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State media announced Wednesday that Russia’s armed forces would field long-range armed drones in 2021. This is in addition to the S-70 Okhotnik heavy strike drone which is now due in 2024, a year earlier than originally planned. This suggests an increased focus on arming unmanned systems at the cutting edge – a few months after Turkish drones chewed up Russian-made air defenses in Syria.
“Next year, the troops will start receiving multi-purpose long-range unmanned aerial vehicles, capable not only of conducting aerial survey but also of striking enemy facilities with high-precision projectiles,” said Deputy Commander-in-Chief of Russia’s Aerospace Forces Lt. Gen. Sergei Dronov, quoted in TASS.
The identity of the new drones has not been disclosed. Russia has developed and tested a number of large unmanned aircraft in the past few years which are at various stages of development. Two of the more advanced models, the Okhotnik, a stealthy attack jet, and the Altius-U, a high-altitude craft with a reported 24-hour endurance, will likely not be fielded for some years.
Samuel Bendett, adviser to the think tank CNA’s Russia program and a specialist in Russian unmanned military systems, says there are a number of likely candidates including Forpost-R, Orion, Korsar, and the Orlan-30.
Forpost-R is an intelligence/surveillance/reconnaissance drone, a licensed and slightly modified and ‘Russified’ copy of the IAI Searcher from Israel which first flew in 1998. It has a wingspan of 28 feet and carries a 150-pound payload. The Russian version first flew last year, and there are ten on order. With an endurance of eighteen hours and a cruising speed of around 80 mph, it is capable of long-range, long-endurance missions, but is usually seen as purely a reconnaissance asset.
Orion is a larger drone with a fifty-foot wingspan and a payload – or bombload – of over 400 lbs. It has already seen action in experimental units and seems a more likely candidate for the attack role.
“Several were already acquired by MoD for testing and evaluation this year, and it was tested in Syria in combat mode,” says Bendett. “The Russian defense industry has begun to design munitions specifically tailored to this UAV [Unmanned Aerial Vehicle] type.”
These include a family of guided weapons weighing 50-100 pounds with ranges of up to 60 miles.
Dronov also mentioned that “The efficiency of unmanned aviation was confirmed during a special operation in the Syrian Arab Republic,” strengthening suggestions that the Orion will be the new attack drone.
Others look like outside bets. The Korsar is a smaller multipurpose drone with a 22-foot wingspan which has attracted little attention. The Orlan-30 is even smaller with a wingspan of ten feet and a payload of about seven pounds, but has a strong pedigree: it is an upgraded version of the Orlan-10 tactical reconnaissance drone, the workhorse of the Russian tactical drone fleet, which was introduced in 2010.
Ironically enough, some Orlan-10 components appear to be made in the U.S. Equally ironically, although the Russians have not used an armed version of the Orlan-10, what appear to be garage-built copies of the Orlan-10 loaded with explosives have repeatedly carried out attacks against the Russian airbase in Khmeimim, Syria, from a range of 60 miles or more. Which at least shows it works in the attack role.
Bendett says whichever model Dronov referred to, the new aircraft is likely to be rotated swiftly to Syria, to augment base defenses and to protect Russian forces and allies. Russia appears to have a lot of catching up to do in drone warfare compared to nations like the U.S., which has been using such systems routinely for strikes since 2001, and which has fielded them for far longer.
“At this point, the U.S. and Israel have several decades more of actual experience in using drones in different roles,” says Bendett. “But the learning gap in using such technology can be closed rapidly by nations willing to put their technology in the field.”
This willingness to put technology in the field is evident from the experimental deployments of the Orion as well as Uran-9 robot tanks in Syria. As Bendett points out, drones can be developed much more rapidly and at a lower cost than manned aircraft. In 2014, Russia developed a comprehensive plan for Prospective Military Robotics through 2025 with greatly increased R&D spending. Unmanned systems have been deployed with great success for reconnaissance and directing artillery fire in both Ukraine and Syria. The move to armed drones is a logical next step, and likely to be an increasing factor in Russian military strategy.
“We will see Russia rapidly innovating in combat drone development as a significant mission multiplier,” says Bendett.
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