48-year-old Tupolev UAV evades Russian and NATO air defenses

KYIV ($1=36.90 Ukrainain Hryvnias) — Some weapons leave their mark on the Ukrainian-Russian war, which began on February 24 after Russia launched an invasion of Ukraine. Iran’s Shahed-136 drone, for example, shot down a Ukrainian MiG-29, becoming the first drone in history to take on a fighter and win. Of course, the battle was not direct, but the result of an accident. The Ukrainian pilot had already shot down at least five Shahed drones that day, and in shooting down the sixth, debris from the Iranian aircraft fatally struck the fighter, which crashed to the ground as the pilot ejected.

48-year-old Tupolev UAV evades Russian and NATO air defenses Tupolev Tu-143
Tu-143, Photo credit: Wikimag

History will give a well-deserved place to the Tupolev Tu-141 and Tu-143 drones, which are from the same series, but with different ranges. To date, there is no direct evidence or photographic evidence that Tu-141/143s were involved in any of our known attacks on Russian bases, but both Ukrainian and Russian experts strongly believe that they were involved. We are talking about the attacks against the Russian bases Diaghilev [December 5th], Engles-2 [December 5th], Halino [December 6th], as well as a drone that flew through parts of Romanian and Hungarian airspace, crashing within Croatia [March 10]. At the same time, reports say that Tu-141/143 drones were shot down near Kursk [December 5th] and Belbek [December 6th]. At the beginning of the Russian invasion, sometime in March, three drones of this series were shot down near Kursk, one near Rostov, and one near Bryansk.

It is becoming clear that the attacks carried out by the Ukrainian armed forces in December were planned, coordinated, and targeted. Some of the drones are seen to have reached their target, while others have been shot down. Those that landed at Russian air bases caused damage. True, minor damage, but at least they disabled at least three bombers.

It is said that before the war, Ukraine had other plans for the Tu-141/143 drones. They would have served to train the new military personnel of the Ukrainian Air Force. There is no information on how many drones in this series the Ukrainian Air Force has. A quick look at Wikipedia shows that 152 units were built of the Tu-141 and 950 units were built of the Tu-143. Although, Wikipedia can’t be trusted, let’s assume the amount is credible. Both drones are in service in both Ukraine and Russia.

48-year-old Tupolev UAV evades Russian and NATO air defenses Tu-141
Tu-141, Photo credit: mil.in.ua

Tu-141 and T-143 are reconnaissance drones. The Tu-143 was developed from the Tu-141. It is the Tu-141 that is “on the radar” of several experts who claim that this particular model was used for the attacks, and most often by the Ukrainian Air Force. So, T-141 is of more research interest.

Its first flight was in 1974 and it entered service in 1979. The reconnaissance drone is equipped with cameras for video surveillance and photography. There is no exact information on what exactly this equipment was, but it is assumed that in the 1970s it was most likely equipped with old filmstrips or some other type of infrared camera. The drone was designed to penetrate deep into the enemy’s airspace, carry out its reconnaissance activity and return to land on a specially selected runway after deploying its parachute, which would drastically reduce the speed of wintering. The range, according to some military experts, of this drone was just under 1,000 km or 620 miles.

Compared to today’s fighters, the drone does not have a high speed – slightly below the speed of sound. But compared to the speed of today’s most commonly used drones in warfare, that’s a pretty decent speed. The Tu-141 is powered by a KR-17 turbojet engine. At that time [it is unknown today] the Tu-141 was launched from a trailer using a rocket booster. A trailer was towed by a truck.

Before the attacks on the Russian bases, Kyiv announced that it was preparing a new kamikaze drone with a payload of a 165-pound warhead. Whether Kyiv was referring to a new drone or a modified Tu-141 is unknown, but according to military experts, the second assumption is more likely.

48-year-old Tupolev UAV evades Russian and NATO air defenses Tupolev Tu-141
Tu-141, Photo credit: mil.in.ua

One of the main characteristics of the drone is that it flies at a low altitude. I.e. Long-range air defense systems have no way of intercepting it. Whether for this reason or because of delayed action, in March this drone flew over part of Romanian and Hungarian airspace. Then, falling down, he entered Croatian airspace. Crashed in Zagreb next to a university dormitory. The drone was modified. It was converted from reconnaissance to a kamikaze combat drone as it carried a 220-pound OFAB-100-120 bomb. Fortunately, the bomb did not explode or cause any serious damage.

This was the first signal that Ukraine would try to use Soviet reconnaissance drones as lethal weapons. Thus, the Tu-141 flew over parts of the territory of three NATO countries without their air defenses being activated, nor fighters being launched into the air.

But the attacks on Russian bases in December clearly show that engineering units of the Ukrainian armed forces have been engaged in recent months in improving the drone’s effectiveness. Before the upgrade, the reconnaissance drone relied on gyroscope-based inertial navigation systems. Now, however, it seems that the Ukrainians have managed to integrate satellite navigation with the help of GPS. Russian navigation equivalents GLONASS may have been integrated as well. They have been developed precisely since the time of the first flights of the Tupolev drones. Ukrainians may have access to them.

With one of the two navigation systems available, Ukraine could easily coordinate an attack on the Russian bomber bases listed at the beginning. Especially because their coordinates are not secret and are easy to detect even by civilian navigation software.

48-year-old Tupolev UAV evades Russian and NATO air defenses Tu-141
Tu-141, Photo credit: Hush-Kit

Launching and targeting a Tu-141 drone would not present any difficulty. However, military experts say that the Ukrainians had to deal with the method of remotely navigating the drones to the target. I.e. one way or another the Ukrainians must have an integrated command/comm link to turn this drone into a cruise missile. To be even more specific, the real problem is the range of these communication links. Russian target bases are located outside the range of communication links in Ukraine. So how did the Tu-141 take off from Ukrainian soil and hit an airbase 100 miles from Moscow?

Here we are already entering the realm of very serious assumptions. There is no evidence, but there are opinions that Ukrainian agents were located near the attacked Russian air bases. I.e. at some point, they assumed communications control of the drone. I.e. there was a relay of the remote control in stages according to the range to the target base.

48-year-old Tupolev UAV evades Russian and NATO air defenses Tu-141
Tu-141, Photo credit: Hush-Kit

Even if this is the case, it remains shocking that the drones reached their target and were not shot down beforehand. Flying at low altitudes, the cruise missile drone could be radar intercepted by short- and medium-range air defense systems. However, this did not happen. Why? Was it because the systems were out of order, or not in place, or did the Russians never think that Ukraine would dare to attack so deeply? And wasn’t there the use of an anti-radiation missile to disable short-range air defense systems? Questions we don’t know the answers to these, but the answers to which would answer exactly how the attack was carried out to completion.

Finally – however, the fact of how the Tu-141 reached the Engels-2 base remains very worrying. This is a Russian base where the Tu-95 and Tu-160 bombers are located. Both bombers are part of the Russian Federation’s nuclear arsenal, as they carry nuclear bombs and missiles. Thus, viewed through the lens of outside observers, we are increasingly convinced that the success of the Tu-141 is due to the serious underestimation of the Russian commanders regarding the Ukrainian defense and their desire to defend their countrymen, even going so far as to hit targets near Moscow.

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