As soon as people started to conquer “the fifth ocean”, or the sky, they made attempts to look behind the enemy lines, using air surveillance and reconnaissance vehicles. At first, such aircraft as hot-air balloons and airships were used to solve this problem but they failed to accomplish this task completely and, by the way, were detectable and vulnerable and their operation depended on a number of conditions.
By Roman Ilyushchenko
Pigeons and “War Hawks”
Meanwhile, inventors tried to develop a remotely controlled aircraft designed to inflict significant losses to the enemy by means of air attacks. As one of the first examples of using air threats, we can mention Olga, the Russian princess, who lived in the IX century. As a dangerous weapon, she used pigeons to burn down the city of Iskorosten, the capital of the Drevlians’ (a tribe of East Slavs) territory in order to put down the Drevlians rebellion. However, unpatented achievements of Russian geniuses had traditionally lived in the shadow of more pragmatic Anglo-Saxons’ inventions.
Officially, American inventors were the pioneers in the development of combat unmanned air vehicles (UAV). In 1990, Charles Kettering, a young military engineer from Ohio, developed a remotely controlled air vehicle fitted with clockwork that was designed to drop its wings at the destination point and hit the enemy as a flying bomb. Using the U.S. Government grants, he developed and tested a number of such aircraft with varying degrees of success, but eventually these aircraft were not used in combat operations. In the meantime, meticulous German inventors caught the idea to develop the combat unmanned air vehicle. English aircraft designers had also advanced in this field.
Soviet specialists began to apply this concept in the 1930s. Aircraft designer Nikitin developed a special-purpose “flying- wing” torpedo plane (the PSN-1 and PSN-2 models). In early 1940, he demonstrated the project of the unmanned flying torpedo with a flying range of 100 km or longer (at airspeed of 700 km/h). However, these developments were not applied in practice because at that time the priority was given to bomber aircraft while air reconnaissance was carried out by means of special airplanes.
After the World War II, the concept to apply UAVs for combat operations was revived. In 1957, the Tupolev Design Bureau was ordered to develop a mobile medium-range nuclear supersonic winged missile. The Tu-121 prototype model made its first flight on August 25, 1960, but further developments were stopped. The developed prototype was used as an air target and for development of the following reconnaissance UAVs: Tu-123 “Yastreb”, Tu-143 "Reis” and Tu-141 “Strizh” used by the Soviet Air Forces in the period of 1964–1979. These prototypes showing good performance in the 1970s were also exported to the Warsaw Pact countries, some African countries, and the Middle East countries, including Iraq and Syria. In the 1970–1980s, the USSR was the world’s leader in production of such UAVs – about 950 Tu-143 aircraft were produced during this period, not to mention other models. The Tu-143 aircraft were widely used in combat operations during the 1982 Lebanon War. The Tu-141 “Strizh” aircraft is still used by the Ukrainian Air Force in the undeclared war in Novorossiya.
UAV developments were intensified due to certain local wars and armed conflicts in the Middle East, the Near East, and Indo-China. Remotely piloted air vehicles (RPAV) and unmanned air vehicles (UAV) were used by both parties during the Persian Gulf War in 1991 (Operation Desert Storm), basically as platforms for air surveillance and reconnaissance. During this operation, the Allies used tactical reconnaissance UAVs for over 530 sorties with the total operating time of about 1,700 flying hours. Besides, UAVs were used during the UN peace-keeping operations in the former Yugoslavia. Russian UAVs were widely used during the counter-terrorist operations in the North Caucasus. Now they are operated in Syria where the Russian Aerospace Defense Forces are successfully hitting facilities and the infrastructure of the so-called Islamic State.
This article is basically intended to cover Russian PLAVs used for air reconnaissance, and their application and operation. In order to give a proper and valid description, we have had to study a number of opinions expressed by several specialists – Russian security forces operating officers.
More Expensive Than a Soldier's Life
Major Timur S., an Army Special Forces officer, believes that the RPAVs used in his military unit do not have the required performance for appropriate terrain reconnaissance and remains skeptical of their application. However, in his opinion, some Russian security forces such as GRU (Main Intelligence Directorate of the Russian General Staff) or FSB (Federal Security Service of Russia) do have appropriate UAVs mostly made by foreign manufacturers. In Timur’s military unit, the command is trying to preserve UAVs because this equipment is very expensive and only a few air vehicles are available. So they use UAVs for exceptional cases only: some commanders believe it is easier to account for a soldier killed during any sweep operation than for a lost multi-million priced UAV. Even if the enemy fails to shoot down the drone, it may be lost or fall into the enemy’s hands, causing more severe effects.
In addition, the officer lists typical disadvantages of UAVs such as a high noise level that unmask a drone, frequent daily operations that allow the enemy to detect and shoot down a drone; the foreign-made matrix that may cause malfunction of such UAVs in case of armed conflict between our country and the country of its manufacture. If you use a fixed wing UAV, it is difficult to detect the enemy hidden in reeds or in the forest; such UAVs have low battery life and low operating time of up to 1.5 hours. In case of connection loss, UAVs usually lose orientation and fall down. This design issue can be tackled if the UAV is able to return to the initial point even if it has lost contact. That is why, following the proverb “necessity is the mother of invention” our special forces have managed to launch home-made UAVs assembled by amateurs. Such UAVs surpass the factory-made models by some parameters.
The tactical special force unit, the major serves for, prefers copters (helicopter-type UAVs), but there is a small number of such UAVs that are supplied for the military forces, the officer admits. Although, copters can be easily destroyed by small arms, but as the experience of the U.S. Army’s Operation Desert Storm shows only two RPAVs were classified as battle losses among all UAVs lost during this operation. This low loss factor is likely to be based on small sizes of UAVs, so the Iraqi army did not classified the drones as a serious threat.
“Eleron” UAV Sounds Proudly
Captain Ilya M. is a platoon commander of the special force unit, using the special reconnaissance system (SRS) based on the remotely piloted air vehicle (RPAV). Since 2010, his unit has been using two types of UAV: the tactical short-range “Eleron-3SV” UAV and the tactical medium-range “Eleron-10SV” UAV (operational-tactical range) manufactured by ENICS, CJSC (Kazan). Below is listed the basic performance data for these UAV versions: short-range “Eleron” UAV: weight – 5 kg, flying range – up to 25 km, operating time – 90 min, operating altitude range – 100…1,000 km, ceiling limit – 5,000 km at airspeed of 70 to 130 km/h. Medium-range “Eleron” UAV: weight – 15.5 kg, useful load – up to 4.5 kg, flying range – up to 60 km, longer operating time – up to 2.5 h.
Basically, these models do not have any significant distinctive features. For the “Eleron-10SV” UAVs, the flight altitude is not of crucial importance because the best altitude for the air reconnaissance drone is between 1,000 and 1,500 m. The same criterion can be applied to the flying range parameter: if the UAV is out the rated flying range, a failure during data transmission may occur (especially, during video data transmission). For example, the distance between the receiver and the operational-tactical “Eleron” UAV may reach up to 100 km, but in this case the UAV will not transmit live video. However, photos and telemetry data processed by the drone sometimes provide sufficient situational awareness. The weight of this model seems to be excessive, but it provides better in-flight stability in air turbulence conditions. However, this model has some operating limitations related to the launch conditions. For example, if the wind speed is over 15m/s, it is prohibited to launch this UAV; otherwise, the model may turn over.
In March 2012, near the Gubden settlement (Dagestan) the “Eleron” UAVs helped locate and eliminate the so-called “Gubden rebel group” that had included 18 members and managed to successfully hide in a rough mountain area for a long time. This time around, a good result allowed to compensate all material costs spent for the development of the air reconnaissance UAV, and moral damage, too.
The surveillance equipment installed on these UAVs allows not only to find, but also to identify objects and facilities.
In Ilya’s opinion, the fixed wing RPAV has proved successful not only in visual surveillance, but also in reconnaissance, photomap panoramic shooting for map correction and in maintaining or jamming communication as well. According to the officer, the UAV has a low noise level that does not exceed the common background noise. When flying at an operating altitude, it remains undetectable for the enemy who is not very concerned about air surveillance.
Meanwhile, a military unit operating in Syria has lost one of such UAVs, reportedly shot down. It was shot down by a small-arms bullet that hit the drone battery. Any hits in the other parts of the UAV – panels or tail fins – will not affect its flight due to the design stability. And more: any self-guided missile will not be able to bring down such an UAV due to very low performance insufficient for self-guidance.
“Nelk” UAV – Show-Off Breaker
Helicopter-type UAVs are multi-role integrated systems for terrain and ground objects air reconnaissance based on the vertical takeoff/landing UAV (informally – copters). Such copters were used by Ilya’s special force unit in the field only as experimental models but demonstrated good performance. Here we are talking about the Nelk-V6 system developed by Nelk, a R&D Center in Moscow. Depending on modification, the weight of this UAV may be about 3.5 kg. Useful load weight: up to 2 kg. Copters are the best solution for military units involved in tactical missions, reconnaissance and search, and rescue operations that require a detailed image of the area or overcoming of camouflage security systems.
The copters’ advantages are the absence of special launching equipment, therefore, a reduced pre-launch period – up to 7 minutes (2-3 times faster that the fixed wing UAVs); enhanced load capacity – they can lift a useful load of up to 20 kg or heavier, including TV and photographic cameras, an IR imager, laser scanners, jamming devices, and other special-purpose equipment that allows to visualize the desired terrain area or the ground object with a higher resolution.
According to the special force unit officer, the Nelk system has such disadvantages as vulnerability, i.e. it takes a clear shot to bring it down; the prototype’s high price (over 2 mln rubles) and a short flight time of up to 1 hour due to high energy consumption for operation of its 4 to 8 motors.
As an example, the captain told about direct contact between UAV designers and military field operators. As for the Eleron systems, the captain knows a man involved in development of these UAVs. They call each other on occasion and this designer offers consultations and recommendations, i.e. they have managed to establish “a perfect communication link” that designers, manufacturers, and operators shall theoretically strive for! Unfortunately, such approach is non-standard. While the ENICS designers are ready for such contacts and help military personnel eliminate any faults, the other designers maintain their distance from military customers, following the principle “Sell and Forget”.
At the end of the interview, Ilya expressed his skeptical opinion on foreign-made equivalents (made in the USA and Israel) that are widely advertized in mass media. The officer explained: “These UAVs do not have any fundamental distinctions from our models. All this hype is for showing off only, and we know how to break show-off!”