Thursday, 13 October 2022

Too Little, Too Late - A Guide To Russia’s Armed Drones

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
Russia is notably lagging behind in the development and production of unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs). Its attempts to catch up have included weaponising the Forpost UAV, which is a licensed copy of the Israeli IAI Searcher, and designing an indigenous UCAV known as the Kronshtadt Orion. Several more advanced UCAV designs are also in the pipeline, including Sukhoi's Okhotnik-B, and Kronshtadt's Sirius and Grom projects. The future of these systems, already in some doubt due to a lack of access to certain key technologies, will be even more so now that Russia finds itself buckling under the weight of international sanctions. 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. To add further insult to injury, Russia has recently found itself forced to turn to Iran for the acquisition of Mohajer-6 UCAVs and Shahed-131/6 loitering munitions to satisfy its operational needs during the 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
Likely because of the limited numbers available, attrition and denial of effective operations by Ukrainian air defence, and simply less experience with the use of UCAVs, the influence of the Forpost-R and Orion on the conflict has so far been neglible. Just three MBTs, four AFVs, two towed artillery pieces and nine vehicles are visually confirmed to have been struck by Russian Forpost-Rs and Orions at the confirmed loss of at least six Orion and one Korsar UCAVs (and two Mohajer-6s). [1] [2] Even if Russia's development and production of UCAVs has been too late to be of much impact on the Russo-Ukrainian War and the international drone market, positive experiences gained with their use over Ukraine could mean Russia will be prompted to acquire them in greater numbers instead of more expensive manned aircraft.
Previous attempts by Russia to introduce UCAVs in the 2000s through the Sokol Tribute-BARUK and Mikoyan Skat projects proved unsuccessful due to a lack of funding. Russia returned to designing large UAVs and UCAVs in the early 2010s with high ambitions, with an AWACS UAV (Kronstadt Helios-RLD ''Orion-2'') and a carrier-borne aerial refueling drone (Mikoyan Multifunctional Shipborne UAV) said to be under development. The successful conclusion of these and other UAV projects is highly unlikely, and in most areas progress has been underwhelming compared to their international equivalents. Though the Kronshtadt Sirius and Grom have similar mission profiles to the Bayraktar Akıncı and Kızılelma respectively, a lack of a high-tech industrial base, suitable precision-guided munitions (PGMs), ability to manufacture or import key components, inferior flight and payload characteristics and lack of experience with serial production of such UCAVs in general means that these products will almost certainly have inferior capabilities, if they are ever produced in meaningful numbers at all.

A Forpost-R with four KAB-20 PGMs.

To go with the range of prospective UCAVs a new generation of armament has been designed to exploit their characteristics to the fullest. Though Russia has displayed its UCAV designs alongside a vast arsenal of different guided bombs and air-to-surface missiles, many remain as of yet in the development phase, with their introduction facing uncertainty as several critical components that cannot be produced indigenously are 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 certainly an appallingly ineffective mission profile for a UCAV. [1] Nonetheless, even Russia's largest UCAV and loyal wingman designs have been displayed alongside (O)FAB dumb bombs and even RBK-500U cluster bombs, indicating that such deployments are in fact an intended capability. This mirrors other modern Russian combat aircraft and their operations, which due to the costs involved and the fact that vast stocks of dumb munitions are readily available have continued relying on iron bombs to a far greater extent than any of the air forces of its peers.

Russia's operational drone munitions arsenal has since expanded with several other munitions types, 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 PGM. [2] 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 contemporary Western munitions like the U.S. AGM-114 and Turkish MAM-L. For example, in one instance on the battlefields of Ukraine, a KAB-20 deployed by a Forpost-R missed the static BMP-2 it was targeting, resulting in damage to the vehicle instead of a kill.

The goal of this list is to comprehensively catalogue Russia's current and future inventory of unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) and their armament. In an effort to streamline the list and avoid unnecessary confusion, this list only includes drones associated with Russia's defence industry or military-grade UAVs that have at least some chance of entering service. The year in brackets refers to the first flight. This list doesn't include armed quadcopter and helicopter designs.
(Click on the drones and their armament to get a picture of them)

Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles - Operational

Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles - Prototypes That Are Currently Flying

  • Sukhoi S-70 Okhotnik-B [2019] [Can also operate as loyal wingman] (Capable of carrying up to 2000kg of armament including nearly all types of guided and unguided armament currently in Russian service. Will also be able to carry air-to-air missiles) [Serial produced examples are to feature a flat nozzle to reduce their thermal and radar signature]
  • Sokol Altius [2016] (Capable of carrying up to 1000kg of guided and unguided armament)

Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles - In Early Development

[1] Nascent Capabilities: Russian Armed Drones Over Ukraine
[2] List Of Aircraft Losses During The 2022 Russian Invasion Of Ukraine
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Nascent Capabilities: Russian Armed Drones Over Ukraine