Canadian-made air-strike targeting gear appears to be playing an important supporting role in the fight Ukraine is mounting against invading Russian forces.
Kyiv is using Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 military drones to strike back at Moscow’s invasion, with some success. Ukraine’s military says the drones have successfully attacked Russian convoys and blown up tanks and surface-to-air missile systems.
For years, the targeting system inside Bayraktar TB2 drones has been supplied by a Canadian manufacturer, Ontario-based L3Harris Wescam.
Former Ukrainian ambassador to Canada Andriy Shevchenko, speaking from Kyiv, said his country now celebrates the Turkish drones, which offer relatively inexpensive delivery systems for precision-guided weapons at a fraction of the cost of a fighter or bomber.
A pop song, Bayraktar!, has been penned to celebrate the drones, which, the lyrics say, turn “Russian bandits into ghosts.”
Mr. Shevchenko, who is also an officer in Ukraine’s reserve forces, spoke as he was waiting to learn where he would be posted to defend his country.
The diplomat said the Bayraktar drones this week helped Ukraine destroy a Russian Buk missile system, the same gear that was used to shoot down Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014.
“It’s something which has been a big inspiration for all of us in Ukraine.”
Tony Osborne, the London bureau chief of Aviation Week, which covers aerospace, said the Russians don’t seem to be too well briefed on the TB2s because of the way they are parking their military vehicles.
He called the TB2 drone an “extraordinarily effective tool” for Ukraine and other countries that have relied on it. “You’ve got this cheap machine that is dropping very small bombs on very expensive tanks, armoured vehicles and surface-to-air missiles,” he said.
The Canadian government refuses to comment on the presence of Wescam gear in Ukrainian-operated drones attacking Russian forces. Jim Burke, director of global public relations for L3Harris, the Florida-based parent company of Wescam, also declined all questions on the matter.
However, weapons-trade researcher Kelsey Gallagher with Project Ploughshares, a Waterloo, Ont.-based arms control watchdog, said he is certain that Turkish drones being employed in Ukraine are outfitted with Wescam sensors.
He points to the graphic overlay on footage of Ukrainian drone strikes released by the Ukrainian military, saying it matches Wescam’s graphics overlay. Mr. Gallagher compared the overlay from February footage in Ukraine to 2020 footage released by Turkey’s military when it used TB2 drones in Operation Spring Shield in northwestern Syria.
“Footage released of air strikes carried out by Ukrainian Bayraktar TB2s include the graphical interface associated with Wescam surveillance and targeting sensors. This is Canadian hardware,” Mr. Gallagher said.
“This graphical interface has been visible in multiple conflict zones the TB2 has operated in, including Syria, Iraq, and Nagorno-Karabakh. It is not surprising we are now seeing it in Ukraine.”
Mr. Shevchenko, the Ukrainian diplomat, said it’s up to Canada to discuss the role of Canadian technology in the Turkish drones.
“Canada has been quiet about that. I have never seen Canada or Canadians advertising this here. I think it would be up to Canada if it wants to be seen as part of this,” he said.
“I can tell you for sure the Bayraktars are much appreciated,” Mr. Shevchenko said. “I think it’s up to Canada whether it wants to be seen as part of that or not,” he said. “I have never seen Canada being very vocal about its role in this here.”
Mr. Osborne, with Aviation Week, estimated Ukraine has about 20 TB2 drones in its arsenal, but said that number doesn’t account for any recent losses.
He said he’s looked at the sensors on the drones Ukraine is operating and said they appear to be Wescam gear. “I would say it’s probably Wescam though I can’t be sure.”
It’s not clear what route the Canadian-made Wescam gear took to get to Ukraine. In the past they were installed in the TB2 drones by Baykar, the Turkish drone maker.
Ukraine began purchasing the TB2 drones several years ago, and in 2021 announced a partnership with Turkey to build them at a Ukrainian facility.
Canada suspended the export of Wescam sensors to Turkey in the fall of 2020 after reports that TB2 drones with this gear had been diverted to help Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh war with Armenian forces.
It later cancelled all export permits of Wescam gear to Turkey in the spring of 2021, much to the anger of the Turkish government, after an investigation revealed the company’s products shipped to Istanbul had been illegally diverted to the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
A Ukrainian media outlet that covers the defence industry last year said TB2 maker Baykar planned to replace the Wescam targeting system – at least for exports to Poland – with gear from Turkey. Mr. Gallagher said, however, he hasn’t seen a widespread shift to Wescam alternatives. “Defence industry publications have reported that Wescam technology remains the preferred optical sensor for the growing list of TB2 operators.”
The Canadian government’s 2021 cancellation of Wescam export permits for Turkey doesn’t prevent such technology from being shipped directly to Ukraine.
Project Ploughshares, which has tracked Canada’s defence exports for 45 years, says export data released by Statistics Canada for November, 2021, shows $23-million in shipments to Ukraine under an export category for optical devices that’s previously reflected other foreign sales of targeting gear for drones.
The category flagged by Project Ploughshares is the same one logged by Statistics Canada when air strike targeting gear was shipped to destinations such as Turkey. Wescam’s MX-15D “targeting and designating system” costs about $1-million per piece, The Globe and Mail has previously reported.
The $23-million flagged in November was one of three significant shipments to Ukraine under this Statistics Canada export category in 2021, Mr. Gallagher said. There was a spike in June, 2021, of nearly $8-million and another $8-million in December, 2021.
Canada has not been a major exporter of military equipment to Ukraine in recent years. The 2020 report to Parliament on exports of arms and controlled technology with military applications shows less than $360,000 was shipped in Ukraine that year. In 2019 exports were valued at $2.3-million and in 2018 shipments topped $5.2-million.
In October, 2021‚ the official Facebook account of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine published a video showing the TB2 drones being used for the first time in the war with Russian-backed militants in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. Wescam’s proprietary graphical overlay is also visible in this footage, Mr. Gallagher said.
Ukraine and Turkey, meanwhile, have developed a close relationship on drone-making. Last September, Turkey’s Bayraktar announced a deal with the Ukrainian government for the Turkish company to build a joint training and testing centre for the maintenance, repair and “modernization” of drones. Ukraine also announced a joint factory to produce more drones.
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