Drones Before the Age of Drones
If you follow any news story about modern military activities, you will undoubtedly come across some notation about the use of UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), or drones as they are more commonly called. Modern militaries are making increasingly varied use of unmanned, remotely piloted aircraft for reasons of cost effectiveness and pilot safety among others. While today’s generation of remotely piloted aircraft are quite advanced, capable and representative of a technology that has quite come into its own; they are most certainly not the first generation of such machines to be in military use.
Indeed, remotely piloted aircraft have been around since the beginning of powered flight. However, it was not until after the Second World War that drones became something more than disposable aerial targets for gunners to sharpen their skills upon. In the early Cold War years, the drone’s potential as a reconnaissance platform began to be explored by East and West alike and the U.S. military used reconnaissance drones extensively in the Vietnam conflict.
Lavochkin, famed manufacturer of fighter aircraft in World War II, gave the Soviet Union its first UAV in 1953. Designated La-17, it was not widely exported and the Tupolev design Bureau came to the fore in making Soviet drones through the early and mid Cold War.
The Smaller, The Better
When the short range Tu-143 first flew in 1970, it represented an essentially new design. While it bore a resemblance to the medium range Tu-141 which had gone before it, the new aircraft was notably downsized from its forebear.
While the reduced size translated into reduced range, it also translated into weight and material savings; the weight savings also allowed the Rejs to be reused to a certain degree whereas drones which had gone before it were typically limited to a single use.
From its introduction to service in 1973, the Tu-143 was classified as a short range, ground launched, multi role reconnaissance machine. It was deployed using two large trucks, one for transport and loading and the other as the actual launch vehicle. The aircraft was launched with a rocket motor which could be jettisoned once it had been exhausted and the aircraft’s own jet engine had taken over propulsion duties. Once its mission had been completed, it returned to the ground via parachute.
Beyond a range of standard film cameras, the Reys could be equipped with infrared imagery gear or radiation and chemical sensors. A data link for transferring gathered information to ground bases was also standard on the Tu-143.
The Tu-143 could also be seen as something of an early stealth aircraft. This came partly from its small size and partly that its design specification called for minimal radar reflection from its surfaces. Measures taken to reduce aircraft’s radar and infrared signatures made it a very difficult target to detect for anyone trying to intercept it.
In service, the Rejs proved itself a flexible machine capable of successfully operating in a range of harsh geographic and climactic conditions and areas of heavy military action.
Notable military actions which made use of the machine were overflights of both Israel and Lebanon by Syria in 1982 as well as use by Soviet forces over Afghanistan.
A Small Family
Produced from 1970 to 1989, almost 1000 Tu-143s were made in three principal variations:
This was the baseline, standard reconnaissance variation.
An improved variation which began to appear in 1982.
Improvements included greater range and better flying characteristics as well as a completely modernized sensor system.
An aerial target drone variant introduced in 1985.
The Tu-143 Today
The baseline Tu-143 served the militaries of around a dozen countries and it would appear that all of them have retired it from service. My research for this piece showed several examples preserved in museums.
As late as 2011, the M-143 was still known to be in service with both Russia and Ukraine.
There isn’t a lot of English language information on the internet about this machine, but this Czech language article is a good read once put through a translator:
Link to article at valka.cz