To understand the future of Russia’s drone program, we have to grasp its present and immediate past. While the modern era of unmanned aircraft is perhaps best typified by American Reaper drones flying missions with Hellfire missiles slung under wing, the overall picture of drones in combat has evolved and changed. The Pentagon’s primacy in aerial robotics is no longer a sure thing, in part because of the waning unipolar moment and in part because building a drone capability is cheaper today than it was two decades ago.
To sort out what the past year means, to see if any of the battlefield experience from the multiple irregular wars Russia is part of has factored into drone design or force planning, C4ISRNET spoke with Samuel Bendett, an adviser at the Center for Naval Analyses and a Fellow in Russia Studies at the American Foreign Policy Council.
C4ISRNET: Bottom line up front: What’s the single sentence takeaway for next year in Russian drones?
BENDETT: As Russia develops its lineup of long-range UCAVs [unmanned combat aerial vehicles], it will challenge American dominance with such technologies that Washington held for the past 17-18 years.
C4ISRNET: That’s ambitious, to say the least. How is the Ministry of Defence preparing to make that challenge, and did Russia learn anything from fighting in Syria that might lead to changes in how it uses drones in 2019?
BENDETT: [The week of Dec. 17] marked a series of key announcements from the Russian Ministry of Defence about the country’s growing unmanned aerial systems capabilities. Going into Syria in 2015, Russia was lacking a key combat element — the ability to hit targets quickly following their identification, one of the key functions of UCAVs around the world today. Moscow’s experience in Syria underscored that point — despite fielding a large number of ISR drones that enabled Russian to be more precise in combat, the majority of targets were hit by manned aviation or manned artillery forces. Hence, the push today to field an entire lineup of strike UAVs for a diverse range of missions. Public statements by the Russian government and the military establishment also highlight the importance of unmanned systems for the country’s military and its ability to wage war. Just recently, President Putin stated key propriety areas for his military in 2019 — among them was an emphasis on unmanned and robotic systems development.
C4ISRNET: What sort of drones are we seeing in that push?
BENDETT: The Ministry of Defence mentioned work on a strike version of Forpost mid-range drone. The Forpost UAV is a license copy of an Israeli “Searcher,” itself a design that is decades old at this point. Capable of distances up to 250 kilometers, it is currently Russia’s longest-ranged drone. Under the earlier license agreement with Israel, this UAV could only be assembled as an ISR version. Russian military valued this particular unmanned vehicle and has long wanted to turn into something more than an extra pair of eyes in the sky.
Today, UZGA Defence enterprise is claiming that the “Russified” version of that UAV is full of Russian-made components, so that no further cooperation with Israel would be necessary. Putting a strike package on Forpost would give Russian an immediate ability to hit targets within a 250 kilometer range — in other words, giving it the ability to strike most adversary targets in Syria where Russian forces are still conducting operations. Given that Forpost itself is an older UAV model, it’s likely that the Russian military will use it as a test bed to further refine its UAV manufacturing abilities, as well as to test indigenous munitions for UAV missions. It’s likely that out of all UAVs listed by the MOD, this particular one will reach the Russian forces sooner than others.
C4ISRNET: What about the Orion?
BENDETT: The Ministry also named Orion UAV as another unmanned vehicle to fully see the light of day in 2019. Orion has similar characteristics to Forpost, such as range, at least as advertised at international arms expos [250 kilometers]. It is possible that its range could be extended further — current Orion versions are showcased as ISR models, but there were discussions that it could be offered for export as armed version. This particular UAV has similar design features to the ever-growing family of unmanned aerial vehicles all over the world — it bears close resemblance to the American RQ-9 Reaper, Chinese CH-4 and Ch-5 drones, as well as to the Iranian Shahed and Turkish Anka UAVs. Unlike Forpost, Orion was only recently tested, although there were rumors that it was seen in Syria, with observers possibly confusing it with the Iranian Shahed.
C4ISRNET: Are there other large drones in the works for the Ministry of Defence in 2019?
BENDETT: The Ohotnik UCAV is the most intriguing and interesting project of its kind in Russia. Originally started around 2011-2012, this UAV has also been delayed by a number of years. This fall, MOD carried out the first “taxing” test, when Ohotnik prototype was accelerated on the runway to test the engine. Next year, the Russian defense establishment is promising a test that will include a short-duration “jump”— the UCAV will rise ever so briefly above the tarmac to test its launching and landing capabilities. At this point, it is going to be heaviest and fastest UAV if and when fielded, but additional testing and evaluation will have to take place in order for this unmanned system to be fully functional. Its speed — up to 1000 km/hr — and weight — up to 20 tonnes — means that a host of aerodynamic, electronic and hi-tech issues need to be worked out.
C4ISRNET: Should we hold our breath waiting for the Ohotnik test flights?
BENDETT: Given the delays experienced with “Altius,” MOD would probably be more conservative with Ohotnik estimates. However, the very appearance of Ohotnik rising in the air — a stealthy blended-wing design — will be a powerful PR coup for the country that has lagged behind other nations like the United States, Israel and China in actual UCAV examples and combat use.
C4ISRNET: What was the Altius, and what happened with it?
BENDETT: The Altius was one of the most ambitious UAV projects in Russia — to build an indigenous drone capable of carrying up to 2.5 tonnes of cargo/equipment/weapons to a distance of 10,000 kilometers. Earlier estimates that this UAV would be fully operational by 2018 did not pan out. Delays in production, a lack of key expertise and hi-tech components meant the entire scheduled pushed “to the right” by many years.
[The week of Dec. 17] MOD promised that Altius will take to the skies next year — given the fact that Simonov actually produced a prototype that has already flown, that promise may indeed materialize. The real issue will be the quality of that test flight — whether Altius will fly as intended and with the right amount of key equipment.
C4ISRNET: How will these drones change the way Russia plans and conducts war?
BENDETT: All these UAVs — if and when fielded as planned and as advertised — will give Russia the capability to strike targets at a range anywhere form 250 kilometers and up to several thousand kilometers. This is a flexibility the Russian military has long sought — its Syrian actions depended on manned airborne assets conducting deep-strike against designated targets, which in turn depended on an extensive logistics and infrastructure to support such missions. Having the ability to launch long-range UCAVs from Russian [or Russian-allied] territory would exponentially increase MOD’s ability to conduct missions in the near abroad and possibly around the world.
Of course, that would depend largely on the domestic defense sector actually delivering what was initially promised, something that some UAV projects have greatly struggled with.
C4ISRNET: Russian forces have used small drones quite a bit. Is any of that transferable to using these new, larger drones?
BENDETT: While the Russian military has gained extensive experience operating a wide range of close and short-range UAVs, and has commenced force-wide training and usage of these unmanned systems, operating the large and heavy UAVs would be a different story. This kind of technology requires different training, as well as different logistical and infrastructure support. Getting these UCAVs into the military will require a change to existing CONOPS and TTPs, something that will take time as the Russian military will need to become familiar with a different set of technological sophistication.
Still, these UAVs are finally moving past the prototype stage — with the Ministry of Defence paying very close attention to these projects, the likely 2019 appearance is guaranteed for these designs. Their eventual acquisition is still years away. Russian UCAV plans will have important implications for the way Moscow thinks about, designs, tests and eventually conducts warfare.
C4ISRNET: Describe, let’s say, what Russia drone use looks like in 2030 based on these trends.
BENDETT: With the influx of high-precision munitions, development of high-tech weapons and the development of various types of UAVs, future conflicts where Russia will be involved will no longer feature Russian military as a “blunt instrument” — the way Russian tech was used in Chechen wars, in Georgia and even in the early stages of the Syrian conflict. If Russia fields the weapons it is currently designing, then it to will join the ranks of high-tech military powers aiming to strike its adversaries with precision. These UCAVs will have a pivotal role in such a construct.
C4ISRNET: What are constraints on Russia achieving this vision?
BENDETT: Major constraints for Russia to achieve its vision is lack of experience with hi-tech systems — sensors, key electronics, navigation, cameras, etc. Russians have been able to overcome such problems with simpler, smaller drones, but larger MALE/HALE classes are a different story. This led to production and delivery delays, and despite MOD oversight, there was no silver bullet to deal with these issues.
Another constraint has been the effect of Western sanctions and Russian ability to import hi-tech systems and components — today’s import-substitution effort by Moscow in hi-tech will take time.
C4ISRNET: Any last thoughts?
BENDETT: As Russia pursues its own version of the “multidomain battle,” unmanned and robotic systems will form key parts of the Russian way of warfare in 2030 and beyond. However, that will depend on the actual capability of the Russian defense sector to field certain unmanned systems. That vision may change based on the reality of producing such systems, given how many T&E and delivery schedules have already been pushed “to the right.”
Kelsey Atherton blogs about military technology for C4ISRNET, Fifth Domain, Defense News, and Military Times. He previously wrote for Popular Science, and also created, solicited, and edited content for a group blog on political science fiction and international security.