The soft war between what were once two supreme members of the Soviet Union continues to simmer, and along with it some interesting and extremely dated technology is being brought to the fight, as is the case with this video depicting a TU-143 'Reys' short-range reconnaissance drone in pro-Russian rebels' hands.
The TU-143 was developed directly from its larger TU-141 'Strizh' cousin. The Strizh was designed in the 1970s as a flexible and reusable surveillance drone that could be launched via mobile erector-launcher. It was the successor of the much larger, faster and longer-ranged TU-123 'Yastreb.'
The TU-141 is really a medium-range cruise missile as much as it is a surveillance drone. It would launch via rocket assisted take-off (RATO) booster and then its air-breathing turbojet engine would activate, entering the aircraft into sustained flight. Range was tactically relevant, with a mission radius of about 300 miles, and its speed was respectable at close to 600mph.
The TU-143 model differs from the TU-141 in that it is drastically scaled down dimensionally and carries smaller payloads over much shorter ranges, with a mission radius of about 30 miles being reported. As much as a target drone as a cruise missile (in fact a version of it was a target drone with the designation M-143), the Reys was good for short-range tactical intelligence missions and was much more mobile, being transported and launched via a wheeled teletransporter-erector with a canister-style launch tube.
Once its mission concludes, the TU-141 would return to earth via a parachute and retro-rocket system (I believe just a parachute for the TU-143) and its collected information would be manually extracted for exploitation. Some of the late-model TU-141/143s had the capability of relaying collected intelligence in-flight via data-link, although it is unclear how reliable this system was.
A few months ago, Ukraine mentioned that it was refurbishing some of its long-stored TU-141/143 drones as part of a larger plan to return a portion of its vast mothballed combat aircraft fleet back to operational status. This was seen as an essential investment in order to better combat pro-Russian forces in the country's embattled eastern region and to stand any chance at deterring a limited Russian attack.
The inclusion of such a unique and antiquated asset as the TU-141/143 in Ukraine's combat aircraft recapitalization plan was puzzling at the time, but in retrospect it now makes total sense as Ukraine has lost scores of its front-line aircraft due to rebel surface-to-air missile fire. The addition of road-mobile radar-guided SAMs, such as the SA-11 'Buk' system that shot down MH17 two weeks ago, has made aircraft operations over rebel territory more volatile than ever.
The TU-141 and TU-143 can be adapted for various missions in a similar fashion as America's Firebee drone series, but mainly they are used for image intelligence gathering, using various film and video cameras. Radar and electro-optical surveillance payloads can be carried as well. A signals intelligence version was also fielded, as the drone could provoke enemy radar and SAM systems because of its jet fighter-like flight profile, thus collecting valuable information on their electronic order of battle in the process.
Although the TU-141/143s are very rudimentary unmanned systems by today's standards, they do present an expendable ability to rapidly gather intelligence on rebel positions, and possibly even on Russian radar systems and troop build-ups along the border, without putting a pilot's life at risk, not to mention their increasingly scarce aircraft they are flying.
The Ukraine's geriatric but still relevant TU-141, and its smaller TU-143 cousin, may not offer real-time intelligence or high-reliability, but they are available, expendable and capable of getting the job done.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer that maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com