Commenting on remarks from early December 2018 by Vice Admiral Andrew Lewis, the commander of the United States Second Fleet, that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) knows how to deal with the Russian military posture in Crimea and Kaliningrad, the deputy chair of the Russian State Duma’s defense committee, Yuri Shvytkin, angrily boasted about the lethality of his country’s weaponry. “Russia has the capabilities to demolish not only the US, but also other members of the NATO alliance,” the lawmaker asserted, adding, “Russia puts the emphasis on the quality of its weaponry—not quantity… This strategy will allow us to respond in such a way that there simply will not remain anyone left to attack us” (Gazeta.ru, December 5, 2018).
One month earlier, Krasnaya Zvezda, the official mouthpiece of the Russian Armed Forces, claimed that Russia was completing development of new unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) with an operative range of up to 3,000 kilometers. If launched from the territory of Kaliningrad Oblast, these drones could cover all of continental Europe, including Spain, the paper stresses (Arms-expo.ru, November 6, 2018). Most importantly, Russia is actively working on an unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV)—a drone that could be used not merely for non-military purposes (data collection, surveillance, reconnaissance), but to carry out offensive strike missions. This news was corroborated by Colonel General Oleg Salyukov, the commander-in-chief of the Ground Forces, who pointed out that “such UCAVs will be used in areas/theaters where other types of arms and munitions cannot be employed.” Moreover, Andrey Koshkin, the Political Science and Sociology chair at the Plekhanov Russian University of Economics, added that “the creation of UAVs is a new pivot and a clear priority for the Russian Armed Forces and [the country’s] military strategy. Russia has become one of the leading players in this realm,” and new types of UAVs are to be integrated soon (News.rambler.ru, November 6, 2018).
Available information suggests that Kaliningrad Oblast was chosen as one of the main training grounds to testing different types of UAVs/UCAVs in an integrated, and non-standard manner. This priority was first articulated in earnest during the Zapad 2017 strategic military exercises (partially held in Kaliningrad Oblast), when UAVs were reportedly employed in an integrated manner with the Platform-M ground combat robot. Specifically, Grushka and Orlan UAVs were extensively used by motorized rifle units of the Baltic Sea Fleet (BSF) and the Airborne Troops (Vozdushno-Desantnye Voyska—VDV) to increase their targeting (and fire correction) efficiency as well as improve reconnaissance. Moreover, the Platform-M—a remote-controlled robotic unit on caterpillar tracks, armed with grenade launchers and Kalashnikov rifles—was employed to simulate the liquidation of enemy forces in conditions of urban warfare (Tvzvezda.ru, September 19, 2017).
The integrated use of military robots and UAVs in terms of tactical and strategic military exercises conducted in Kaliningrad Oblast was initially tested in 2014, when this Russian Baltic exclave received its first batch of Platform-M systems (TASS, June 20, 2014). Subsequently, the employment of UAVs of various types in training drills has grown dramatically. Moreover, these exercises have demonstrated that Russia is using unmanned aerial systems in conjunction with other types of weaponry besides military robots. For instance, on August 10, 2018, forces of the BSF practiced utilizing UAVs for correction of fire of self-propelled howitzers (the 2S1 Gvozdika) and multiple rocket launchers (the BM-21 Grad). According to the spokesperson for the Baltic Fleet, Captain 1st Rank Roman Martov, Russia’s integrated use of UAVs with other types of weaponry “has demonstrated considerable increase in terms of precision in targeting” (RIA Novosti, August 10, 2018).
At the same time, Russian units are increasingly operating UAVs within the scope of naval maneuvers and drills in the Baltic Sea. On March 21, UAVs were widely employed in auxiliary functions to provide fire correction for the frigate Yaroslav Mudry. Captain Martov stated that, “though positioned at an altitude of several thousand meters above the ground, the UAVs were constantly transmitting data (via special channels) to the Command and Control (C2) department of the Yaroslav Mudry… this allowed the artillery crew to rapidly incur corrections in real-time conditions and destroy the target with a very high level of precision” (TASS, March 21, 2018).
Russian UAVs are also increasingly put to use within the scope of anti-insurgency/counter-terrorism exercises. For instance, during the drills that took place on November 4, BSF special operations forces extensively utilized drones for reconnaissance and to locate a simulated “terrorist group that, according to the [exercise] legend, was deployed along the seaside of Kaliningrad Oblast and attempted to dig tunnels to mine the coastal area.” In the final analysis, the group was easily spotted and destroyed. Crucially, in terms of conducting this operation (in the navigation part), the Russian forces extensively relied on the domestic GLONASS global positioning satellite navigation system (Kgd.ru, November 4, 2018).
In addition, Kaliningrad also appears to have become a Russian testing ground for anti-UAV operations. On December 9, BSF forces conducted a special set of exercises simulating the destruction of targets flying at a low altitude. According to the exercise legend, a group of objects (the Russian side used Forpost UAVs to simulate the adversary) entered Russian airspace from abroad and began to collect visual information from an attitude of 50 meters, at a speed of 200 kilometers per hour. Several Pantsir-S1 (NATO terminology: SA-22 Greyhound) self-propelled, medium-range, surface-to-air missile systems, which had been rapidly redeployed from a different part of the oblast, were used to rapidly destroy the “enemy” UAV group (Kgd.ru, December 7, 2018). Most likely, those exercises were directly prompted by the appearance of a US RQ-4B Global Hawk UAV (October 27) and an RC-135V reconnaissance aircraft (November 11) near Kaliningrad (Gazeta.ru, November 3, 2018).
Since 2011, when the BSF received its first batch of UAVs (Kgd.ru, December 14, 2011), the regular use of drones in exercises as well as the level of sophistication in such operations have grown exponentially. The next development to anticipate, which could happen as early as this year, is the potential deployment to Kaliningrad of new Russian UAVs/UCAVs (Regnum, July 24, 2018)—primarily, the Korsar, Forpost-M and Samum systems.