The drones of tomorrow? Yesterday’s wrecks

If you’re confused by the question posed in the photograph, you’re in good company. When Armenian defense forces took aim at an Azerbaijani missile last fall, they may have thought they’d targeted a modern weapon. It tuned out to be an old Soviet crop duster converted into a military drone.

The fight over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave was savage and mercifully short. Armenian forces were outgunned.

And perhaps outfoxed.

Azerbaijan apparently converted an old Antonov An-2 biplane into a UAV, then sent the propeller-driven aircraft on a suicide mission. And they did it more than once. Perhaps a lot more .

Some of the drones may have been filled with explosives, but the Armenians couldn’t take the chance that they were empty. They opened fire on the drones, revealing the position of the Armenian anti-aircraft weapons. And that gave the Azerbaijani commanders a list of vulnerable targets.

Crop duster converted into military drones

An article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists expresses the fear that this tactic will likely be used in future conflict, since it’s relatively easy to convert old crates into unpiloted drones.

“These types of drones can be effective tools for exposing an adversary’s locations,” the authors write. “They are also cost-efficient, considering that the price of using a bait drone could amount to simply losing an aging clunker like the An-2. Azerbaijan has also highlighted a weak point in international efforts to slow military drone proliferation.”

The Soviets designed the An-2 in 1946 primarily for crop dusting. But it was easy to fly and didn’t take much to be modified for other purposes. China converted one into a cargo drone. But combat wasn’t really a priority. Until now at least.

The authors believe the number of converted Antonovs may be substantial. Just a few weeks before the war started, satellite photos showed approximately 60 An-2s at an airfield in Azerbaijan. More than half disappeared by the end of the first week of fighting.

From work horse to war horse

There’s a grim irony that just as farmers are turning to drones for help, an actual crop duster is converted into a military drone.

“Fundamentally, military planners will have to find new ways to respond to the bait drone threat. More broadly, the arms control community will have to weigh just how to restrict the new drones as well as the technology required to produce them.”



Avatar for David MacQuarrie David MacQuarrie

David MacQuarrie is a 35 year+ veteran of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He worked in St. John’s, Ottawa, Toronto, and Beijing where he worked as a news writer, reporter, producer for the national and local television and radio networks. His stories on science and technology won ACTRA and Columbus awards.