Drones in Russian Army

Author Pavel Rumyantsev. 

After the World War II, the progress in electronics, radio equipment, and development of automated control system allowed the leading world powers to develop the first prototypes of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) by the early 1960s. Shortly after UAVs appeared on the scene, they took a very important position in the field of aerial reconnaissance by performing part of reconnaissance aircraft functions. Along with the new possibilities for military applications, UAVs offered two breakthrough advantages – they are far cheaper than an aircraft and, moreover, the loss of UAV has an incomparably less damage effect than the loss of a reconnaissance aircraft with a crew onboard.


UAVs in the USSR: One Step from Prosperity to Decay

By the early 1970s, the USA and the USSR developed series-produced models of tactical UAVs such as the AMQ-34 FireBee and Tu-141 Reis that opened the new era for drone applications. These UAVs were able to effectively accomplish various types of aerial reconnaissance missions over the enemy territory, covering hundreds of kilometers and transmitting real-time intelligence data to the command station. Tactical UAVs such as the Soviet Tu-143 able to perform deep reconnaissance in the frontline area were also developed. The Soviet Union took leading positions in development, production and application of UAVs. For example, during 16 years of production, since 1974, over 950 Reis UAVs were produced. By the late 1980s, the Soviet combined-arms armies included full UAV wings that provided in-depth frontline area aerial reconnaissance.

The collapse of the Soviet Union had very tragic and far-reaching consequences for all sectors of the Russian defense industry, including the production of unmanned aerial vehicles. First of all, due to the total lack of financing the most powerful UAV grouping had rapidly degraded. As a result, the Russian army was thrown back for decades in terms of possibilities and means of reconnaissance. Second, new UAV development projects were terminated, as the world faced a vigorous progress in development of UAVs. Western countries’ armies began to use small-sized tactical UAVs, medium-range drones and even “intercontinental” UAVs able to fly over thousands of kilometers at a very high altitude. Russia had nothing to boast of, except the Pchela UAV, which was developed to provide target destination for the Smerch systems, heavy multiple rocket launchers. Attempts to use this UAV for aerial reconnaissance during the wars in Chechnya and South Ossetia showed discouraging results.

War in South Ossetia – Combat Test

As a result, by the mid-2000s, Russia’s gap in development of UAVs had reached 15–20 years in comparison to the leading military powers while the Russian army was fully deprived of such a tool for performing combat operations. The war in South Ossetia obviously displayed these discoursing results. To accomplish tactical reconnaissance missions, Russian troops had to operate in the old-fashioned way, using reconnaissance groups. The lack of applicable reconnaissance means during this war caused combat casualties. On August 9, 2008, the battalion task force (BTF) of the 135th motorized rifle regiment made an attempt to raise a blockade of Russian peacekeeping forces (blocked in the peacekeeping forces’ compound on the outskirts of the city of Tskhinvali) that nearly resulted in a disaster. In the morning on August 9, due to the lack of reconnaissance means, Russian troops failed to detect the deployment of a large grouping of Georgian forces. As a result, the unblocking group of Russian troops suddenly encountered the main forces of the Georgian army and was blocked itself. Later, in the course of an intense battle in the streets of Tskhinvali against superior Georgian forces, the battalion tactical group of the 135th regiment lost 10 KIA and a few tens of WIA. Only a fast response by sending reinforcements, plus heavy artillery and air strikes delivered in due time saved the BTF from wipeout. If the Russian troops operating in South Ossetia had had at least a single UAV, they could easily have observed the entire area of combat operations and locate the disposition of the enemy forces and, therefore, avoid fatal consequences and save a large number of lives.

The war in South Ossetia revealed an urgent need for the complete upgrading of the whole system of communications, troops command and control and reconnaissance in the Russian army. This became one of the main goals of the largest military reform in modern Russia that was initiated shortly after the war. This reform was intended to expand Russian army informatization to a great extent and help the army to adapt to the so-called next-gen “network centric warfare”. Reconnaissance and real-time data transmission play one of the key roles in this concept. However, the implementation of this concept is not possible without UAVs and Russia has made substantial efforts to develop them.

As far back as 2009, Russia purchased a certain number of Israeli UAVs of various classes in order to study and familiarize with the best practices available (for the time being, Israel is actually the worldwide leader in development of UAVs and has a formidable experience in the drone combat employment) while many Russian companies have launched UAV development projects to be tested and approved by military customers.

Cornerstone – Orlan-10 UAV

The main goal was to develop small-sized tactical UAVs. Looking like model aircraft made by airplane modeling amateurs, these UAVs when disassembled may be carried by 1-2 persons; they require a small catapult to be launched and are able to land anywhere on small-sized pads. These UAVs may be employed even by small troops (at the level of the company) to provide real-time intelligence data acquisition. They are able to hover for hours and observe the entire space within a radius of a few dozens of kilometers. The critical disadvantages of these models are their data transmission lines vulnerable to EW jamming and high vulnerability to small-caliber anti-aircraft artillery strikes.

By the early 2010s, Russian companies demonstrated a large number of UAV models; however, only three models eventually reached the state testing phase. While only the Orlan-10 UAV model had passed all applicable tests. It was put into service and series production in 2013. Over 200 Orlan-10 UAVs have been produced so far, as most of Russian army’s combined-arms brigades and divisions include companies armed with such UAVs. Actually, the development and large-scale production of the Orlan-10 UAVs to be supplied to the army allows Russia to take back its position as the worldwide leader in development of UAVs. Even at the testing stage, the Orlan-10 UAV has managed to impress military customers. With its weight of 14 kg only and the flight speed of 100–150 km/h, this UAV is able to observe the combat operational zone reaching up to120 km and to ensure the operational endurance up to 16 hours. The most important thing is that the Orlan-10 UAV is built into the Integrated Tactical Command Control System (ITCCS) and may broadcast real-time intelligence data to all the combat vehicles equipped with the ITCCSs, i.e. to tanks, artillery units, infantry combat vehicles, armored personnel carriers, etc. Data transmission is enabled via a high security encrypted communication channel. The UAV may be used as an air gunnery spotter (in particular, for such modified self-propelled gun systems as the Msta-S howitzer or the next-gen Koalitsiya system) and offers multiple options for payload carrying. For example, these UAVs may be used for electronic reconnaissance and even for jamming the enemy’s tactical radio communication systems. Orlan-10 UAVs may be interconnected within a wide network. This option allows to enhance their default high operational efficiency drastically.

Orlan-10 UAVs constantly demonstrate the highest performance during large-scale military exercises and Russian army’s combat readiness checks. These drones proved to be very useful when observing relocations of Ukrainian troops in the zone near the Russian border during the war in the Eastern part of Ukraine in 2014. Now, they are successfully employed by Russia for its air operations in Syria.

 Catch Up and Surpass

From year to year Russia intensifies the production of UAVs. For the last few years, the number of UAVs operated by the Russian army has been multiplied. In addition to the development and production of UAVs, various methods and concepts of their employment are constantly being tested. To be sure, for a few years Russia has managed to shorten nearly 20-year gap in development of small-sized UAVs and has successfully mastered the concept of “network centric warfare”. Nonetheless, Russian designers and engineers have a lot of work to develop UAVs. Despite infallible success in development of short-range UAVs and manually operated UAVs, for the time being, Russia has not developed medium-range drones, not to mention long-range solutions or attack UAVs. For instance, the U.S. Reaper UAV is able to carry over 1,000 kg of combat load and up to 4 Hellfire anti-tank missiles or the similar amount of JDAM-class (Joint Direct Attack Munition) guided bombs.

For now, Russia is intensely developing the Dozor-600 UAV as an equivalent to the U.S. Predator system, an attack UAV. Some advanced long-range UAVs are also under development. For example, M.P. Simonov Experimental Design Bureau (formerly named Sokol, Kazan) and Transas (St. Petersburg) have co-developed the prototype of the heavy UAV Altius. The development prototype has already been built at Kazan Aviation Factory and even occasionally “spotted” on Google maps. According to available data, this 5-ton UAV is able to cover up to 10,000 km and will be fitted with all types of electronic reconnaissance equipment. Heavy UAVs are unlikely to be supplied to the Russian army until the 2020s. To be sure, their appearance will give nearly immense possibilities for various applications. For example, there are some long-term projects to develop the Airborne Early Warning (AEW) unmanned aircraft based on a heavy UAV. Experts estimate that just 20-25 drones of this class are able to provide 24-hour continuous radar field over the entire gigantic territory of Russia (for now, the lack of a continuous radar field over the country’s territory is a serious problem). Probably, such drones will be used for specific onboard applications for the future Russian aircraft carrier.

No doubt that few years will pass and Russia will again become one of the worldwide leaders in development of UAVs, as an intense employment of UAVs during potential armed conflicts allows to save lives of military personnel and provide better combat effectiveness.

Our partners