Monitoring Foreign Drone Proliferation in the Ukrainian War

A Bayraktar TB-2 operated by the Ukrainian armed forces targets a Russian BUK air defense system on February 28, 2022.

For years, drone proliferation as part of the global arms trade has been crucial to analysis of conflicts like Syria, where drones are often used in novel ways to both shift and reinforce the balance of power – as documented meticulously by open-source analysts and other dedicated researchers, to little fanfare. Yet while the study of drone warfare in hostile environments has typically been relegated to the corners of academia and digital OSINT spheres, since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February the proliferation of foreign drones across conflict zones as part of the global arms trade has become a point of major international focus.

Most proliferation is occurring on the Ukrainian side, where NATO allies send Turkish TB-2 Bayraktar drones and US-made Javelin ATGMs to salve Ukrainian force attrition and give their combat command the upper hand. Yet some proliferation has occurred on the Russian side, too, despite a global trade embargo against various aspects of the Russian economy and military – primarily resulting from Israel’s private arms industry and the licensed Searcher 2 drone technology used in Russia’s Forpost drones.

Proliferation across both the Russian and Ukrainian spheres of conflict is discussed below, primarily based on open-source photos and videos, and analysis of footage shared by the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD).

The Bayraktar: A Symbol of Pro-Ukraine Drone Proliferation

Across just two months of conflict, the Turkish-manufactured Bayraktar T2 drone has transformed from a largely underacknowledged tool of Turkish air power and arms proliferation in theaters like Syria to a prominent cultural symbol of Ukrainian military prestige, amid its use by the Ukrainian armed forces to inflict significant losses on Russian ground forces with its Turkish-made MAM-C and MAM-L guided missiles. 

While the Bayraktar was once known for strikes in support of Turkey’s brutal campaign against America’s Kurdish-led SDF/YPG allies in Syria, it is now also celebrated in pro-Ukrainian pop songs and memes and emblazoned on t-shirts and mugs. In a testament to its popularity, Ukranians have even started naming pets and zoo animals after the UAV

A Bayraktar t-shirt, made by the pro-Ukrainian armed forces clothing company Aviatsiya Halychyny, is seen for sale at a clothing store in Lviv.

The Russian military, keen to manipulate optics in their favor, have been caught trying to reuse Bayraktar TB2 wreckage to inflate their perceived capacity to counter the Turkish import, and have made as of yet unverified claims that the UAVs have been used to strike infrastructure inside Russian territory. The Ukrainian government, meanwhile, has claimed the Bayraktar TB2 was used as part of the military operation that ended with the sinking of the Russian flagship Moskova. 

Conventional methods of arms proliferation have become culturally impactful in Ukraine as well. The United States, which stepped up weapons deliveries to the Ukrainian military since the Russian invasion – most recently passing the Lend-Lease Act of 2022 – has sent thousands of Javelin Anti-Tank Guided Missile Systems to Ukraine. The Javelins, known as “fire and forget” weapons, are designed to guide themselves towards a target and strike armored vehicles from above. The missiles use a dual explosive system to disrupt explosive reactive armor. The American weapons system has been lauded by Ukrainians with the St. Javelin meme, which has been featured extensively on merchandise in Ukraine. 

Israeli Drone Technology Proliferation

While the Bayraktar and Javelin anti-tank missile have become symbols of Ukraine’s stiff resistance, a lesser known third-party UAV platform is searching for targets on behalf of Russian invasion forces: the Forpost, a Russian-composited UAV based heavily on technology and materials licensed from Israel Aerospace Industries’ (IAI) proprietary Searcher 2 drone.

Eager to upgrade their obsolete military drones in the wake of the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, Russia turned to Israel for technology and training. Eventually Russia obtained licensed copies of the Israel Aerospace Industries’ Searcher 2 to be produced in Russia, with key components and training being obtained directly from Israel. Soon, the IAI Searcher 2 was redubbed “Forpost” by Russia and in 2015 began appearing in the Ukrainian conflict in support of Russian-backed separatists. Soon after Russia directly intervened in Syria in 2015, the Forpost also became an essential tool in the fight to keep Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad in power, being used to direct strikes from other aircraft and guided missiles launched from the ground. In Syria, the Forpost also played a role in the commission of war crimes, including in multiple incidents in which civilians were directly targeted. While there are credible reports that Israel has stopped providing components to Russia, the Forpost continues to be upgraded and deployed by the Russian armed forces. The current invasion of Ukraine has seen the Forpost used to guide artillery and air strikes against Ukrainian targets, and the Russian government now claims to have modified the Forpost to carry guided bombs.

A number of videos released by the Russian MoD claim to show modified Forposts taking off with KAB-250 guided bombs, which can be used to directly strike targets in addition to being used to identify targets for aircraft and direct Russian artillery. The Forpost UAV’s Israeli origins came into sharp focus after a recent incident where a Forpost came down in Ukrainian-controlled territory, revealing components with IAI logos. The Russian military additionally released footage of a Forpost laden with bombs, taking off from Gomel Airport in Belarus, which tracks with the recent sighting of what appears to be a IAI UAV Control Center being transported by Russian vehicles in Belarus.

Russian claims about the effectiveness of alleged direct strikes from modified Forposts are difficult to corroborate. While the Russian military is prone to exaggeration, they are clearly relying heavily on the technology acquired from IAI, and have released multiple videos which show real time surveillance Forposts have provided to assist strikes on Ukraine. While it is clear Russia has faced fierce resistance, footage released by the MoD of Forpost-assisted strikes on ground targets are evidence that the Israeli-Licenced Forpost plays an important role in bolstering Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.