History and state of Russian unmanned aerial vehicle development

The article is based on basic research and a lecture by a valued colleague who, under the pseudonym “Ypsilons 378”, who had already written an interesting article about China’s data collection activities two and a half years ago. For an (older) German version of the article, see here.

The Russian combat drone prototype S-70 Okhotnik-B: equal to the US combat drones or just an expensive prestige project?

The Russian combat drone prototype S-70 Okhotnik-B: equal to the US combat drones or just an expensive prestige project?

Since 2011, the Russian armed forces have been modernised sustainably and consistently based on the 2011–2020 State Armament Programme. Considering the findings from the operation in Syria, the low oil price, Western sanctions following the annexation of Crimea and the interference in the war in Ukraine, in December 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin approved the new State Armament Programme for 2018 to 2027. Based on reports on the State Armament Programme, which has not been published itself and remains classified, an anticipation of the future modernisation of the Russian armed forces is possible (Richard Connolly and Mathieu Boulègue, “Russia’s New State Armament Programme: Implications for Russian Armed Forces and Military Capabilities to 2027“, Chatham House, The Royal Institute of International Affairs, Russia and Eurasia Programme, Mai 2018). Nevertheless, despite major announcements, few initiatives existed concerning armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The 2020 edition of The Military Balance states that Russian armed forces have limited operational use of drones to unarmed reconnaissance and as a countermeasure to adversary drones (“Chapter Five: Russia and Eurasia”, The Military Balance 120, 2020: 172). If, however, we consider the increasing relevance of combat UAVs on the modern battlefield (e.g., the crucial use of Turkish Bayraktar TB2s on behalf of the Libyan Government of National Accord against the Russian-backed Libyan National Army), the commissioning and use of combat drones in the Russian armed forces seem to be only a matter of time.

This article, therefore, sheds light on the history and current state of the Russian UAV development. To avoid comparing apples and oranges, an approximate classification based on a combination of flight altitude, operational distance, operational time, weight and payload should be used (based on Sascha Lange, “Flugroboter statt bemannter Militärflugzeuge?“, Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, July 2003):

(Click on the image to enlarge)

(Click on the image to enlarge)

UAV development during the Soviet era
The first Soviet UAV, the Lavochkin LA-17, was developed in 1950 and was used as a flying target for the Soviet Air Defence Forces and Soviet Air Forces. Because the drone was powered by a ramjet, it had to be brought to an altitude of approximately 8,000 to 8,500 m by a converted Tupolev Tu-4 and released at about 500 km/h. The drone then descended for 90 seconds, which brought it to a speed of roughly 900 km/h; hence, with the ramjet engine activated, it could reach a maximum altitude of 9,750 m. With a total weight of 1,506 kg (including 415 kg of fuel), the LA-17 managed to activate the ramjet for a maximum of 10 minutes. Around 250 LA-17 were produced. In 1960, it was replaced by the LA-17M (later LA-17MA and LA-17MM), which could be launched from a mobile ramp using two detachable PRD-98 solid-fuel rocket boosters. Moreover, the ramjet engine was replaced by an axial-flow turbojet, which allowed the LA-17M to be propelled for up to 39 minutes.

Lavochkin La-17R / TBR-1

Lavochkin La-17R / TBR-1

From 1962 onwards, a modified version weighing approximately 2,900 kg was used under the designation LA-17R or TBR-1 for photo-reconnaissance (PHOTINT), TV reconnaissance and/or radiation intelligence (RINT) up to a radius of 260 km (maximum 200 km behind the enemy line) and an operational time of up to 45 minutes. During its mission, the LA-17R either followed a pre-programmed flight route or was controlled from the ground during its mission. It landed harshly at 250–300 km/h on its turbojet engine attached to the underside, which doubled as a shock-absorber. Unsurprisingly, the drone could only be used once. The LA-17R was in service until 1974 when the Tupolev Tu-143 replaced it, but it remained in the inventory of the Soviet armed forces until the early 1980s.

A contemporary of the LA-17R, the Tupolev Tu-123 (the entire system was named DBR-1 or Yastreb-1) was commissioned as a strategic reconnaissance drone. The Tu-123 featured both PHOTINT and electronic signals intelligence capabilities (ELINT) within an operational range of 3,200 km. With its 35.61 ton take-off weight (including the solid-fuel rocket boosters) and a speed of 2,700 km/h, however, it was more like an oversized cruise missile than a modern reconnaissance drone. The Tu-123 followed a predefined flight route during its mission which could not be adjusted. On the return flight, the ground-based landing system took control as the drone approached a distance of 400–500 km, separating the front fuselage containing the electronics, sensors and collected data in time and bringing it to the ground with parachutes. The rest of the drone could not be reused, and the detached front fuselage was scrapped for the sake of simplicity. A total of 52 Tu-123s were built before production stopped in 1972. They remained in use until 1979. (Yefim Gordon, “Soviet/Russian Unmanned Aerial Vehicles“, Band. 20, Red Star, Hinckley, 2005).

A Tu-123 on the launch pad, with the red markings typical of development models. (Source: Gordon, p. 103).

A Tu-123 on the launch pad, with the red markings typical of development models. (Source: Gordon, p. 103).

As the third Soviet reconnaissance drone (PHOTINT, TV, RINT), the Tupolev Tu-143 (system designation VR-3 or Reys), was used by the Red Army from 1976 onwards. Not only was the drone able to land in whole pieces using a parachute and then be reused up to five times, but sensor readings could also be transmitted to the ground station in real-time. With a weight of 1,230 kg (including solid-propellant rocket drive), it was significantly lighter than the LA-17R. The maximum flight speed was 950 km/h, and the flight altitude during reconnaissance was 200 to 1,000 m. Despite its operational range of up to 180 km, the drone was only intended for a reconnaissance depth of up to 60–70 km behind enemy lines. Quite a success, this system was also exported to Czechoslovakia, Romania and Syria. Syrian Armed Forces used it in 1982 for intelligence in Israeli-occupied areas in Lebanon. According to The Military Balance, Russia kept this drone in its inventory until 2017 (International Institute for Strategic Studies, “Chapter Five: Russia and Eurasia”, The Military Balance 117, 2017, p. 212). The Tupolev Tu-141 (system designation VR-2 or Strizh-1), developed almost simultaneously and effectively corresponding to an enlarged Tu-143, allowed a reconnaissance depth of several hundred kilometres. This long-range reconnaissance drone, was used, particularly on the western border of the Soviet Union and remained in the respective Eastern European countries after the collapse of the Soviet Union. (Gordon, p. 43ff.). The Armed Forces of Ukraine used such drones for reconnaissance over eastern Ukraine as late as 2014. (Robert Beckhusen, “Ukraine Resurrects Soviet-Era Super Drones“, War Is Boring, 05.06.2014; David Cenciotti, “Ukrainian Soviet-Era Mini-Space Shuttle Shaped Drone Captured by pro-Russia Separatists“, The Aviationist, 02.08.2014).

Ukrainian Tupolev Tu-143, launched in late September 2008.

Ukrainian Tupolev Tu-143, launched in late September 2008.

Beginning in 1990/91, attempts were made with the Tupolev Tu-300 to develop an armed UAV based on the Tu-141/143. However, after flight tests and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the project was cancelled for financial and political reasons. On the other side of the spectrum, work had been underway since 1982 on a smaller tactical drone for use at the regimental level. In addition to a TV camera, a jammer was installed to disrupt enemy radio transmissions. Towards the end of the 1990s, other sensors were added, such as a thermal imaging camera and a laser for marking target objects. Depending on the stage of development and type, the drone was named DPLA-60 Pchela-1 (system name Sterkh), DPLA-61 Pchela-1T or Shmel-1 (for export; system name Stroy-P), and weighed between 98 and 138 kg. With a speed of 120 to 180 km/h, it was significantly slower than its predecessor. It could operate at altitudes between 100 and 2,500 m for up to 2 hours with an operational range of 30 to 60 km. Not only could this drone fly according to a pre-programmed flight plan, but the drone pilot could also take over manual control at any time. (Gordon, p. 63ff). According to The Military Balance, this drone is still in the inventory of the Russian armed forces (“Chapter Five: Russia and Eurasia”, The Military Balance 121, 193).

Kamov KA-137

Kamov KA-137

In the early 1990s, Kamov built the KA-37, the first unmanned helicopter featuring two-by-two rotor blades operated on the coaxial rotor principle. The 200 kg helicopter drone could transport a payload of 50 kg at a maximum speed of 135 km/h and a maximum altitude of 2,500 m. The KA-37 was primarily designed for civilian use, such as spraying fields, measuring aerial photographs to create maps, monitoring high-voltage lines and oil/gas pipelines, broadcasting or forwarding radio and television signals and assessing the extent of natural and environmental disasters. From 1994 onwards, Kamov built a further developed prototype for the Russian security authorities. The KA-137 had the appearance of a flying sphere, could take up to an 80 kg payload and be used as reconnaissance, surveillance, transport and relay drone. A complete system would be able to control up to five such helicopter drones. However, the drone and its associated system were never mass-produced. (Gordon, p. 85ff).

The Soviets did considerable development work on a variety of UAV projects during the Cold War. However, the Soviet Union was also able to benefit from external influences. In November 1969, for example, the first of the US Lockheed D-21 (GTO-21 B) supersonic reconnaissance drones, which was a scaled-down version of the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird Mach 3, fell into Soviet hands during the reconnaissance of the Chinese nuclear test area at Lop Nor. Tupolev then attempted to develop an UAV based on the D-21, which it called the Voron (“Interview with James a. Cunningham Jr.“, CIA, 04/10/1983, 36f; “D-21 Drone – ‘Tagboard’ / ‘Senior Bowl’“, The Spyflight Website, UAVs, 2018). A prototype featured a ramjet and therefore had to be launched from a Tupolev Tu-95 or Tu-160. A variant intended to be launched from the ground was never built, and the project was shelved. However, Soviet engineers drew enormous benefits from examining the D-21 and the Voron proto-type for their continued development work. (Gordon, p. 61ff).

Interruption and resumption of development activities
For financial and political reasons, the development of new UAVs was not prioritised after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Indeed, development nearly came to a complete halt from the mid-1990s until after the Russo-Georgian War in 2008. The resulting loss in knowledge and expertise caused Russia to fall behind other countries. This backlog was particularly noticeable during the Russo-Georgian War when Georgia used Elbit Hermes-450 drones bought from Israel for reconnaissance [1], but Russia could not show anything comparable (Carolina Vendil Pallin and Fredrik Westerlund, “Russia’s war in Georgia: lessons and consequences“, Small Wars & Insurgencies 20, No. 2, June 2009, p. 411f). Russian UAVs were deployed late, could not provide real-time data, and were vulnerable because of their low altitude (Nicholas Clayton, “How Russia and Georgia’s ‘little War’ Started a Drone Arms Race”, The World, 23.10.2012). After the Russo-Georgian War, Russia signed a $50 million contract with Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) for the delivery of two Bird-Eye 400, eight I-View Mk 150 and two Searcher Mk II drones (“Unmanned Aerial Vehicles“, GlobalSecurity.org, 30.08.2020). [2]. Additionally, domestic drone development was resumed, and the Searcher Mk II was built under licence under the name Forpost (aka Outpost; International Institute for Strategic Studies, “Chapter Four: Russia”, The Military Balance 110, 2010, p. 213, 234). Russia’s Forpost-R had its maiden flight in 2019, and its delivery started last year. It is a reconnaissance drone with a weight of around 500 kg, an operational range of 350 km, a maximum altitude of 6,000–7,000 m, and an operational time of 18 hours (“Forpost R“, Deagel, 2020). The For-post has been used in such battle zones as eastern Ukraine and Syria, and Israeli forces over the Golan Heights shot down at least one (Patrick Hilsman, “How Russia Uses Israeli-Designed Drones in the Syria War“, The Intercept, 16.07.2019). During the Syria mission, it became apparent that despite the ongoing developments, Russia still lacks reconnaissance and combat drones (“Unmanned Aerial Vehicles“, GlobalSecurity.org, 30.08.2020). [3]

Maiden flight of the Forpost-R

Another collaboration took place in 2011 with the Austrian helicopter drone manufacturer Schiebel, which is why the Russian company Gorizont launched the unmanned Schiebel S-100 Camcopter (weight: 110 kg; payload: 50 kg; speed of around 240 km/h; operational range: 180 km; maximum operating altitude of approximately 5,500 m) under licence under the name of Horizon Air S-100. This surveillance drone was already used in 2014 during the Olympic Winter Games and the Winter Paralympics to monitor the Black Sea coast and the Olympic village. Ironically, Schiebel’s S-100 Camcopters were also used by the OSCE in eastern Ukraine and were shot down by the Russian-backed forces. (David Oliver, “Russia’s Rapid UAV Expansion“, Armada International, 22.03.2019; Gabriella Gricius, “OSCE Drones Reintroduced into Ukraine’s Donbass & Donetsk Warzones“, Global Security Review, 25.04.2018).

A starting STC Orlan-10 at Vostok 2018  (Foto: Vadim Savitsky).

A starting STC Orlan-10 at Vostok 2018
(Foto: Vadim Savitsky).

However, before the Russian armed forces deployed the Forpost, the Russian border troops used the STC Orlan-10, designed for civilian use, as a surveillance drone as early as 2010. (“Sept drones russes testés à la frontière avec le Kazakhstan (FSB)“, RIA Novosti, 03.06.2010). With a weight of 15 kg (including 5 kg payload), a speed between 90 and 150 km/h, an operational range between 120 km (controlled) and 1,000 km (autonomous), a maximum altitude of around 5,000 m and an operational time of 16 hours, the performance is in the lower range of a tactical unmanned aerial vehicle (TUAV). The Orlan-10 is launched using a catapult and is landed with a parachute. The entire system can be transported in a box. Comprising 1,000 or more of the 1,900–2,000 UAVs owned by the Russian armed forces, it is the most common model in use and has already been deployed in the Arctic, eastern Ukraine and Syria. (Gareth Jennings, “Russia to deploy Orlan-10 TUAVs to the Arctic in May“, IHS Jane’s 360, 23.04.2015; Kelsey Atherton, “Will Russia Replace Orlan Orbits with Feniks Flocks?“, C4ISRNET, 10.09.2019; Oliver, “Russia’s Rapid UAV Expansion“).

Currently, unmanned aerial vehicles of small and medium range are in service. Next year we will start receiving long-range UAVs capable of undertaking not only aerial reconnaissance, but to use high-precision munitions to destroy targets deep in the enemy territory. — Lieutenant General Sergei Dronov, commander-in-chief of the Russian Air Force, cited in Valius Venckunas, “Russian Air Force to Receive Long-Range Combat Drones in 2021“, Aerotime Hub, 12.08.2020.

The Orion or Orion-E, which has been independently developed by Kronstadt (formerly Transas) since 2011, is significantly larger. It can be used both for reconnaissance flights and as a platform for firing up to four missiles (e.g. the 50 kg UPAB-50S; (Aishwarya Rakesh, “Russian Drone Attack“, Defense World, 05.09.2020). Due to its heavier weight of approximately 1 ton, a possible payload of about 200 kg, an operational range of 300 km, a maximum flight altitude of roughly 7,500 m, an operational time of about 24 h and an airspeed close to 200 km/h, it can be counted in the category of Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) drones, comparable to Forpost. (“Orion UAV“, GlobalSecurity.org, 10.04.2019 ; “БЕСПИЛОТНЫЙ ЛЕТАТЕЛЬНЫЙ АППАРАТ БОЛЬШОЙ ПРОДОЛЖИТЕЛЬНОСТИ ПОЛЕТА ‘ОРИОН’“, ВТС ‘БАСТИОН’ A.V.Karpenko, accessed on 06.09.2020). [4] It was used on a test basis in Syria. The Russian Armed Forces received the first three Orion-E in the first half of 2020. In early April, the Federal Service of Military-Technical Cooperation would not rule out exporting the Orion-E to Armenia.

Another even larger UAV developed in 2011 is the Altius (aka Altair), which outwardly follows a Predator/Reaper concept similar to the Orion but weighs 6–7 tons. The integrated two-way satellite communication enables the coverage of an extensive operational area, only limited by a maximum operational time of 24 hours. (Aishwarya Rakesh, “Russian Drone Attack“; “Altius-U to become backbone of heavy Russian drone fleet“, Army Recognition, 16.09.2019). This drone is also expected to be delivered for deployment this year (Valius Venckunas, “Russian Air Force to Receive Long-Range Combat Drones in 2021“, Aerotime Hub, 12.08.2020).

First flight tests with an Altius drone in August 2019.

Catching up with the big US combat UAVs
In the field of combat UAVs, Mikoyan (RSK MiG) began the development of the 10-ton Skat drone (including 2 tons of payload) in 2005, which is based on the existing flying wing stealth drone. At the MAKS 2007, a full-size dummy was shown, but a prototype was never built. In 2012, the Russian Ministry of Defence decided that Sukhoi should develop the 20-ton combat UAV S-70 Okhotnik-B based on the Skat — and probably also on the US Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel, which was captured by the Iranian armed forces at the beginning of December 2011. (Vladimir Karnozov, “Russia Prepares To Flight-Test the Sukhoi S-70 UCAV“, Aviation International News, 25.01.2019). The combat drone is reported to transport up to 2 tons of ammunition in its weapon bay, reach a top speed of 1,000 km/h, and have an operational range of 6,000 km. It had its maiden flight at the beginning of August 2019, and delivery of the drone for deployment will begin by 2024 (Thomas Newdick, “Now Russia Wants Its First Okhotnik Combat Drone In Service By 2024“, The Drive, 04.08.2020). Hence, it may well be that the Russian autonomous bomber will be put into operational use before a similar US model (David Hambling, “Russia Seeks Lead Over U.S. With Accelerated Stealth Drone Program“, Forbes, 12.08.2020).

At this point, the U.S. and Israel have several decades more of actual experience in using drones in different roles. But the learning gap in using such technology can be closed rapidly by nations willing to put their technology in the field.
— Samuel Bendett, adviser to the think tank CNA’s Russia program and a specialist in Russian unmanned military systems cited in David Hambling, “Russia Seeks Lead Over U.S. With Accelerated Stealth Drone Program“, Forbes, 12.08.2020.

Already in the 2017 Zapad exercise, Russian troops used over 30 UAV systems at the tactical level for reconnaissance, target acquisition and impact analysis (Michael Kofman, “Zapad Watch – Summary of Day Four“, Russia Military Analysis, 18.09.2017). In the 2018 Vostok exercise, drone operators were able to train themselves in the reconnaissance of motorised infantry, tank, artillery and reconnaissance units in special tactical exercises near Leningrad, Voronezh and Moscow. Approximately 500 soldiers and up to 20 UAV systems were involved. In addition to UAV jamming, what stood out at Vostock 2018 was the consistent integration of various UAV systems into the actions and operations of the units. (Michael Kofman, “Vostok 2018 – Day 3“, Russia Military Analysis, 1409.2018). Tsentr 2019 confirmed this trend as well.

Besides the Orlan-10, the Forpost and the Horizon Air S-100, photographs of the exercises also show an increasing arsenal of Mini Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (MUAV), which cannot be discussed in this article given their sheer number. Examples include different versions of the Eleron (weight: 5.3 kg; payload: 1 kg; speed: a little more than 100 km/h; range: 25 km; operational time up to 2 hours; maximum operational altitude of 4,000 m; catapult launch) and the Granat (weight: 30 kg; payload: 3 kg; speed: 90 km/h; range: 70 km; maximum operational altitude of 3,500 m). (Oliver, “Russia’s Rapid UAV Expansion“).

Statistics on some important systems of the Russian army (updated 2021; click on the image to enlarge).

Statistics on some important systems of the Russian army (updated 2021; click on the image to enlarge).

 
Conclusion
The Soviet Union, along with the United States, was among the pioneers in the development of UAVs. Much of this expertise was lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union, making Russia’s relatively rapid capacity building after a decade of stagnation even more impressive. In particular, cooperation with Israel and the study of US drones can be seen as the cornerstone of key Russian UAV projects. Combat UAV aside, Russia has caught up not only in terms of technology but also concerning the integration of UAVs on a tactical level. When it comes to combat UAVs, the S-70 Okhotnik-B may look spectacular, but at least in terms of stealth capabilities, it cannot reach the capabilities of the US competitor yet (for example, in the engine mount). In the long term, the S-70 Okhotnik-B must prove that it is more than an expensive vanity project that will either be used by the troops only hesitantly (e.g., the Armata T-14 and the Kurganets-25) or not be used at all.

 
Footnotes
[1] Israel not only supplied the Georgian armed forces with UAVs, but also trained them in their use. (Noah Shachtman, “How Israel Trained and Equipped Georgia’s Army“, Wired, 19.08.2008).
[2] Presumably 10 more Searcher Mk II were delivered in 2015 (Yaakov Lappin, “Moscow purchased 10 Israeli drones“, The Jerusalem Post, 08.09.2015).
[3] In the literature, it is noticeable that the Forpost is referred to as MALE, even if its proven performance hardly does justice to such a categorization.
[4] The information can vary depending on the source and type of UAVs.

This entry was posted in Armed Forces, Drones, English, History, International, Russia, Security Policy, Technology.

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