Syrian Experience Provides New Impetus for Russia’s UAV Strategy (Part Two)

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 22

(Source: Sputnik News)

*To read Part One, please click here.

A popular saying among Russian military historians is that “the AK-47 is a weapon of the proletariat” due to this automatic assault rifle’s extreme popularity with insurgent forces in regional conflicts around the world throughout most of the Cold War and beyond. Yet, the Syrian civil war has arguably seen the AK-47 be superseded by the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) as the latest indispensable tool of asymmetric warfare (, January 16, 2018; see EDM, January 16, 17, 2018). In light of this reality, Russian has been cultivating its ability to utilize UAVs over the battlefield as well as working to develop its first unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) (see Part One, February 13, 2019). At the same time, Moscow seems to be experimenting with employing UAVs to bolster the Russian Armed Forces’ Network Centric Warfare (NCW) capabilities in addition to being able to use drones to disrupt the enemy’s NCW systems. Moreover, Russia is seeking to develop effective anti-UAVs capabilities as quickly as possible. Reportedly, it is practicing these skills mainly in the Southern Military District (SMD) and partner countries along Russia’s southern perimeter—apparently due to this area’s climactic and geographic similarities to Syria (see below).

On November 18, 2019, during military exercises in Armenia (the Kamkhud high-mountainous training polygon) forces of the SMD simulated an “urban battle based on the experience of the Syrian campaign.” The key roles of reconnaissance, navigation and coordination of actions (especially, of tanks and armored vehicles) were ascribed to UAVs (, November 18, 2018). Another telling episode occurred two months earlier, in Kyrgyzstan, within the scope of the Issyk-Kul Antiterror 2018 joint anti-terrorism exercises (, September 26, 2018). Lieutenant General Alexander Lapin, the commander of the Central Military District, argued that the Issyk-Kul maneuvers were meant to test Russia’s experience gained in Syria, with UAVs (numbering 25 pieces) playing an essential role. Lapin highlighted two aspects. First, the emphasis was made not on individual, but swarming tactics using UAVs—primarily, utilizing Fortpost, Orlan the Takhion models. Second, the drones played an instrumental role (reconnaissance and coordination) in simulating a “vertical envelopment” (“vertikalnyii okhvat”) of an adversary`s forces (in a way, replicating the Soviet anti-insurgency experience in Afghanistan, but with the inclusion of drones) (, September 26, 2018).

Another vital aspect of Russia’s Syrian experience has been the growing emphasis on counter-UAV strategy—an element that has acquired particular importance following the insurgent attacks that used drone wave strikes against Russian forces in Syria (Khmeimim), in early 2018 (see EDM, January 17, 2018). One of the most significant steps the Russian military has taken so far was to introduce “anti-UAV Spetsnaz” units (in the SMD)— “mobile groups assembled in military units specifically tasked with counter-UAVs warfare, extensively employing experience gained in Syria” (, August 28, 2018). The first recorded practical exercises (taktiko-spetsialniye ucheniya) involving these units took place on August 30, on the territory of the Marinovka airport (Volgograd Oblast). In addition to the anti-UAV Spetsnaz (consisting of specialists in electronic and anti-aircraft warfare), the drills featured 1,500 military personnel and over 300 pieces of special equipment (, No. 11, September 2018). Interestingly, the backbone of these anti-UAV drills (detection, tracking, destruction/forceful landing) was ascribed to the small Lesochek Electronic Warfare (EW) system (first tested in the Eastern Military District) and the R-330Zh Zhitel automated jamming station (both used jointly), with the latter successfully tested in the Donbas region (see EDM, May 24, 2017). The Zhitel is said to have developed capabilities to confront “all types of currently produced UAVs/UCAVs.” These maneuvers simulated a “swarm attack” against a Russian airfield. The above-mentioned means of EW were used in conjunction with the Pantsir-S1 medium-range and Tor-M2 short-range surface-to-air missile systems, which (conditionally) destroyed various types of UAVs within a 10-kilometer range (, August 30, 2018). It should not be ruled out that, in the future, such anti-UAV Spetsnaz units could be used in an integrated manner with already-existing EW special forces (such as those created on the territory of Kursk Oblast, in the Western Military District in October 2017—see EDM, November 7, 2017).

The Russian Ministry of Defense has apparently added anti-UAV drills to its list of top priorities for the Armed Forces. On July 16, 2018, it was reported that the defense ministry was planning to introduce a comprehensive training program specifically aimed at anti-UAVs actions for the Aerospace Defense Forces, infantry and Airborne Forces, as well as the Marine Infantry (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 16, 2018). While it remains unclear how these anti-UAV functions are to be divided, the program also builds on a number of comprehensive measures aiming to establish a complex and diversified architecture, ranging from the introduction of new anti-drone technology to the creation of a “radio-location field covering all major Russian cities.”

Importantly, these ideas have given powerful impetus to an already-existing debate about which forces should assume the primary role in UAV (and counter-UAV) operations. Russian UAV warfare expert Igor Tabachuk has argued that “it is most likely that anti-aircraft forces will be tasked with anti-UAV operations. It will not make any sense to create separate forces for this task. If created, such units have to be integrated into something larger… This, however, does not mean that they should be cumbersome or numerous—they could operate as small tactical units, yet be coordinated from above” (, August 28, 2018).

The above-mentioned forces are not the only ones that could become stakeholders in the realm of drone operations. As stated by the first deputy director of the Russian National Guard (Rosgvardia), Sergey Melikov, his security force is, in fact—jointly with the defense ministry, the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the Federal Protective Service (FSO)—already involved in developing the means and methods of anti-UAVs warfare (Izvestia, January 9, 2018). As argued by other Russian sources, the Rosgvardia could be tasked with certain relatively unsophisticated and primarily auxiliary functions such as (, January 11, 2018):

– Confronting small and micro UAVs;

– Protecting infrastructure;

– Carrying out routine intelligence collection;

– Performing radio intelligence (detection of cellphones);

– Disorganizing enemy Command-and-Control (C2) systems (via spoofing).

With the Rosgvardia already having been given broader responsibilities in the realm of Information Security (see EDM, March 21, 2017), acquiring new functions could introduce a new dimension to Russia’s overall military UAV strategy.