On Wednesday, two drones laden with explosives crashed into a Russian oil refinery near the border with Ukraine in a kamikaze-style attack, suspending its operations. Speculations already point out that this ‘strike’ was carried out by Ukrainian Armed Forces, though they have not taken responsibility for the attack.
According to the officials, the first drone hit the crude distillation unit at the Novoshakhtinsk oil refinery at 08:40 am (local time), followed by a second strike at 09:23 am that targeted oil reservoirs. The first attack sent a huge ball of smoke and fire up the sky, setting the facility ablaze. However, no casualties have been reported so far.
Interestingly, the plant is the largest supplier of oil products in Southern Russia and has termed the incident as a “terrorist act from the western border of the Rostov region”. The refinery is just 8 kilometers from the Ukrainian border.
Videos have surfaced over social media, showing the first drone just before it crashed into the refinery. Experts have speculated that this twin-boom tail propeller-driven drone could be an adapted, commercially available product easily available on online e-commerce websites like Alibaba.
Ukraine operates several types of twin-boom tail propeller-driven drones, including the famous Turkish-made Byraktar TB2 and its home-made PD-1 and PD-2 drones. However, the drone seen in the video lacks the physical features of these types, because they feature inverted V-shaped tailplanes that connect the two booms. “This doesn’t appear to be the case here, with the drone instead having prominent swept vertical stabilizers,” writes Thomas Newdick for TheDrive.
He also mentions the drone’s differences from the Russian-made Forpost UAV, mulling the speculations that it could be a modification of a captured/downed Russian type. “While examples of the Forpost certainly have been brought down over Ukrainian territory in the past, there are also many differences compared with the drone seen in the video, including the distinctive swept tailfins, which the Forpost lacks,” he says.
Therefore, it is being theorized that it was a commercially-available chinese product like the Skyeye 5000mm, which, according to Newdick, matches the physical appearance of the UAV used to strike the Russian refinery. The drone would have been modified to carry a warhead, and being a commercially available product, it gives the Ukrainians a plausible deniability option with a lot cheaper price tag compared to western-supplied UCAV operations.
Also, it highlights the failure of Russian air defenses in the region, which is just adjacent to the active war zone in Ukraine.
This attack also brings into light the complexity of drone warfare on 21st-century battlefields. This new capability has given the forces an alternative to using expensive fighter planes, and the risk of pilot’s life to attack a target deep behind the enemy lines with great precision and accuracy. Also, even if these drones are low-flying slow aerial vehicles, it is by no means easy to drop them out of the sky. The Saudi Arabian oil facilities have been repeatedly targeted by such kamikaze drone strikes launched by Houthi rebels from Yemen; exposing the vulnerability of such critical infrastructure to these low-end ‘aerial attack solutions’. UAVs are easy to be tailored according to mission requirements, from dropping 40mm UBGL grenades from the sky to directly delivering their explosive warheads by crashing in a kamikaze fashion (called “loitering munitions”). A lot of money and work is being put by nations to develop solutions to counter these dangerous, cheap, low-flying machines that can hamper even the most technologically advanced militaries in day-to-day operations.