Written by Kevin Jennings
The landscape of war is constantly evolving. From phalanx to cavalry, tanks to submarines, new techniques and technologies are always being developed in an attempt to outwit or outgun the enemy. In more recent years, a major shift has been occurring. Though superior numbers and more powerful armaments will likely always remain a major factor, a larger emphasis has been placed on technological superiority, in the form of military drones.
Drones have a lot of advantages over traditional forms of warfare. They are unmanned and can be controlled with remarkable accuracy, thus minimizing loss of human lives, particularly civilians. Compared to traditional weapons they can also be extremely cost effective, though powerful drones aren’t exactly cheap.
Both Russia and Ukraine have employed various types of drones in the ongoing war in Ukraine, and Ukraine has not shied away from publicizing the success of their drones.
The Turkish made Bayraktar TB2 is a medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) drone produced by Baykar. This was the main offensive drone used by Ukrainian forces, and in January, prior to the start of the invasion, the air force had confirmed they had approximately 20 of these drones, with more on the way.
These drones proved effective, and clips of their successful missions were shared on social media by the Ukrainian government. According to Aaron Stein of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, “These TB2 strikes are, in comparison to ground combat, relatively small in number, but important for Ukrainian morale precisely because it shows Russia does not control the skies.” With NATO denying President Zelensky’s request for a no flow zone, this public show of strength could not have been more important for the Ukrainian people.
However, as the months have gone on, Ukraine has stopped broadcasting this footage. Of the 20 Bayraktar TB2’s that Ukraine started with, five are confirmed to have been shot down with Russia claiming to have destroyed six more. It seemed as if Russia had found a way to neutralize Ukraine’s drone threat, but there was another weapon that Ukraine had developed that Russia was not prepared for.
The Punisher Drone
In mid-February, Ukraine revealed its new drone from Ukrainian weapons company UA Dynamics. The company was created by Ukrainian veterans of the annexation of Crimea by Russian forces in 2014. Having familiarized themselves with Russian tactics on the battlefield, these veterans felt they were prepared to make a weapon that would be useful against future Russian shows of aggression.
Over the course of six years, they developed, tested, and perfected their new drone, named the Punisher. So if you haven’t heard of UA Dynamics before, that’s why: this is all they make, and they have a very clear mission statement. According to a statement from UA Dynamics Director Maksym Muzyka published on their website, “We do not sell complexes. We do not produce for export. We do not profit from war. Everything we do is aimed solely at defeating the occupying forces.”
That’s a lovely sentiment, but what exactly makes the Punisher drones so special compared to the myriad of other alternatives? The key is in the drone’s size and stealth capabilities.
These small combat drones have a wingspan of only 7.5 feet. Because of their small size and weight, they are unable to be picked up by radar technology. Their size combined with a cruising altitude of 1,300 feet also makes them incredible difficult to spot with the naked eye, especially on a backdrop of heavy cloud cover, the persistence of which has made traditional aerial combat more difficult.
The 1,300 foot altitude is low compared to other military drones that avoid radar detection by flying at much higher altitudes, but it is more than sufficient for the much smaller craft to avoid detection. Importantly, it is also extremely quiet. Once a Punisher has launched, it is nearly impossible to hear, making detection even more difficult.
Unlike other small “kamikaze” drones, the Punisher is also reusable. After completing a mission, it can be reloaded and launched for a new mission in roughly five minutes.
As for its technical capabilities, the Punisher is relatively slow compared to other military drones, with a max speed of approximately 44 miles per hour. However, it makes up for that both with its stealth capabilities and its strike range of 30 miles into enemy territory, a rather long range for a drone of its size.
The drones carry a payload of three missiles that can either be used to strike three targets simultaneously or focus a larger attack on a single area. By early March, it was reported that Punisher drones had already completed over 60 successful missions. They have primarily been used to target logistics and supply vehicles and other infrastructure to destroy the Russian supply chain and hinder Russian morale.
Another major benefit of the Punisher is that, due to its small size, it can easily be dismantled to fit into four boxes for transport. While the 7.5 foot wingspan is a nearly invisible target when soaring at altitude, it’s a lot more noticeable on the ground. By disassembling the drones for transport, it prevents them from becoming obvious targets.
By combat drone standards, these are remarkably cheap as well. The aforementioned Bayraktar TB2 has a price tag of approximately $2 million, but each Punisher drone comes in at just under $200,000.
Weaknesses of the Punisher
The biggest weakness of the Punisher drones are that they are not able to fly alone. Each Punisher is accompanied by a Spectre drone, also from UA Dynamics. The Spectre drones essentially act as the guidance system of the Punisher, performing reconnaissance and painting targets. Once the targeting information has been acquired, it is sent from Spectre to Punisher to then perform the strike.
While bifurcating the functionality of these drones allows for smaller, lighter craft that are harder to detect, the obvious downside is that with twice as many drones, there are twice as many targets. If either target is destroyed, the other is rendered useless until its companion drone can be replaced.
Though strictly speaking not a weakness, the other issue with the Punisher is that it is not a one size solution for all of Ukraine’s drone needs. Before the Punisher, there were primarily two types of drones being used by Ukraine. First was the Bayraktar TB2. These large drones were capable of taking out Russian battle tanks and strategic locations, but their possible utility is limited by their large size.
The other drones in use were much smaller drones used for reconnaissance and small strikes. The American made Switchblade by AeroVironment is a small kamikaze drone, also known as a loitering drone. The name comes from their ability to remain airborne for hours while hunting for a target, seemingly loitering in the air. Though this is the derivation of their name, the Switchblades provided to Ukraine are generally only able to remain airborne for up to an hour while searching for a target. These small drones can be carried by soldiers in rucksacks, and are launched into the air via a tube. The entire setup weighs only 5.5 pounds.
Because the Switchblades are essentially just self-targeting bombs with wings, they are naturally single use. For small, reusable drones, the best option is to just stop by your local Target. Both Ukraine and Russia have been making extensive use of consumer grade drones sold at big box stores as a cheap and effective means of reconnaissance.
The Punisher is crucial for Ukraine’s defense because it fits a role in between their existing fleets of drones. It is armed and reusable, but much smaller than the TB2. They may not be effective against heavily armored tanks, but they are easily transported, quickly deployed, and can strike strategic targets from long ranges. These new, stealthy drones provided a serious tactical advantage for Ukrainian forces.
The Future of the Punisher
What does the future of the Punisher hold? Well, it’s really hard to say. Very little has been publicized since the initial unveiling of the drone in February. Obviously there are tactical reasons for this; the war in Ukraine is still ongoing, and most of the information about the Punisher and its missions is classified.
It’s hard to say if the Punisher will remain as effective in coming months as it did during its early appearances. As they become used more heavily, Russian forces may learn to effectively combat them. There is also the issue of supply.
According to UA Dynamics’ website, their production facilities appear to have been evacuated during Russia’s push to take Kyiv, and they are still trying to resume production. All we can say for sure is that the emergence of the new Punisher drone has been called a game-changer for Ukraine, and is referred to as being the scourge of Russian forces.
Most importantly, at the time of writing this, there does not appear to be a single report or claim out of Russia that any of the Punishers having been captured or destroyed. Perhaps talk of the Punisher has died down more recently because countermeasures became more effective and they have not seen the same level of success, or perhaps it is because the virtually silent and invisible drones have been so effective that Russian forces have literally not known what hit them.