Russia’s Armed Forces Expand UAV Strike Capability
Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor
By: Roger McDermott
The Jamestown Foundation
Complementing the Russian Armed Forces’ drive to integrate Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities, growing interest additionally centers on the development of new unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). This links to General Staff perspectives on modern and future warfare, while drawing upon the lessons learned from extensive UAV use in the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria (see EDM, July 10, 2018; February 13, 2019). In these theaters, Russian drones have mainly been employed for reconnaissance, Electronic Warfare (EW), battle damage assessment (BDA) or experiments with reconnaissance-strike complexes. Yet, that battle experience exposed the need to both diversify UAV types and to develop greater strike potential. Recent appearances of experimental UAVs and those displayed at arms shows indicate a surge in design activity around offensive lethal UAV systems (Kalashnikovgroup.ru, February 17; see EDM, January 29).
One recent illustration of this UAV innovation trend was on display at this year’s International Defense Exhibition and Conference (IDEX-2019), in Abu Dhabi. The Kalashnikov Concern (part of Rostec) presented a model of the Kub, a high-precision attack UAV, designed by the Izhevsk-based Zala Aero to remotely destroy ground targets by exploding on impact. Rostec CEO Sergei Chemezov said, “This complex is a step toward completely new combat operations.” The Kub flies for up to 30 minutes at speeds between 80 and 130 kilometers per hour; its length is less than one meter, with a wingspan of 1.2 meters; it can carry a maximum load of 3 kilograms. Its designers boast that the UAV can overcome modern air-defense systems (Kalashnikovgroup.ru, February 17).
In October 2017, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu stated that the future procurement priorities for UAVs would focus on “shock drones.” Since then, a number of Russia’s leading domestic defense manufacturers have expressed confidence in their abilities to carry out such research and development. This has resulted in references to building “speed drones.” During the Army 2017 weapons exposition, the leadership of RSK MiG noted advances in heavy UAVs capable of high-speed flight weighing 1–15 tons. Ilya Tarasenko, the head of RSK MiG, explained that the company is working to create an unmanned option for manned aircraft, taking into account the specifics of the UAV: on-board equipment, control system, ground control station, communications and the power distribution system. In March 2018, Alexander Kochkin, the deputy director general of Tekhmash (part of Rostec), noted that the company had begun to develop combat payloads for UAVs that could include close-combat weapons or bombs (Aviation21.ru, November 28, 2018).
Interest in research and development of heavy UAVs with increased combat-strike payloads was in evidence in January 2019, with public sightings of the experimental heavy S-70 Okhotnik (Hunter). This unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) may well remain in the design stage for several years, though test flights are scheduled for this year (Voyennoye Obozreniye, January 24). The design priorities of several leading UAV manufacturers, as well as the publicly available information on the experimental Okhotnik, provide evidence that among the diversification of future Russian UAVs will be an emphasis on heavy “shock drones” (see EDM, January 29).
Moscow’s interest in UAV development is decades long. Modern UAV production began in the 1980s. The first Soviet drone models were used by the Russian Armed Forces during operations in Chechnya; though they did not always perform. New models began to enter service in the 2000s, with Dozor-85 as one of the first reconnaissance platforms. In the aftermath of the Russia-Georgia War in August 2008, the defense ministry markedly increased its interest in reequipping the Armed Forces with modern UAV complexes. And during combat operations in southeastern Ukraine since 2014, examples of modern Russian UAVs have frequently been used, including the Orlan-3M and Orlan-10, launched by catapult and landing by parachute. The Orlan-10 UAV features as part of an advanced EW system, the Leer-3 RB-341V, which has operated in both Ukraine and Syria. In addition to its reconnaissance functions and EW missions, it appears to be able to carry out psychological operations (PSYOPS): the Leer-3 blocks enemy cell phones and can then transmit its own messages to them, as was recorded in Donbas (Gazeta.ru, February 17).
In December 2018, Shoigu said that more than 2,100 UAVs have entered service in Russia and promised that the defense industry had made sufficient progress on advanced reconnaissance and shock drones to permit procurement to commence this year. “The creation of unmanned, reconnaissance, medium-range attack complexes is coming to an end. From next year, they must begin to reach the troops. Each year, as part of the fulfillment of the state defense order, the troops will receive more than 300 medium-range and short-range [drone] aircraft,” Shoigu explained. This appears to include a shock version of the Forpost reconnaissance UAV, the Orion and Karnivora strike UAVs, and sixth-generation heavy UAVs, the Okhotnik, Korsar and Katran. During the Victory Day Parade on May 9, 2018, the Korsar and Katran were on display (TASS, December 18, 2018).
Reportedly, Shoigu has set the target of procuring 300 UAVs or UCAVs annually, in order to boost the overall quantity and types of complexes available for the Armed Forces. This process of stepping up production and use of unmanned systems is consistent with existing interest in C4ISR as well as furthering EW and reconnaissance-strike capabilities. The range of unmanned complexes and their increasingly integral role in Russia’s combat capability and combat support seems set to grow. Much of this stems from the General Staff’s eagerness to learn lessons from its experience of combat operations, for which the extensive use of UAVs in support of Russian military operations in Syria has provided a powerful impetus. These were most in evidence in providing reconnaissance and intelligence for Russian forces, as well as BDA and, to a lesser extent, experimenting with strike systems. The General Staff appears to have concluded that more unmanned systems are needed with greater diversity in order to meet the demands of future operations (Kalashnikovgroup.ru, February 17; Rossiyskaya Gazeta, December 18, 2018).
While experimental heavy UAVs indicate Russia’s longer-term need for additional strike systems in support of combat aviation, there are also important signals about the trends within the defense industry to offer unmanned complexes to fit a wider array of combat and combat-support missions. The Okhotnik (still in the design and trial phase) as well as the new Kub system suggest a desire to innovate as well as find ways to cope with the international sanctions regime against Russia. It appears that this high-technology side of the defense industry is coping with such challenges.
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Photo source: Model of the Russian Kub combat UAV (Source: Zerohedge.com)