Thursday, 7 April 2022

Nascent Capabilities: Russian Armed Drones Over Ukraine

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
With modern U.S., Chinese and Turkish UCAVs already operationally deployed in a multitude of nations and conflicts worldwide, Russia has been notably lagging behind in the development and production of such drones. Favouring instead attack helicopters like the Ka-52 and Mi-28 to perform strike missions while loitering over the battlefield, they adhere to a doctrine that disregards the UCAV's carefully executed reconnaissance and strike operations for more aggressive search and assault missions. Each new conflict of the modern age seems to showcase the merit of the UCAV to greater detail however, and Russia has thus increasingly opted to invest in the concept as well.
Its attempts to catch up have included weaponising the Israeli-designed Forpost UAV, which is a licensed copy of the IAI Searcher. The resulting drone, the Forpost-R, though not designed as a UCAV from the outset, is almost entirely Russian-made and capable of conducting light strike missions. In similar vein, the Kronshtadt Orion, an indigenous surveillance/reconnaissance UAV produced by Russia's own Kronshtadt company, has also been developed into multiple armed variants slowly entering service.

Several more advanced, dedicated UCAV designs are also in the pipeline, including Sukhoi's ambitious Okhotnik-B, and Kronshtadt's Helios "Orion-2", Sirius and Grom projects. The future of these systems, already in some doubt due to a chronic lack of proper funding and a lack of access to certain key technologies, will be even more so now that Russia finds itself plastered with sanctions in what is coming close to all-out economic warfare between it and the West. Regardless of the continued course of their development, it is certain that Russia has all but missed the boat when it comes to cashing in on the worldwide drone revolution, with most potential export customers rapidly finding their needs satisfied by Chinese, US, Turkish and Israeli designs.

To go with a new generation of UCAVs a new generation of armament is typically required to make them maximally effective. Though the Orion has been displayed alongside a vast arsenal of different guided bombs and anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs), many remain as of yet in the development phase, with their introduction facing uncertainty with several critical components that cannot be produced indigenously likely to fall under sanctions. When the Orion was sent to Syria for operational testing in 2018, it was even seen deploying OFAB-100-120 dumb bombs in what is a highly unconventional, and certainly less effective, mission profile for an armed UAV. [1]
Its tentative arsenal has since expanded with several other munitions, including an air-launched version of the Kornet ATGM known as the Kh-BPLA (that was infamously used against a helicopter UAV in an exercise simulating a rather far-fetched scenario) and the KAB-20. [2] These same weapons are also cleared for use on the Forpost-R, which sports four hardpoints compared to the Orion's three. Footage has shown that the KAB-20, though it is one of the more realistic types of weaponry for these drones, so far falls short of achieving the accuracy of munitions like the Turkish MAM-L. By example, in one scenario in Ukraine, a KAB-20 deployed by a Forpost-R managed to miss the static BMP-2 it was targeting, leading to damage instead of a kill. [3]

A Ukrainian artillery piece is struck by a KAB-20 munition deployed by a Kronshtadt Orion.

Likely because of the limited numbers available, attrition/denial of effective operation by Ukrainian air defences (so far leading to the visually confirmed loss of at least two Orion and one Korsar UCAVs), and simply less experience with the use of UCAVs, the influence of the Forpost-R and Orion on the conflict so far appears neglible. [4] However, smaller unarmed systems like the Orlan-10 have been used in large numbers with greater success. Even if their development of UCAVs has largely been too late to be of much impact on the international drone market, positive experiences gained with their operation could mean Russia will be prompted to acquire them in greater numbers instead of more expensive manned aircraft. The deployment of UCAVs on both sides during the 2022 invasion of Ukraine emphasises once more the fact that these systems have not only become capable of operating in high intensity conflicts, but are now in fact some of the most capable assets any side can deploy. Certainly, they are less vulnerable than attack helicopters like the Mi-28 and Ka-52, whose destruction can lead to the death of two pilots and which generally have to hover in position to fire ATGMs, making them easy targets. [5]

These three Kronshtadt Orions likely constitute a significant portion of the fleet currently available to Russia.

UCAVs ultimately not only offer much of the same capabilities as do attack helicopters at a lower cost and while being exposed to less risk, they also have massive potential for the expansion of their operating tasks. For instance, Ukraine has managed to employ its Bayraktar TB2 UCAVs in destruction of enemy air defences (DEAD) missions to great success, thereby contributing to their own survival as well as other air force assets. [6] Such missions appear to remain beyond the reach of Russia's nascent UCAV force, though as it becomes more experienced in their operation it may ultimately to take over other tasks of Russian Air Force assets as well.

A list of vehicles and equipment visually confirmed to have been destroyed by Russian UCAVs over Ukraine can be viewed below. This list is updated as additional footage becomes available. Hits on personnel and buildings are not included in this list.
(Click on the numbers to get a picture of each individual vehicle or piece of equipment)

Tanks (3)


Armoured Fighting Vehicles (2)

Infantry Fighting Vehicles (1)


A Forpost-R drops a KAB-20 guided bomb during the Zapad 2021 military exercise in September 2021.

[1] Russia Provides A Glimpse Of Its Orion Drone Executing Combat Trials In Syria
[6] Defending Ukraine - Listing Russian Army Equipment Destroyed By Bayraktar TB2s

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