On January 21, Sergey Chemezov (the CEO of the Russian arms producer Rostec) announced that, by mid-2019, Russia’s Armed Forces would receive 200 units of Pishal “radio-electronic guns” and Ratnik multifunctional infantry combat systems—elements specifically designed to deal with enemy unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). Among the two, special attention would be allocated to the Pishal, a 3.5-kilogram device that, reportedly, had already been tested in combat and demonstrated “outstanding results” in terms of locating the target and suppressing its navigation capabilities in all major radio frequencies (RIA Novosti, January 21). One month earlier, Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu stated that “the development of unmanned combat aerial vehicles [UCAV] operating at an intermediate range has come to a close… [Within] the scope of the state’s procurement campaign, the Armed Forces will receive 300 pieces of various types of UAVs annually… [and] the current number has expanded beyond 2,100 pieces” (TASS, December 18, 2018).
These two statements have highlighted crucial lessons Russia has apparently learned from its Syrian campaign:
– The need to increase the current number of Russian UAVs (for intelligence-collection/gathering purposes);
– The necessity to create Russia’s own UCAV (capable of carrying out military missions); and
– The priority to achieve a breakthrough in terms of anti-UAV/UCAV means of warfare.
As Shoigu argued back in the fall of 2017, “The Syrian experience has demonstrated that the role of robotics in contemporary armed conflicts has grown exponentially… Russian UAVs are carrying out 24/7 monitoring and surveillance of the situation in Syria… since Russia’s involvement in the Syrian civil war, our UAVs have conducted 16,000 missions—a 2.5-times increase in comparison with 2015” (RIA Novosti, October 27, 2017). By July 2018, the number of flight missions grew to 24,000 (Mil.ru, July 6, 2018). Army General Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s chief of the General Staff, stated in late 2017 that “currently, we have 60–70 UAVs in the Syrian sky on a daily basis. We have made a big step forward in terms of UAVs for the past five years” and especially compared to 2008 (Politinform.su, December 28, 2017).
Russia’s Syrian operation has introduced two essential novelties. First, the real-time military conditions exposed certain technical deficiencies. As noted by Roman Ivanov, the deputy director of the Special Technologic Centre (Spetsialnyii Tekhnologicheskii Tsentr), “Our specialists have been able to remove a number of drawbacks in the domain of control and navigation algorithms… working in such a southern region and had to face extremely high temperatures and a mountainous landscape.” Ivanov also noted that the Russian side has been able to successfully test various means for UAVs to deal with Electronic Warfare (EW) via “activating specialized frequency/radio channels.” Specifically, in addition to corrections that will be introduced to already existing models (primarily the Orlan), Russia urgently needs UCAVs of its own—“a whole series of them, like the Americans demonstrate: from the smallest ones to large multi-ton machines. We need to provide our response” (Lenta.ru, December 18, 2018).
Indeed, work on heavy, multi-task and long-distance UAVs/UCAVs has seemingly become a clear priority as of late (see EDM, January 17, 2019). Russia’s currently known capabilities are clearly inferior not only to the United States, but some other countries—Russia’s tactical intelligence-gathering UAVs (Eleron-3, Orlan-10) and its only heavy model, the Fortpost, are incapable of performing military missions (RT, July 7, 2018).
Among UAVs/UCAVs that could eventually be integrated into the Russian Armed Forces, open sources mention the following:
– The Katran—a multifunctional, helicopter-type UCAV capable of performing both intelligence-gathering and military missions. However, available data suggests that this UCAV is unlikely to be put into a serial production before 2021, since the second stage of tests is scheduled for the second half of 2019 (Topwar.ru, August 24, 2018);
– The Orion (Russian analogue of the MQ-1 Reaper)—this currently existing model is already employed as a UAV. Now work is underway to turn it into a UCAV (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 25, 2017);
– The C-70 Okhotnik—a UCAV, whose images first appeared in Russian media this past January. Created using stealth technology, the “drone’s artificial intelligence elements and autonomous regime technologies will be used as a prototype for Russia’s sixth-generation fighter jet project,” the TASS news agency reports (TASS, November 23, 2018).
However, special attention should be allocated to the multi-functional UCAV Korsar (analogue of the RQ-7A Shadow 200), capable of targeting human forces, various types of armored vehicles and infrastructural objects (RT, April 28, 2018). Russian experts claim that, in terms of technical characteristics, the Korsar is superior to its US analogue. Specifically, the Korsar’s flight time is 12 hours (against the RQ-7A’s 8 hours); the operative range is 200 kilometers (against 125 km); and its military equipment includes the complex Ataka (strike range up to 6 km) as well as multi-task fixed grenade launchers. The Korsar is said to be capable of using both GPS and GLONASS satellite navigation systems as well as “elements of autonomous navigation.” Most importantly, Russian sources argue that the Korsar has already been tested in Syria and its excellent performance has “persuaded the military to integrate it in the Russian armed forces” (Tvzvezda.ru, May 28, 2018).
The development of the Korasar explicitly demonstrates that Russia’s strategy in the realm of UAVs is more complex than initially appears. The declarative strategic priority of creating heavy, long-range UCAVs has been given a deadline of several years. Whereas, for now, the main objective seems to be concerned with the rapid integration of short-range UCAVs (akin to the Korsar) into the Russian Armed Forces.
Incidentally, not all Russian experts share in the optimism. The editor-in-chief of the online portal UAV.ru, Denis Fedutinov, has expressed doubt that the Korsar, which is incapable of carrying complex heavy military systems, will in fact be equipped with the Ataka complex or other similarly formidable systems (News-front.info, April 28, 2018). Another point of concern is notorious corruption within the Russian defense industry sector, which has already derailed/postponed development of the heavy UCAV Altair (Lenta.ru, October 9, 2018). These serious issues are further exacerbated by systemic shortages of qualified specialists who hold advanced degrees employed by Russian defense contractors (see EDM, January 29, 2019). As such, further delays and speed bumps can be expected ahead.