Moscow’s Military Modernization Sets Agenda for UAV Development

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 19

Russian S-70 Okhotnik UAV

Moscow has made considerable progress in its military modernization over the past decade, according to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who recently gave a speech highlighting key areas of development while offering upbeat statistics (TASS, January 29). While Shoigu confirmed that the levels of progress to reequip and modernize the military across all branches and arms of service are on course to achieve set targets, an increasingly important area in this process is the use and further introduction of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) capability. Russia’s recent experience of military conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, as well as its strategic-level exercises demonstrate a growing awareness and willingness to exploit UAV technologies (see EDM, September 30, 2020). Whereas this has mostly focused on enhancing target acquisition, it seems the longer-term trend is toward balancing between a reconnaissance role and strike capability.

Shoigu’s statistics certainly sound impressive. The Russian defense minister delivered the keynote speech at an event in Moscow on January 29, marking an official celebration of the acceptance of military products. He stated that the share of new or modernized weapons and equipment exceeds 70 percent in Russia’s general-purpose forces. And, in the Strategic Rocket Forces (Raketnye Voyska Strategicheskogo Naznacheniya—RVSN) this reached 86 percent (Krasnaya Zvezda, February 1; TASS, January 29).

Deputy Defense Minister Alexei Krivoruchko added further details regarding the fulfillment of the state defense order: “In the fourth quarter of 2020, 86 new and 158 repaired units of armored weapons and equipment were delivered in the interests of the Ground and Airborne Forces.” The Ground Forces received 996 new and 85 repaired vehicles, more than 350 units of rocket and artillery weapons, a divisional set of the Buk-M3 anti-aircraft missile system, and more than 920,000 units of wearable weapons and equipment. The Aerospace Forces (Vozdushno Kosmicheskikh Sil—VKS), procured a regimental set of the S-400 anti-aircraft missile system, 15 new and 18 repaired aircraft, 13 new and 10 repaired helicopters, 6 space vehicles, as well as 50 new and 46 repaired radar stations. The Russian navy, the Military-Maritime Fleet (Voyenno-Morskoy Flot—VMF), gained 4 new warships, 1 new and another refurbished submarine, 9 new and 11 refurbished ships and support vessels, more than 160 missile and mine-torpedo weapons, as well as additional Bal coastal missile systems (Krasnaya Zvezda, February 1; Moskovsky Komsomolets, January 29).

Krivoruchko also reported on the progress of the ongoing rearmament of the RVSN with modern weapons and military equipment. In the fourth quarter of 2020, 11 stationary and mobile-based ballistic missiles and 22 components of mobile and stationary complexes were accepted. “The plans for the supply of new types of weapons, military and special equipment were fulfilled by 99.8 percent, repairs by 99.7 percent. The work on the placement of the state defense order for 2021 was launched. Thanks to the practice of concluding long-term government contracts, today we have 86.8 percent of the volume of government orders,” the deputy defense minister reported (Krasnaya Zvezda, February 1).

An important element in the military modernization process is the development and introduction of larger numbers and diverse types of drones. In October 2020, the VKS received its first batch of Orion multifunctional UAVs. And tests continued on the unique supersonic reconnaissance and strike UAV, S-70 Okhotnik, which uses stealth technology. The trials involved both independent flights as well as control of the drone from an Su-57 fifth-generation fighter. Krivoruchko suggested these platforms may be delivered to the VKS by the end of the year. Other UAV systems under development include the Korsar and the Altius. However, military analyst Alexei Ramm, writing in Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, examined the current structure of unmanned aviation units and subunits (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, January 21).

Ramm notes that UAVs are present in all branches and arms of service, though the Ground Forces appear to wield the bulk of these. Although the numbers are classified as secret, this author estimates that the Ground Forces have around 1,500. The basis of the Ground Forces’ UAV fleet is composed of the Orlan-10 family as well as the Granat, Eleron and Tachyon. UAV company units are assigned to motorized rifle and tank brigades and divisions. Similar units are being formed in the newly created separate reconnaissance brigades. In each of the combined-arms armies, brigades and divisions, there are two platoons for every UAV company: The first is a short-range platoon armed with Orlan-10s and Tachyon-4s. The second platoon is also called short-range, since its main assets are the Granat-1, -2, -3 and -4, Zastava, Tachyon, and Eleron UAVs. This type of structure is largely replicated in the Airborne Forces and Naval Infantry, though progress has been slower for the latter, with UAV companies present in the 61st (Northern Fleet) and 40th (Pacific Fleet, Kamchatka) marine brigades. Moreover, the VMF is forming UAV units at regimental levels (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, January 21).

Ramm believes that the new Korsar UAV will be located in one of the two platoons in each of the Ground Forces maneuver brigades and divisions to provide reconnaissance and high-precision strike capability. The Korsar has a reported flight range of 200 kilometers. Ramm observes that this drone “will be able to operate in the tactical rear of the enemy, identifying command posts, artillery positions, etc. In local conflicts, the Korsar can be used to track militants’ radio traffic, control movement routes, and defeat individual buildings and vehicles” (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, January 21).

The Orion, Altius and S-70 Okhotnik are heavy strike UAVs. The Okhotnik would conduct surveillance or deliver high-precision strikes in the rear of the potential enemy. According to authorities, it is capable of penetrating high-technology air defenses thanks to the UAV’s stealth technology as well as advanced radar and radio equipment. Meanwhile, the Russian VMF is expressing special interest in the Altius: “The main advantages of the Altius are its unique range and flight time. The drone can stay in the air for over 48 hours and, at the same time, cover a distance of up to 10,000 km. Therefore, the record-breaking drone will become an excellent naval reconnaissance aircraft that will act in the interests of naval groups, naval aviation and submarine forces. The carrying capacity of the Altius also makes it possible to take on board full-fledged guided weapons, in particular Kh-35U anti-ship missiles,” Ramm stressed (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, January 21). Evidently, the unifying theme is a move toward greater use of UAVs for precision strikes.