive systems haven't in the past," Landrum said at the CEPA event.

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