The US and Israel are universally recognized leaders in the development and use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones. Thousands of American and Israeli UAVs are operating across the world daily. China is already world’s largest producer of UAVs and is working on taking on a greater share in the military drone segment of the global market, competing against traditional leaders like the US and Israel.
Until recently Russia has been lagging behind in UAV development. Now it seems to be going to change with tangible progress made to narrow the gap. Russia’s UAV program currently underway includes the development of a range of large, small, and mid-sized drones.
The development and production of robots in the country is currently being undertaken by the Russian Foundation for Advanced Research Projects (an equivalent of the American Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA), as well as by various research institutes and centers.
The Foundation will be the organizing large-scale tournament in underwater and marine robotics on behalf of the board of the Military Industrial Commission of Russia and the Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin in 2018. “There are many tasks that need to be addressed in open maritime areas of Russia—including scientific and technical tasks related to the need to ensure the security of the country, as well as important environmental tasks—for example, monitoring the state of the water area and counteracting poachers.
Vast expanses of the sea require constant monitoring, including in the sparsely populated regions of Russia, where the use of appropriate robotic systems has helped to ensure full and continuous monitoring of the state of the ocean,” commented Alexey Kononov, the deputy head of the National Center for the Development of Technology and Basic Elements of Robotics, Foundation for Advanced Research Projects.
Russia has revealed a new drone prototype capable of tracking, intercepting and disarming enemy drones, the state-run TASS news agency reported in Nov 2019. Unlike existing Russian means of countering enemy unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), these “killer drones” will scramble their enemies’ networks to disable them, TASS quoted Viktor Kladov, director of international cooperation and regional policy at state industrial conglomerate Rostec, as saying. “Such systems are capable of detecting drones of different sizes, identifying them, overtaking control and effectively disabling them,” Rostec CEO Sergei Chemezov was quoted as saying by the Invest Foresight business magazine.
The first Russian helicopter-type unmanned aerial vehicle powered by hydrogen fuel cells was presented at the Army-2018 international forum. With the horizontal cruising speed of the drone up to 60 kph, the unmanned chopper can stay in the air at least 2.5 hours to conduct reconnaissance operations. Its payload is up to 5 kg. Kalashnikov Concern reported that it would start production of heavy unmanned aerial vehicles capable of carrying up to several tons of cargo and operating for several days at a time without needing to recharge.
Sukhoi S-70 Okhotnik-B (Hunter)
Russia recently tested its S-70 Okhotnik-B heavy attack drone in an air-to-air combat simulation at the Ashuluk training grounds, an exercise that aimed to assess its compatibility with the Su-57 stealth fighter in an unmanned wingman role.
The S-70 Okhotnik-B (Hunter) is a stealth-capable combat drone being developed by Sukhoi Design Bureau and Russian Aircraft Corporation MiG. The drone made its first flight in August 2019. The unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) is expected to be delivered to the Russian armed forces in 2024. Hunter strike drone has a range of about 3,500km, it has an anti-radar coating, and will store missiles and precision-guided bombs internally to avoid radar detection.
The Okhotnik, which means “Hunter” in Russian, is in the same class of drones as the Dassault nEUROn and Boeing Loyal Wingman that can act as force multipliers augmenting the capabilities of manned aircraft, especially 5th generation stealth fighters. These drones can substantially extend the sensor and weapon ranges of manned fighters, allowing the latter greater area coverage and kills per mission.
The mass of the UAV is in the range of 20 tons. It can fly at high subsonic speeds, operating within a radius of 4,000 kilometers, carrying a diverse target load, including a shock, with a mass of up to two tons. With the maximum take-off weight of 20t, the Okhotnik-B combat drone is significantly bigger than its Western counterparts such as Dassault nEUROn and Northrop Grumman X-47B. The length and wingspan of the Hunter UCAV are 14m and 20m, respectively.
The attack drone features two internal weapon bays to accommodate up to 2,000kg of guided and unguided munitions, including air-to-surface missiles and bombs. It is expected to fly at a speed of 1,000km/h and attain a maximum range of 6,000km. “The Okhotnik’s arsenal includes air-to-surface missiles and an array of bombs (glide and operator-controlled) that will not be suspended from the wings, but hidden inside the body to reduce visibility on enemy radar,” Professor Vadim Kozyulin of the Russian Academy of Military Sciences told Russia Beyond. They potentially include the OFZAB-500 high-fragmentation high-explosive incendiary bomb and the ODAB-500PMV fuel-air-explosive bomb, which were used during the campaign in Syria.
The series of tests put the Okhotnik in the form of a fighter-interceptor with simulated air-to-air missiles, which allowed for assessments of the coupling of the drone’s avionics with missile guidance systems and lead Su-57 fighters, according to Russian media reports. Previously, the Okhotnik had been tested for its flight qualities and on-board systems’ operations, the reports said.
Orion is a medium-altitude combat-capable UAV developed by Kronstadt, a part of Sistema JSFC. Kronstadt showcased the Orion drone, along with a full range of weapons, during the Army-2020 defence exhibition held in August 2020. The fixed-wing design of the Orion drone integrates V-shaped tail fins. The drone is made of carbon plastic composite materials to reduce the weight of fuselage. It is also equipped with an electric impulse anti-icing system for operation in low temperatures.
The drone can carry four guided bombs or four missiles, including the KAB-50 bombs and UPAB-50S 50kg guided munitions. The UPAB-50S missile can strike personnel and objects at a maximum distance of 30km. It can be attached with high-explosive (HE) fragmentation, cluster, and fuel-air explosive warhead types. The combat UAV is also installed with a new weapon guidance system.
The Orion UAV has a maximum speed of 200km/h while its maximum flight duration with the standard payload is 24 hours. Orion-E, the export version, has a maximum take-off weight of 1,000kg and can carry a 200kg payload, including four 50kg or two 100kg munitions.
Grom (Thunder) is a new stealth combat drone designed by Kronstadt. A mock-up of the UAV was presented during the Army-2020 trade show held in Moscow, in August 2020. The Thunder UCAV is intended to operate, along with the Su-35 and Su-57 fighter aircraft, to provide reconnaissance data and fire missiles upon receiving commands from the manned jet. With its dorsal inlet and V-shape tail, Russia’s long-range attack drone bears a striking resemblance to the Kratos XQ-58 Valkyrie stealthy unmanned combat aerial vehicle.
As the expert notes, the ‘Grom’s electronics and AI will also be able to work and interact with Su-35 fighter jets and Su-57 fifth-generation aircrafts, as well as get updates on the mission. The UAV will be able to take up to two tons of ammo on board and conduct missions at altitudes of up to 12 km. The machine has a wingspan of 10 meters and length of 13.8 meters. It will also be able to fly distances of up to 700 km without refuelling.
The drone has a maximum take-off weight of 7t and can carry a maximum payload of 2,000kg. It has four hard-points including two under the wing consoles and two inside the fuselage. It can carry Izdeliye 85, KAB-250-LG-E, KAB-500S-E, and X-38MLE munitions. The missiles are equipped with a warhead weighing 250 kg of high-explosive or penetrating type. High accuracy of destruction with these weapons is provided by thermal imaging and semi-active laser guidance systems. The X-38 launches are made at speeds from 54 to 1,620 km/h. At the same time, the flight speed of the munition itself can exceed Mach 2.
The stealthy drone can fly at a cruise speed of 800km/h and reach a maximum altitude of 12,000m. It has a maximum speed of approximately 1,000km/h, while the combat radius of the UAV is 700km. “It will be created under the ‘stealth’ technology with streamlined geometry of all structural elements as well as with a wide integration of radio-absorbing materials,” Konovalov says.
“The drone allows an army to use all the latest fighter jet missiles and bombs on drones and destroy enemy lines under the heavy fire from air defense systems,”, the company stated. The main goal of the company was to create an unmanned aerial vehicle that would take on an enemies’ first missile strikes and “clear” the way for fifth-generation fighters and the latest bombers with pilots on board. A squad of drones will be used to destroy clusters of enemy armored vehicles. The “big brother” will also have equipment for radio-electronic interference to “blind” enemy defences and protect small-sized drones from enemy air defense attacks.
ZALA 421-08M and ZALA 421-16E Drones for Arctic
Russia has developed drones to patrol the Arctic — or at least the areas around its oil and gas facilities. Russia is acting quickly to become dominating Geostrategic and Military power in the Arctic. Russia has been carrying out rapid Arctic militarization by building New airbases, icebreakers, ground forces, missiles and and carrying out military exercises there. Russia’s new military doctrine signed into effect on December 26, 2014, identified Arctic as one of three geopolitical arenas that Moscow has deemed vital to national security.
In December 2018, the Kalashnikov Design Bureau announced the ZALA 421-08M and ZALA 421-16E drones for Arctic surveillance. Built to fly for up to 250 minutes in sub-zero temperatures, the drones feature an automatic identification system that can gather information about a vessel at a distance of 100 kilometers away. They also have navigation systems that don’t relay on GPS, or the Russian version, GLONASS. The drones were developed to provide “safety of sea shipping and the round-the-clock protection of the perimeters,” said Kalashnikov Group CEO Vladimir Dmitriyev. They’ll also be used to monitor ice levels, according to a report in the state media outlet Tass. 21-08M and ZALA 421-16E.
A January test flight of the 20-ton Ohotnik long-range combat UAV near Novosibirsk took place in 10-degree Fahrenheit (-12° C) weather. The military-affiliated ZvezdaWeekly speculated that more Arctic testing may be on the way. Another potential Arctic UAV is the Triada tiltrotor, a vertical-takeoff, horizontal-landing aircraft that can fly from 80 to 160 kilometers in temperatures down to -58 Fahrenheit and observe and film objects out to five kilometers, ZvezdaWeekly wrote.
A recent report by TASS says the Advanced Research Foundation is working to create unmanned aerial vehicles for use in the Arctic, which can be in the air for up to four days. “The aircraft of increased autonomy should ensure the performance of functional tasks in non-stop flight at high latitudes or polar regions of the Earth – With a duration of at least four days,” the FPI specified.
The fund is also creating materials, electronic components, engines, payloads, and efficient information collection and processing algorithms for use in the Arctic zone. The report also noted work on a drone that can fly for four straight days, as well as demonstrators for technologies that allow vertical and ultrashort takeoff and landing. The Russian government is also funding university-level research into UAVs that can operate in the harsh Arctic climate. The complex has its own alternative navigation system GIRSAM, which is designed specifically for navigating both unmanned aircraft and ground and surface users in the face of suppression or absence of GPS or GLONASS signals.
The Altius-U medium altitude long endurance (MALE) drone is being developed by Ural Civil Aviation Plant (UZGA). The attack and reconnaissance capabilities of the drone are believed to be comparable to that of RQ-9 Reaper and RQ-4 Global Hawk UAVs. The Altius-U MALE UAV made its first flight in August 2019. It flew for 32 minutes at a maximum altitude of 800m in fully autonomous mode. The drone is expected to perform reconnaissance, strike and electronic attack missions for the Russian Air Force and Navy.
The fixed-wing design of the unmanned aerial vehicle incorporates a large high-mounted wing, a V-tail configuration and a three-leg retractable landing gear. Built using the composite materials, Altius is powered by two new VK-800C turboprop engines developed by the Klimov Design Bureau. The 7t drone can carry 2t of combat payload, including a family of Grom 9-A-7759 gliding bombs which can engage targets at a distance of 120km. The drone can target headquarters, radars, missile and air defence units and land-based cruise missile launchers while supporting low-intensity conflicts and counter-terrorism operations.
Very few nations boast drones capable of high-altitude long endurance (HALE) missions. Russia is to enter the club of the chosen. In late 2017, the Russian Defense Ministry awarded a HALE UAV contract to the Kazan-based Simonov design bureau. Russian Zvezda military news TV channel showed a video of Altair (Altius) heavy drone prototype aircraft number “03”, going through its first flight test.
Propelled by two RED A03/V12 500hp high fuel efficiency diesel engines, each producing a capacity of 500 hp on takeoff, the 5-ton heavy vehicle with a wingspan of 28.5 meters boasts a maximum altitude of 12km and a range of 10,000km at a cruising speed of 150-250km/h. Wingspan: about 30 meters. Maximum speed: up to 950 km/h. Flight endurance: 48 hours. Payload: two tons, which allows the creation of a strike version. The vehicle is able to autonomously take off and land or be guided by an operator from the ground.
The UAV can carry the usual range of optical and thermal sensors as well as synthetic-aperture ground-surveillance radar with the resolution of .1 meter at the range of 35km and 1 meter at the range of 125km. The communications equipment allows real-time data exchange.
The Kazan-based Eniks Design Bureau is working on the small T-16 weaponized aerial vehicle able to carry 6 kg of payload.
The new Russian Korsar (Corsair) tactical surveillance unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) will be upgraded to receive an electronic warfare system. Its operational range will be increased from 150km to 250km. The drone was revealed at Victory Day military parade along with the Korsar unmanned combat helicopter version. The rotary wing drone lacks the speed and altitude of the fixed wing variant, but has a great advantage of being able to operate without landing strips and can be sea-based. Both drones can carry guided and unguided munitions. The fixed-wing version can be armed with Ataka 9M120 missiles.
UAVs for Electronic warfare
Russia’s Defense Ministry announced Nov. 2018 that the nation had extended the range on its drone-carried jammers to 100 km, or over 60 miles. Drones as a platform for, and not just the target of, electronic warfare means that the sight of a flying robot overhead could signal incoming strikes as well as a sudden inability to call for help.
“Russia has been using a UAV-mounted cellphone jammer for a number of years now,” said Samuel Bendett, a research analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses. The drones operate in a two- or three-vehicle pod with a ground station, collectively grouped as a “Leer-3” system.
“When these UAVs fly in teams, one acts as a signal-and-comms relay while another acts as a jammer,” Bendett said. “These Leer-3 systems have been around for about two years at this point.”
What is changed is the range of the jammer. The Orlan-10 drones already have a range of 75 miles, which means that, with the latest update on the jammer, the drone pod can interfere with signals up to 135 miles away from where the drone was launched. TASS reports that the 60-mile range is a 3.5 times increase in distance from the initial range.
Russian forces are constantly training with Leer-3 UAVs as they practice adversary signal and cell comms suppression, identification and eventual destruction of the enemy force. In fact, this kind of training is part of the official [tactics, techniques and procedures] in electronic warfare and other forces across the Russian military.”
The Russian company that gave the world the iconic AK-47 assault rifle has unveiled a suicide drone that may similarly revolutionise war by making sophisticated drone warfare technology widely and cheaply available. The Kalashnikov Group put a model of its miniature exploding drone on display in Feb 2019 at a major defence exhibition in Abu Dhabi where the world’s arms companies gather every two years to show off and market their latest wares. The Kalashnikov drone – officially named the KUB-UAV – will likewise be simple to operate, effective and cheap, its manufacturers claim – and just as revolutionary.
It will mark “a step toward a completely new form of combat,” said Sergey Chemezov, chairman of Russia’s state-owned Rostec arms manufacturer, which owns a controlling stake in Kalashnikov, according to Kalashnikov’s news statement on the launch.
The KUB is 4ft wide, can fly for 30 minutes at a speed of 80 mph and carries six pounds of explosives, the news release says. That makes it roughly the size of a coffee table that can be guided to explode on a target 40 miles away – the equivalent of a “small, slow and presumably inexpensive cruise missile”, according to a report by the National Interest website.
Whoever buys one will have the ability to steer a bomb with a high degree of accuracy unparalleled except by some of the US military’s smartest bombs, said Nicholas Grossman, a professor of international relations at the University of Illinois and author of the book “Drones and Terrorism”. “I think of it as democratising smart bombs,” he said. “It means disseminating smart bombs more widely. This would shrink the gap between the most advanced militaries and the smaller ones.”
Suicide drones are not new. Isis pioneered the art of attaching explosives to commercially available drones and detonating them on advancing troops and enemy bases during the battles for the cities of Mosul and Raqqa in Iraq and Syria. Russian troops in Syria were targeted by the biggest-ever suicide drone assault in Syria last year, when a swarm of more than a dozen crudely assembled devices incorporating explosives and GPS guidance systems descended onto Russia’s Hmeimim air base in Syria.
The US and Israeli militaries have incorporated suicide drones into their arsenals – but controls on the export of technology mean the devices aren’t shared outside a small circle of close allies.
The KUB drone will be faster and more accurate, and will deliver twice the explosive charge and have a greater range than any of the crude homemade devices that have been patched together by terrorists, according to the Kalashnikov representatives at the exhibition.
And unlike US and Israeli exploding drones, the KUB will be “very cheap”, said one of the Kalashnikov representatives. He declined to name the price and spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to communicate with the media.
The target market will be “smaller armies” around the world, he said, meaning the availability of the KUB will bypass controls imposed by the US and its allies that are designed to keep weaponised drones out of the hands of their foes.
The potential for terrorists to use drone bombs to carry out attacks is one of the biggest worries surrounding the proliferation of the technology, experts say. Two such drones were used in an apparent attempt to assassinate Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in August. Recent shutdowns of airports in London, Dublin, New York and Dubai due to mysterious drone incursions demonstrate Western governments’ lack of readiness to address threats posed by drones, Mr Grossman said.
Terrorists are more likely to continue to improvise their own ways of jury-rigging explosive drones using cheaply available commercial devices and their own bomb-making expertise rather than spend on a ready-made version, said Nick Waters, a former British army officer and drone expert.
The spread of kamikaze drones will also intensify efforts to counter them, Grossman pointed out. “This will definitely enhance the capabilities of various state and non-state actors, but it’s not something that can’t be countered,” he said. However, he added: “I’m quite nervous of the capabilities being unleashed without knowing where it will lead.”
All in all, the Russian military operate 1,900 drones on a daily basis. The multi-purpose Orlan-10 with a range of 600km has become a working horse that no military operation, including combat actions in Syria, can be conducted without. Maj. Gen. Alexander Novikov, the head of the Russian General Staff’s Office for UAV Development, Russian drones performed over 23,000 flights, lasting 140,000 hours in total.
Russia’s State Armament Program for 2018-2027 puts the creation of armed UAVs at the top of priorities’ list. Looks like the effort begins to pay off. Russia is well on the way to become second to none in UAV capability.