Russia’s war against Ukraine has challenged its military’s approach to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and the Russian industrial base that supports the development and production of UAVs. According to open-source intelligence, Russia lost about 300 reconnaissance and combat drones as confirmed by photo or video evidence from February 24 to September 13. These included, among others, 183 Orlan-10 reconnaissance UAVs and their modifications, 38 Eleron reconnaissance UAVs, 38 Zala UAVs, six Orion UAVs and six Forpost high-wing reconnaissance UAVs (Oryxspioenkop.com, accessed September 13).
The General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces estimates that Russia has lost a total of 4,650 drones of various types since the beginning of the war (Kyiv Independent, September 13). This total includes a significant number of the Russian-made Lancet and Iranian-made Shahed loitering munitions, commonly referred to as “kamikaze drones.” This estimate may be low as it is unclear how many drones Russia has lost in the occupied territories of Ukraine. It is also unclear how many commercial drones, such as the DJI Mavic and others, have been lost. These particular drones have been largely supplied by Russia’s regional administrations and Russian volunteers (Nikkei Asia, July 1). The Russian military possessed more than 2,000 UAVs, excluding loitering munitions, on the eve of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which signals significant losses for its reconnaissance and combat drone fleet (Kremlin.ru, November 2, 2021).
On June 28, the Russian government approved the “Development Strategy for Unmanned Aviation Until 2030” (Government.ru, June 28). The document claims that, between 2018 and 2022, Russia’s public institutions and state-owned companies spent more than 13 billion rubles (over $190 million) to purchase UAVs. The Ministry of Defense and Russia’s various law enforcement agencies received around 30 percent of these procurements, totaling about 3.9 billion rubles ($57 million). These numbers do not account for spending on the research and development (R&D) of new drones, which could be quite high. For example, in 2020, the costs to develop Russia’s first heavy-strike combat drone, the S-70 Okhotnik, exceeded 1.5 billion rubles ($21 million) (Izvestiya, June 4, 2020).
The document primarily lays out the basic scenario for future development and production in Russia’s drone industry. It presumes the need for 330,000 employees working in R&D and production by 2026, one million by 2030 and 1.5 million by 2035. The planned number of drones to be produced in 2023–2026 stands at 52,100, with the average annual production rate exceeding 13,000; 105,500 in 2027–2030, with the average annual rate exceeding 26,000; and 177,700 in 2031–2035, with the average annual production rate exceeding 35,500 (Government.ru, June 28).
The projected numbers for drone industry employees are rather unrealistic. The projected production rates signals that the Russian government does not plan to create a Russian counterpart to the Chinese company DJI, which sells millions of small consumer drones every year. The Russian government believes that its drone industry can produce much more sophisticated civilian and military UAVs. This means that Moscow will likely follow the development model that first appeared at the beginning of the 2010s (TASS, February 6): The government invests more money in drones. More state-owned companies become engaged in the R&D and production of drones, relying on imported components and industrial equipment. Projects for new UAVs begin to proliferate. And the need for more investment from the government starts the cycle anew.
However, Moscow’s existing deficit of adequate financial sources, technologies, equipment and human capital hurt its ambitions. And these deficits coupled with Russia being cut-off from industrial cooperation with many developed countries due to Western sanctions make this model non-sustainable in terms of material outcomes.
Serial manufacturing of the S-70 Okhotnik was scheduled for 2023. It has now been delayed until 2025 (Ura.ru, May 18, 2022; TASS, April 25). Serial production of the long-endurance heavy Altius drone was close to beginning more than year ago, but it has made little progress since (RBC.ru, June 13, 2022). The primary problem lies in the absence of sufficient engines, as the original plan was based on using German-made RED A03 diesel engines.
Russia is currently developing two alternatives to the German engine. The first one is the turboprop VK-800SM developed by ODK-Klimov. However, the engine is not scheduled to receive official certification until the end of 2024. And the serial production of 30 engines annually will not begin until 2025 (Take-off.ru, April 6).
The second option is the APD-500 piston engine. The engine is being developed by the Russian state-owned Central Institute of Aviation Motors together with the Central Scientific Research Automobile and Automotive Engines Institute (NAMI) (Ciam.ru, October 14, 2021). Its specifications are comparable to the RED A03 engine, but APD-500 uses gasoline instead of diesel. The APD-500 was derived from the car engine that was developed by NAMI in cooperation with Porsche during the 2010s. That means it is inevitably dependent on imported components. It is unclear if Russia will be capable of starting serial production of the APD-500 on its own.
The same problem is true for the medium-class Orion reconnaissance/combat UAV. The Central Institute of Aviation Motors in Moscow together with GMZ Agat are developing the APD-100/120 piston engine (Aviatp.ru, accessed September 14). The ADP-100/120 is meant to be a counterpart to the Austrian-made Rotax 914 piston engine, which was originally used in the Orion UAVs. However, the dry mass of the APD-100/120 is 96 kilograms compared to 74.7 kilograms for the Rotax 914 with all its support systems. Moreover, 50 critical components relating to the APD-100/120’s fuel system still come from abroad.
The turbulence in Russia’s drone industry will continue, if not grow, in the coming years. For Moscow, it will become increasingly more difficult to manage all the issues related to drone manufacturing, especially in the military sector. Revising its ambitions is, nevertheless, politically unacceptable for the Kremlin. Consequently, the Russian Armed Forces will become ever-more dependent on small consumer-grade drones for reconnaissance tasks and relatively simple loitering munitions for combat operations.