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Ukraine’s new long-range strike drone a real threat to Russia – expert interview

Oleh Katkov, editor-in-chief of the Defense Express military portal, told NV about the capabilities of Ukraine’s new AQ-400 Scythe long-range kamikaze drone and which enemy targets it will likely be used against.

The military has recently received the first batch of domestically produced long-range kamikaze drones AQ-400 Scythe.

AQ-400 Scythe has a range of 750 km and a cruising speed of 144 km/h, according to the declared characteristics. At the same time, the drone can stay in the air for six and a half hours and carry 32 kg of explosive payload. However, according to the developer, the payload mass can be increased to 70 kg at the cost of a reduced flight range. The drone can be launched from a short runway or a catapult.

The UAV’s body is made of milled sheets of plywood from several furniture factories, which the makers say is more scalable for mass production — compared to 3D printing or using materials such as fiberglass, Forbes reported on Dec. 17.

The basic Scythe airframe costs around $15,000, and this rises to around $30,000 with guidance systems and other extras, Forbes added.

The Scythe is a modular, flexible system with payload bays that can be easily modified for different missions. As an optional extra, Scythe can also have a video link to the operator, turning it into a giant FPV kamikaze UAV, able to pick out and attack moving targets with high precision.

Under a new contract, the company is now delivering Scythe drones – currently starting at 50 a month but scaling up rapidly to around 500 a month by Q2 2024.

“Our goal is to produce 1,000 units monthly,” cofounder Francisco Serra-Martins told Forbes.

Read also: What are Ukraine’s war goals for 2024

“But it is not realistic to achieve that in just one quarter.”

NV asked Katkov to talk about the new long-range drone and assess its characteristics.

NV: What’s the main feature of the Ukrainian kamikaze drone AQ-400 Scythe?

Katkov: It’s cheap. In addition to the technical parameters declared by the developer, such as range and payload mass, when it comes to long-range aircraft-projectiles, it’s crucial to evaluate their cost. Because such means of destruction can fulfill their conceptual tasks only if they are mass produced and widely used.

Look, when Russia launches an average of over 300 Shahed drones at Ukraine every month, Ukraine’s air defense generally neutralizes 85-90% of them. But despite this, a certain number of Shahed drones still break through and cause damage, while diverting significant resources to counter them.

Therefore, on the part of Ukraine, we should be talking about both similar volumes and similar concentrated use of kamikaze drones for strikes deep into enemy territory. Moreover, such means of destruction are apparently the only way for Ukraine to launch long-range strikes on enemy territory, given the ban on using Western weapons to strike Russia’s sovereign territory.

As for the stated conditions for launching the AQ-400 Scythe from a catapult or runway, I may be downplaying that feature, but such drones can be launched even from the roof of a car that accelerates on a straight section of a track, or even make a UAV on a landing gear that detaches after the drone is airborne. That is, the cheaper the launch, the better.

NV: How justified is the use of a box-shaped body made of plywood in this UAV?

Katkov: This drone may seem somewhat ridiculous or non-futuristic to someone, but if its body is really made of plywood, it’s really great. Of course, plywood is cheaper than carbon fiber or any other polymer material. And this is absolutely the right decision. After all, we’re talking about a one-time drone design, whose main purpose is to fly once and hit the target.

Read also: Ukraine launches serial production of $2,000 cobra strike drone, outpacing global competitors

Therefore, such a device should not be subject to the same requirements as aerial vehicles designed for long-term operation. Because I repeat, the aircraft-projectile’s mission is to take a single flight, which can objectively last up to six hours. Therefore, its entire construction should be designed exclusively for a single use. And its low cost plays directly into this.

As for the box-shaped body, it’s easier to produce it. After all, if you have to bend, for example, high-density plywood, it will lead to higher product costs.

NV: The manufacturer claims it can increase the payload weight from 32 kg to 70 kg by reducing the range. In your opinion, how low could the range be in this case?

Katkov: I won’t speculate on it since only a developer can make such calculations. But whether it makes sense to double the drone destructive payload at the expense of the range will depend on the defined targets.

NV: And what kind of targets would be suitable for AQ-400?

Katkov: First of all, these are objects that can be destroyed using a relatively small payload. For example, enemy warehouses with fuel and lubricants, power substations, etc.

It should be noted that, judging by the design, completely different payloads can be used in such a kamikaze drone.

If we’re talking about hitting, let’s say, enemy oil storage, it’s objectively better to use incendiary ammunition.

If we replace the payload with a more fragmentary than high-explosive one, then we have other targets, such as enemy airbases. After all, in this way it’s possible to ensure a larger area of destruction and, when using a specialized fragmentary payload and its proper detonation, a larger number of pieces of enemy equipment will be damaged.

Thermobaric ammunition can also be used with the drone, but it’s expensive.

NV: Is such a plywood drone capable of overcoming Russian air defense and radio electronic warfare systems?

Katkov: It’s necessary to understand that in any case we should prepare for the fact that up to 90% of kamikaze drones will be shot down.

Read also: Ukraine to produce a million drones in 2024 — Zelenskyy

Of course, the Russians won’t immediately reach this figure and will have to withdraw their anti-aircraft missile systems from the front and form their own mobile groups to counter Ukrainian drones. In other words, redirect their resources to dealing with this threat.

And even if they do that, and they shoot down 90% of launched drones, 10% will still break through. And to prevent this 90% from breaking through, the enemy will be forced to redistribute its resources from the front to the rear.

That’s why we should be talking about mass production of kamikaze drones.

NV: In this case, how dangerous is it that the new Ukrainian drone could fall into the enemy’s hands as a trophy? After all, the Russians can also launch large-scale production of similar cheap drones.

Katkov: First of all, we should understand that there is nothing in these drones that could be a secret. Well, yes, it’s known that it’s made of plywood and civilian components. But it doesn’t have anything innovative. And that’s great. Because otherwise the Scythe would be much more expensive.

However, now the Russians have bet on the Shahed drones, which they received in exchange for Su-35 fighter jets and the transfer of missile and nuclear technologies to Iran. And the Russians are even starting to localize the production of drones in their own country, but on the basis of the same Shahed as the already developed and existing design. Thus, they reduced the time to get their own kamikaze drones.

Although, of course, there is a possibility that someone in Russia will produce something similar, receive appropriate state funding, and produce plywood kamikaze drones. And this is also a threat.

NV: The developer of the AQ-400 Scythe says it can ramp up production of these drones from the current 50 pieces a month to 500, and eventually to 1,000. Is that realistic, and if so, who should finance the production?

Katkov: Regarding contracting, of course, only the state can provide it in necessary volumes.

Let’s see, the cost of the drone announced by the developer is $15,000, and he said he can produce 500 pieces a month. This is a total of $7.5 million a month. I don’t know how much volunteer foundations raise funds for all needs, but if they manage to raise that amount every month, that’s cool.

Read also: Russian drones outnumber Ukraine’s seven to one, says army commander

However, if we’re talking about such volumes of production, there is a practice when a developer or manufacturer can transfer a conditional license and enable production at other enterprises.

We should realize that when it comes to mass production, everything shouldn’t rest on the capabilities of just one developer or manufacturer, but it should be about scaling production at the expense of all available industrial capacities.

Such an approach is quite possible and would be correct. After all, the more such UAVs fly over Russian territory, the better it will be for Ukraine.

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