It’s well known that Russia lags behind the rest of the world’s drone powers in a range of missions.
Following Russia’s war with Georgia in 2008, it became clear that Russia required substantial investment for indigenous UAV development—and still does if it wants to catch up.
In 2012, the Russian government publicized the intent to pour up to USD 13 billion into drone development by 2020, an intent reiterated by Russia’s Defense Minister in 2014. But as everyone knows, drone development takes time.
A quick look at the drones currently in service with Russia’s armed forces and it’s easy to see that Russia’s UAVs are constrained, carrying out limited reconnaissance or command and control missions.
By 2013, when President Vladimir Putin called for the speeding up of Russian drone development, few were left wondering why. This year Putin was apparently answered by Russian Deputy Defense Minister Yury Borisov.
On January 25, Borisov said that the Russian military was putting the finishing touches on several drones. “We are finalizing research and development work related to the drones that will solve an array of tactical, operational and strategic tasks,” Borisov commented.
One of these drones appears to be the Altius-M, a medium-altitude long endurance UAV capable of performing the elusive ground strike mission.
According to measurements taken in Google Earth the V-tailed Altius has a wingspan of 28 meters and a length of about 11 meters. Due to the low image fidelity, these measurements are only an approximate value.
Despite lacking exact dimensions the long thin tapered wings depicted suggest a high aspect ratio supporting the assertion that the Altius is a medium altitude UAV. More specifically, the long wings should produce good lift but inhibit high speeds and maneuverability—characteristics of more advanced drones.
Some have suggested that the design was influenced by the U.S. Reaper UAV. In comparison however, the Altius exceeds the wingspan of the Reaper whose similarly shaped wings only measure 20 meters. It also falls short, as expected, of the higher altitude U.S. Global Hawk at 39 meters.
However, it is powered by two German-built Red A03 engines which provide up to 500 hp each, similar to the Reaper’s single propeller driven TPE-331 sporting 950 hp. Built by the Raikhlin Engine Development GmbH in Adenau, these propeller driven turbo-intercooled V-12s run on both diesel and jet fuel which make the platform easier to support in the field.
While few additional details of the drone’s characteristics are known, it was reported in the Russian press that flight tests should begin in the 2014-2015 period. Satellite imagery may help support that assessment.
There at the Kazan Aircraft Production Association, Shoigu had his picture taken with the drone model which later appeared on Tartarstan’s official website. The handheld was subsequently removed, but not before several other Russian-language sites picked up the story.
While 2013 brought images of the Altius to the public, the development of the drone actually began in 2011 when the Tartarstan-based Sokol and St Petersburg-based Tranzas won the RUB 1 billion contract to build the five-ton class aircraft.
However, it wasn’t until March 2014, footage of Russia’s first Altius-M prototype appeared online giving watchers a small taste of what to expect (header image).
Given this timeline, some interesting implications can be drawn. For example, while all of Moscow’s armed forces are interested in drone development — largely as a result of Russia’s new military doctrine — only Russia’s Ground Forces General Staff has established a directorate to handle UAV-specific doctrine and development issues. That directorate was stood up in December 2012.
That suggests that whatever lessons learned in the field may not have been incorporated in this drone’s design. Like with MIG’s Skat this may be just another technology demonstrator never to support troops in actual service. Never mind the potential discussions about sanctions and the fact that the aircraft is driven by German engines. Or perhaps that Russia’s DARPA has consistently said that domestic optics and electronic systems are of low quality.
In the meantime, Russia’s 20 year gap in UAV development has left it with a sizable technological hurdle—meaning it has some serious work to do to catch up.