Tu-143s and Their Purpose in the Ukraine Conflict

Tu-143s and Their Purpose in the Ukraine Conflict

Soviet-Era Drone Tech Meets a 21st Century Battlefield


One aspect of the Ukraine conflict that I find interesting is the amount of old, soviet era technology that is making its way onto the battlefield. Recently, a photo was posted on twitter of a SPRD-251 solid-fuel propellant booster for a Tu-143 Reys.

The Tu-143 Reys is a Soviet-era turbojet reconnaissance drone that was introduced in the mid 1970s. The system is based off of earlier Tu-141 and Tu-123 models which are of similar design and purpose. The Tu-143 is powered by a TR3-117 turbojet and meant for low level reconnaissance missions. The drone is launched via a jet-assisted take-off (JATO) booster, which is the SPRD-251 as stated and shown above. The booster is jettisoned after takeoff hence why we see it by itself in the middle of a field. 

The drones saw most of their action in the 1980s with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and Syrian involvement in the First Lebanon War. Tu-143s are currently used by both the Ukrainian and Russian military, but for reasons beyond their original intended purpose. Russia phased them out of service decades ago and now uses their remaining stock as training targets. While Ukraine has used the drone for reconnaissance purposes, its capabilities are long outdated with the newer unmanned systems of today. To put the remaining drones to good use, Ukraine has increasingly used Tu-143s to draw out Russian anti-aircraft systems and expose their positions.

This is not the first time we have seen evidence of the Tu-143, as well as Tu-141 systems, having been used during the course of the Russian invasion. The most notable instance of a Tu-141 use was when one crashed in Zagreb, Croatia, on March 10. While Ukraine initially denied it was theirs, the Croatian Ministry of Defense stated “the drone that crashed near the Stjepan Radi? Student Dormitory in Zagreb last week belonged to the Ukrainian military and that it had a bomb intended to be activated at Russian positions in Ukraine,” according to Nacional. “The drone got out of control and ended up in Zagreb instead of the Russian positions in Ukraine, where it fell when it ran out of fuel. It remains unknown whether the aircraft lost control due to human error or a technical error on the aircraft, which ended up in Zagreb,” the Ministry added. 

There have been several other instances of Tu-143 used by Ukraine during the conflict, such as here, here, and above.

The photo of the booster was originally posted by Mykolayiv Regional Military Administrator Vitaliy Kim, however, he claimed it was a 3Ts5 solid fuel rocket engine from a 3M8 missile that is part of the Russian 2K11 Krug SAM system (right). The Krug has also been phased out of military service by Russia, but is still used in training on a very limited basis. While at a glance the two boosters are nearly identical, there are a few differences between them. One is that the boosters for the 3M8 have fins, while the boosters for the SPRD-251 do not. The largest difference is the nose of the booster, in which the SPRD-251’s is flat. All in all, this is definitely a booster from a Tu-143. Like I said they are still in service with Ukraine and it is most likely Ukrainian. 

The idea of repurposing old and outdated soviet technology for being anti-aircraft bait has been done before. During the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan converted old Soviet An-2 biplanes into drones to fly them over Armenian frontlines to draw anti-aircraft fire. Before the invasion kicked off, Russia transferred a large number of An-2s to Crimea, in which I thought they would turn them into drones, but we haven’t seen any evidence of this yet. While there is no indication Russia is using any Tu-143 or Tu-141 systems, they have used E95M target drones, which are used in training to simulate enemy aircraft, drones, and missiles. In this case, they would simulate being whatever they wanted to draw out enemy anti-air defenses. So far there has only been one recorded instance of its use.

Unbiased & Unfiltered News Reporting for 12+ years. Covering Geo-Political conflicts, wartime events, and vital Breaking News from around the world. Editor-In-Chief of Atlas News.
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