During the ongoing modernization of Russia’s Armed Forces, increasing attention has turned to developing and exploiting unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV). In Russian military exercises and over battlefield in Ukraine and Syria, the overwhelming use of UAVs has focused on reconnaissance to enable improved target acquisition. Nevertheless, efforts are now underway to produce heavy-strike UAVs and UCAVs. One such heavy-strike-capable UCAV is the experimental S-70 Okhotnik (Hunter). And earlier, during the 2019 International Defense Exhibition and Conference (IDEX), in Abu Dhabi, the Kalashnikov Concern (part of Rostec) presented a model of an improved high-precision-attack Kub UAV, designed by the Izhevsk-based Zala Aero (see EDM, February 20, 2019 and November 13, 2020).
This past April, Russia’s Ministry of Defense released video footage from Syria of the country’s Special Operations Forces using a Lantset (Lancet) loitering drone to conduct strikes against moving and stationary ground targets (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, April 17). While the Lantset illustrates the growing diversity of Russian UAV technologies and interest in fielding unmanned platforms for strike operations, Moscow-based military specialists note the limits of such systems.
The Lantset UAV acts as a loitering munition (barrazhiruyushchiy boyepripas), sometimes referred to as a “kamikaze drone.” The first of these systems appeared in Russia’s military inventory in 2019. Kalashnikov Concern announced that the Lantset strike UAV had completed tests in July 2019. Its novelty for the Russian Armed Forces lay in the UAV carrying out both reconnaissance and strike missions similar to a high-precision missile. Such UAVs have an integrated warhead, are capable of long flights, and can loiter for lengthy periods over the battlefield while fixing and locating the target before destroying it. Similar drones are produced internationally and notably featured in Azerbaijan’s military operations in Karabakh in 2020 (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, October 9, 2020).
A unique feature of the Lantset is the x-shaped aerodynamic tail configuration. In June 2019, on the eve of the Army-2019 forum, the Kalashnikov concern presented a more improved version of the Kub UAV: the Lantset. The Lantset-1 and Lantset-3 are reportedly capable of carrying payloads of up to 3 kilograms. “The double-x is our absolute know-how. When diving and maneuvering, such a scheme behaves much better; besides, the dimensions of the product are greatly reduced,” according to Alexander Zakharov, the general director of the weapons design studio Zala Aero. He added, “We also managed to reduce the weight, which is only 12 kg due to the maximum use of plastic and composites in the structure.” Moreover, the Lantset UAV is highly accurate in terms of precision-strike capability, with a video communication channel aiding guidance. According to Rostec, “The complex includes not only a striking element, but also a reconnaissance, navigation and communication module. It is able to determine coordinates from various sources and objects. So the fundamental difference between the Lantset and the previous generation and many foreign analogues is that it does not need any satellite navigation” (Rostec.ru, August 30, 2019).
Zakharov boasted that Russian UAV development at least matches Israel’s, widely regarded as the leading UAV producer in the world. “I believe that we have not lagged behind; there is already a tendency for Israel to copy some things from us,” Zakharov claimed in an interview with the TV channel Russiya-1. Zakharov also said the Lantset UAV can be launched from ground- or sea-based platforms. Thanks to its dedicated video channel, the drone can transmit a live image of the target, which confirms the success of the strike on target. The fuse type is pre-contact. The complex is capable of hitting targets within a radius of up to 40 km. The maximum take-off weight is 12 kg. He also expressed confidence that the Lantset can be used to target enemy UAVs: “The combat drones of a potential enemy have speeds on the order of 150 kilometers per hour (km/h), and the Lantset is capable of hitting them. We, with our 300 km/h dive, will do it quite calmly” (TASS, April 19).
UAV systems such as the Lantset certainly provide Russia’s Armed Forces with a new capability, especially in the area of conducting non-contact strikes. Vladimir Shcherbakov, the deputy editor of Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, notes that the Lantset can inflict operational strikes on important targets and reduce the costs per kill. Such UAVs are also highly adaptable in the applied trajectory and the ability to significantly reduce the possibility of losses among the personnel of their forces by increasing the accuracy in the use of munitions. Equally, the Lantset benefits from the simplicity of its design and the possibility of combat use by advanced formations of infantry units or special forces groups behind enemy lines: in the minimum configuration, a combat complex based on a loitering munition can include one or two kamikaze UAVs, a wearable launcher (launch tube or catapult) and a portable control station (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, March 11).
Nonetheless, Shcherbakov is realistic in his assessment of the Lantset’s weaknesses. This primarily relates to the small mass of the warhead and “irrecoverable nature” of these UAVs. “If, for some reason, it is not used against the enemy, it must either be transferred to another target, or withdrawn to a safe area to self-destruct. In the latter case, the option of ‘disarming’ is also possible; but all the same, the munition must be diverted for this to a safe area. However, a number of modern samples of such devices, it is said, allow them to be returned by removing the warhead,” Shcherbakov explains (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, March 11).
Despite these weaknesses in such UAV systems, it appears that the Russian military is trying to develop UAV technology to fill a tactical niche in the battlespace to compete with cruise missiles and manned aircraft. If more fully developed, as Shcherbakov argues, such loitering UAVs would be able to offer a more efficient and less expensive solution to the task of engaging a wide range of enemy ground and surface targets with fires (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, March 11).