Sunday 6 November 2022

Balkan Beats Aloft: The Serbian UAV Industry

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

The Serbian arms industry is flourishing, with anything from small arms to advanced guided weaponry being designed and produced for the Serbian Army and for a number of international customers including the UAE, Cyprus, Turkmenistan and Bangladesh. This meanwhile has come to include a number of unmanned aerial vehicle designs that have already entered service with the Serbian Army in limited quantities. More ambitious designs are also in the pipeline, including the Pegaz 011 UCAV, the Gavran 145 loitering munition and the X-01 Strsljen helicopter UCAV.

Nonetheless, the first unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) to enter operational service with the Serbian Armed Force ended up being a Chinese product. Six CH-92As were acquired in 2020 in a deal that also included Chinese assistance in the further development and testing of the indigenous Pegaz 011 in China. [1] Likely acquired to provide the Serbian Air Force with experience in the operation of UCAVs, and fitted with just two hardpoints for FT-8C AGMs, it is certain that the CH-92As are just an intermediate step in Serbia's search to acquire larger UCAVs.

Though initially rumoured to be interested in the Chinese Wing Loong I, Serbia has since voiced its intent to purchase the Turkish Bayraktar TB2. [2] Even as Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić has reported that his country has joined the queue for the TB2, expressing hope for deliveries to commence in 2023, an eventual acquisition of the Bayraktar TB2 appears doubtful. [3] While both countries are currently witnessing ''the golden age of Serbian-Turkish relations'', an acquisition of the TB2 by Serbia could end up jeopardising Türkiye's relationship and sales prospects with neighbouring countries such as Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and particularly Kosovo, which is still claimed by Serbia as its territory.  

A Chinese-made CH-92A UCAV in service with the Serbian Air Force.

Operating alongside the country's CH-92A UCAVs are the Israeli Orbiter 1 and the indigenously designed Vrabac reconnaissance UAVs. The Vrabac carries a small electro-optical turret under its nose for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) duties. The Orbiter 1 and Vrabac are currently in service with the 72nd Special Operations Brigade and the 63rd Parachute Brigade. A UCAV version of the Vrabac armed with six 40mm M22 unguided munitions was unveiled in 2022, although it's currently uncertain whether this variant is to enter service. [4]

The indigenous Vrabac reconnaissance UAV, which can also be armed with six 40mm grenades.

A more radical attempt at designing an armed drone is the Sila 750C UCAV. An unmanned variant of the Sila 750C light aircraft, this contraption was designed as a low cost alternative to more expensive UCAVs. Optimised for surveillance duties, the Sila 750C UCAV can be fitted with two weapon pylons fitted to two stub wings. These can either hold two 57mm BR-7-57 rocket pods or two RALAS air-to-ground missiles with a range of some 10km. The Sila 750C UCAV has failed to attract any customers since the unveiling of the project in 2015.

A more conventional drone development comes in the form of the Gavran (Raven) loitering munition that can carry a 13kg warhead out to a range of 145km (or 50km in loitering mode). Although the original design was visually more akin to a reconnaissance drone adapted to the role of loitering munition, even sporting a tricycle landing gear for a conventional runway takeoff, the design has meanwhile evolved into a compact version that is launched from ground-based canisters. These canisters are installed on trucks or trailers with either 18 or 27 box launchers.

The Gavran 145 loitering munition.

In the 1995 the airspace over Serbia witnessed the combat debut of the MQ-1 Predator. 30 years on Serbia is designing, producing and acquiring advanced unmanned aerial systems of its own. Although an acquisition of the Bayraktar TB2 from Türkiye appears unlikely due to political considerations, further development of the Pegaz 011 as well as the acquisition of additional UCAV types from China, such as the Wing Loong I or CH-95, could similarly fulfill Serbia's UCAV requirements. Other potential developments include the introduction of reconnaissance UAVs and loitering munitions, which thanks to the country's established unmanned industry can meanwhile be sourced locally.

(Click on the UAV and their armament to get a picture of them in Serbian service)

Surveillance Unmanned Aerial Vehicles - Operational

Surveillance Unmanned Aerial Vehicles - Prototypes / Not Yet Acquired

Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles - Operational

  • CH-92A [2020] (Can be armed with two FT-8C AGMs)
  • CH-95 [2023] (Can be armed with two AGMs or PGMs)

Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles - Prototypes

Loitering Munitions - Prototypes / Not Yet Acquired

[3] Serbia Joins ‘Queue’ for Turkish Bayraktar Drones