Russian war machines, from tanks to helicopters to artillery, have featured prominently in the war in Ukraine since it began a week ago. In fact, starting in October 2021, it was the assembly of these weapons along the border with Ukraine that first suggested to the outside world that Russia was planning a larger invasion than just its ongoing support for the separatist republics in the east of the country.
Since the invasion, Ukrainian forces have destroyed many of these tanks, helicopters, and artillery pieces. Accurate numbers of destroyed equipment are hard to come by. Governments in a war have a vested interest in exaggerating the accomplishments of their own forces, and downplaying their own losses. This is compounded by the “fog of war,” a military term for the uncertainty of information in conflict. This uncertainty can cover the location of enemies, whether militias are friendly or not, and even if an abandoned tank was destroyed in a fight or simply left on the road because it ran out of fuel.
Despite the uncertainty, understanding some of the weapons used by forces fighting in Ukraine can help shed light on the larger conflict. Here are three weapon systems, and how they have been observed in use so far.
The Strela anti-air missile
First developed by the Soviet Union, the Strela weapons are a kind of MANPADS, or man-portable air defense system. They are fired from a shoulder-mounted tube. The first Strela missiles were fielded in 1968, and the weapons were fielded by many of the Soviet-aligned militaries, including East Germany, a different nation than the rest of Germany from 1949 to 1990. The weapons Germany is giving to Ukraine date back to this East German arsenal, which makes them at least 31 years old.
There are three main variants of the Strela missile, and all of them use infrared sensors to track targets. The first version of the Strela, the Strela-2, used an infrared sensor to track the engines of helicopters and other aircraft. (Confusingly, the Strela-1 is an unrelated vehicle with anti-air weapons that also debuted in 1968.) Because it had to look for engines and their heat, the missile was primarily used to shoot at the rear of aircraft, after they had already passed on an attack run. This sensor was easily confused by flares, which an aircraft could release to steer the missile off course. The Strela-2M and Strela 3 versions are sophisticated enough to somewhat distinguish between the engines of aircraft and flares, and can also be fired at approaching as well as fleeing aircraft.
As the most sophisticated version, the Strela 3 can hit aircraft at altitudes as low as 33 feet to as high as 9,800 feet, and from a distance of as close as 1,600 feet to 2.6 miles. This makes the weapon most useful against helicopter or low-flying jet attacks, and also possibly of some use against drones, though when the Strela was developed, modern military combat drones were still decades in the future.
The age of these weapons means that the batteries used to power the missile launcher might have drained and degraded since they were built. In 2014, The New York Times reported that rebels using Strelas had resorted to recharging the batteries themselves.
The NLAW anti-tank weapon
Luxembourg, the small western European country and a founding member of the NATO military alliance, announced February 28 that it was sending “100 NLAW anti-tank weapons, jeeps, and 15 military tents to Ukraine.” The 15 tents, sent by a country with a smaller population than the city of Louisville, caught a lot of internet attention and humor, but the anti-tank weapons stand out as a direct aid of the sort sought by Ukrainian forces.
The NLAW, for “Next generation Light Anti-tank Weapon,” is produced by Swedish defense firm SAAB and British defense giant Thales. It is human-portable, with a manufacturer-promised range of 65 feet to nearly half a mile.
NLAWs have already been observed in use, with Russian media reporting the capture of one by Russian soldiers, and with a widely-seen clip of a Ukrainian soldier holding an NLAW and walking in a street full of destroyed vehicles.
The NLAW is but one of many anti-tank weapons used in the conflict. The US-produced Javelin shoulder-fired missiles are popular among militaries with access to them, including Ukraine. These missiles have already been turned into a meme for their use in destroying tanks, and the people inside.
The TB-2 Bakraytar drone
Made by Turkish defense firm Baykar, the TB-2 Bakraytar has been used in war by Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Ukraine. The drone is a remotely piloted vehicle, with a ground crew of three operating it.
The TB-2, in use by Azerbaijan, contributed to that country’s success in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war against Armenia. Part of that is from the utility of the drone: the TB-2 can fly for up to 27 hours, at a range of over 90 miles from where it was launched. In addition to optical and infrared cameras, the TB-2 can carry up to 330 lbs of laser-guided missiles and rockets, including anti-tank rockets.
While Ukraine used the TB-2 drones as part of its long-running war against the separatists in the eastern part of the country, the drones have risen to new prominence in the invasion, in no small part because of spectacular drone-recorded footage. One such video, apparently recorded from the ground control station of a TB-2, shows the drone releasing weapons on a Russian Buk anti-air missile truck.
For operators, the drone also offers another tool: Militaries have chosen to selectively release footage recorded by the TB-2. This imagery, in part, can exaggerate the influence of drones on battlefield outcomes, building the mythology of the weapon outside of its actual importance.
What has it meant for the war so far?
It is hard to know what weapons have resulted in what deaths in the war. While drone-recorded video footage offers some clear evidence, a comprehensive understanding of impact of bombs and missiles on people, vehicles, and buildings will come later.
For now, broad estimates of deaths and injuries offer a first assessment of the human cost of the war. As of March 2, the United Nations reported 752 confirmed civilian deaths in Ukraine, and noted this was likely an undercount. The Russian defense ministry confirmed that at least 498 of its soldiers had died so far in the war, while Ukraine claimed to have killed at least 5,300 Russian soldiers by March 1. The US government has estimated deaths in the war up to this point at 2,000 Russian soldiers and around 1,500 on the Ukrainian side.