UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) in modern warfare: Case of Russian Federation

1. Executive Summary

  • Historically UAVs have been present in combat activities, since 19th century. Today they present an important element of modern warfare. 
  • After the end of Cold War, Russian Federation continued with Soviet UAV program. The need for UAV modernization in Russian armed forces came during Georgo-Russian war in 2008. Since then they have made a lot of partnership agreements with various partners. Because of the artillery-centric nature of the Russian army, artillery spotting is an extremely important UAV task. Since 2008 Russian drones have been used in Syria and Ukraine. Russian Federation is conducting testing for strike drones in 2019.
  • Drones in the future will be: combat oriented (multifunctional), harder detectable and more autotomized. Small and micro drones will be used in new tactical approaches (e.g. swarming). Future weapon systems will be joined together in a Mosaic scheme. 
  • Countries should invest in research and development of drone technology. Emphasis should also be put on anti-drone system development. Supranational legislation should be adopted by the EU, regarding UAV activity. 

2. UAVs

UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) are aerial vehicles that don’t carry human personnel.  Since media coverage on UAV increased during the last years, another term is being mentioned – drone. It is wider spread, similar as the UAVs, however some say that the term UAV indicates more sophisticated aerial vehicles. A much broader term is UAS (Unmanned Aerial System), the term covering not only the aircraft (like UAV) but also the equipment, controller.

As all other aircraft, UAV use aerodynamic forces to provide lift in the air. They are operated by a ground or airborne controller (they can also be pre-programed). UAVs can carry non–lethal payload and are therefore used for missions such as: reconnaissance, C2 (command and control), and deception. Other configuration of UAVs can be made up from a lethal payload. UAVs are made in different sizes in shapes. They come in small shape that will fit in one’s backpack, or can have a longer wingspan than a Boeing 747.


3. UAV Historical review

Drones have been present in warfare, since the end of 19th century. Development of unmanned technology was the fastest during the period between the First and the Second World War. In that period British created the so–called Queen Bee radio controlled biplane. In the late 1950s remotely piloted aircraft were used as spy planes. They gathered intelligence without risking human lives and revealing vulnerability of secret projects like Lockheed U-2 single-jet engine. During the first years of Cold War drones were expensive and relied on analogue radio signals, which presented a problem because of their small operational range. 

An early example of combat role of drones came in Yom Kippur war. Israel sent its UAVs to Golan Heights. This gave Syrian army an impression that they were under a massive air attack. As a response Syrians launched their surface -to-air missiles (SAM). Second consequence of this deceptive attack was that Syrian radars began active tracking of the Israeli’s UAVs. This revealed locations of Syrian radar systems to Israeli army.

Since the beginning of 1990s UAVs were used as tactical support in missions with lower priority, where threat to their safety was limited. In the late 1990s UAVs had become main pillar of intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance operations. After 11/9 2001, global war on terror (lead by US) developed armed UAVs. That was a major step towards multifunctional drones. Its primary tasks remained in reconnaissance, intelligence gathering and surveillance, however now it had the potential to deliver air strikes. Updated optical imaging cameras, sensors and geopolitical shift (resurgence of Russia potential in 2014), expanded the need of UAVs in intelligence gathering missions. 


4. Countering UAVs

Since there was an expansion of militant use of drones across the world, there was a necessity in development of counter UAV systems. The Russian ministry of defence stated in 2018 that their bases had been targeted by a massive strike of UAVs. These attacks can happen anywhere because commercially available UAVs can be easily turned into weapon system. Countermeasures that are being developed include: employment of lasers; kinetic destruction via bullets or missiles; net capturing with other UAVs; electronic jamming.


5. Russian UAV development

Russian development of UAVs has its roots in Cold War era (Soviet Union). After the collapse of Soviet Union in 1990, Russia didn’t possess enough financial resources to carry on the UAV program. Russia had used UAVs in several various occasions in diverse combat grounds. Most notable developing steps were:

  • UAV usage in Russian–Georgian War;
  • Russian development of UAVs after 2008;
  • Artillery spotting.

5.1 UAVs in Russo-Georgian War

In the Russo-Georgian war (2008), Russia’s armed forces had many problems with low quality images they received from its reconnaissance UAVs. The Strizj and Reys UAVs were built in the seventies by the Tupolev Design Bureau. Pchela UAV with Story-P system was created by Kulon Scientific Research Institute. 

Russian commanders described UAVs performance in Georgia as it: “flew so low you could hit it with a slingshot and (it) roared like a BTR”. In the aftermath of war Russian Federation began modernizing structure and equipment of its defence forces. Regarding defence procurement Russian military and political leaders agreed with Vladimir Alekesandrovich Popovkin’s assessment that Russian defence firms need to be subjected to competition from foreign firms, because in that case they would develop better systems.

That context contributed to the contract which was signed by Russian Ministry of defence and an Israeli IAI company, for purchase of BirdEye 400 and Searcher Mk II in the late September 2009. Afterwards licensing agreements were concluded, so the production could be done domestically under the names Zastava and Forpost in Yekaterinburg. By 2010 Russian agreement with Israel reached 400 million dollars. At the same time Russian companies began developing domestic systems: the Orlan-10 developed by the STTs Company in Saint Petersburg; the Eleron-3SV developed by the Eniks firm in Kazan; and the Granat family of UAVs, produced by Izhmash Unmanned Systems. Israel has shown in 2014 its UAV business commitment to Russian Federation, when it cancelled drone sale to Ukraine.


5.2 Russian development of UAVs after 2008

Nowadays UAV development is present in all branches of the Russian Ministry of defence. Regarding ground forces, officials have stated that UAVs will be used for: communication, intelligence and electronic warfare. Primary focus of UAVs in Russian ground forces will be on artillery spotting. 

Russian Military doctrine adopted on the 25th of December 2014, confirmed the commitment to develop new types of high-precision weapons and means of counteracting them, which includes UAVs.

Regarding the structure all of brigades, UAVs have been put into a single company. Further on the companies are divided into platoons (regarding the size and range of UAVs they operate). For training company personnel Russian Air Force Academy accepted its first UAV class in 2013. This type of training is similar to a combination between U.S. service academy and an initial officer basic course for occupational training. Candidates, who finish 4-5 year academies, will be given lieutenant commissioned post. Even though the program is situated in Russian Air Force Academy, members from other branches of Russian Ministry of defence are able to join.


5.3 Artillery spotting

Artillery systems have ranges beyond the line of sight. That is why they have to rely on observer who finds targets and adjusts fire. For artillery-centric Russian army use of UAVs for artillery spotting is extremely important. UAV support is provided by mini and short-range UAV platoons. Most frequently mentioned are Granat-1 (mini –class) and Orlan-10 (short- range). UAV pilots first communicate with Artillery Reconnaissance Vehicles (ARVs) who distribute the information regarding target to the battery fire direction centres.


6. Operational use UAVs by Russian Federation after 2008

After 2008, Russia used drones in Ukraine and Syria. There they have been mostly used for: reconnaissance; battle assessment damage; electronic warfare. Operations in south-eastern Ukraine included Orlan-3M and Orlan-10. The latter is equipped with electronic warfare system Leer-3RB-341V, which can block enemy cell phones and then transmit its own messages to them.

On the 6th of January 2018 Russia’s Hemimi air base in Latakia and Tartus naval bases were under attack by small drones. Three drones attacked Tartus, while on the other hand three attacked Heimim base. Russia’s Ministry of Defence reported that drones were launched thirty miles away and guided by GPS system. All of thirteen drones were shot down by Russian electronic warfare forces. Drones were bought in black market that is why the source of the attack remains unknown.  Russia plans to use the drone swarming tactic in its armed forces as well. Instead of using commercially drones, Russia will build its own cheap drones. Their load capability will be 1 kilogram of explosive payload.

 The trend of UAVs in Russia is moving towards reaching strike UAV. This was also emphasized in speech by Russian minister of defence in 2018, who expressed need for shock drones. Russian minister of defence also explained that Russian armed forces will receive 300 UAVs annually. One example of Russian UAV development was presented in International Defence Exhibition and Conference (IDEX-2019) in Abu Dhabi. The Kub was presented by Kalashnikov concern, which is part of Rostec. The Kub presents a high-precision attack drone, which is aimed to destroy ground targets by hitting them. Its wingspan is 1,2 meters and it can carry up to 3 kilograms of payload. Example of heavy UAV with increased strike capability was presented in January 2019 – experimental S70 – Ohkothnik (Hunter). Tests of S70 as well as other strike UAVs will be conducted in 2019.


7. Forecast

UAV technology is evolving veryfast. This is happening in both the commercial and  military sector. From current point of view the developing trend in UAV technology is going into three aspects: 

  1. Increasing autonomy of UAS. Example of this can be seen in: possible future inclusion of AI; bigger endurance of drones; wireless recharging of UAVs.
  2. Drones are nowadays more combat oriented, than they were in the past. Actually, development is going into multifunctional UAV production (similar like fighter airplanes – 5th generation is completely multifunctional).  Example of this is Boeing prototype MQ-25 Stingray. It is being developed as an air refuelling tanker; however we can see that developers are also using stealth technology. That is why we can speculate that it can be used near frontlines for: radio retransmission; reconnaissance; surveillance. Possibly onecould even attach a weapon system on it.
  3. Reduction of reflection/emission in radar, visual, infrared and audio spectrum ( stealth). This is being developed especially for weapons systems that are being used in intense combat areas. 

Tactical methods of UAV usage will also change in the future. Attacks won’t follow the conventional tactical methods. Example for this is loitering munition, which can fly for hours up in the air. The attack happens without any prior warning. Mini and micro drones that are nowadays mostly being used for reconnaissance and intelligence gathering are also updated regarding new tactical procedures. Example of this is so called swarming or kamikaze tactics, which was actually being used by extremist groups in Syria. This tactic is considered effective, since it can be achieved with large number of cheap small drones.

Defence Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) published a presentation in 2018  on how modern weapons systems should be put together in so called Mosaic warfare. It presents a concept in modern warfare, where weapon systems today are made like mosaic pieces. Today weapon systems are similar to puzzle pieces. Since UAV development is going into multifunctional usage we can anticipate that future UAVs will work along other weapons systems together to achieve a mission, within mosaic scheme of combat. DARPA stated that mosaic warfare concept fits into joint-multi domain battlefield that was presented by Pentagon in the last few years.

Example of this Mosaic warfare we see in project Loyal Wingman, which was started in 2015 by US Air Force Research Laboratory. It envisages a scenario where a ‘swarm’ of cheap UAVs operate together with conventional combat aircraft.


8. Strategy Options

  • Since there is developing UAV trend in commercial sector as well, EU member states should adopt supranational legislation. This would provide integration within EU and also serve as coordination tool between member states.
  • NATO member states should keep their focus on developing NATINAMDS, since it provides robust, efficient and around-the-clock capability, safeguarding against a variety of air threats, including (combat) UAVs. This system could serve as basis against potential future UAV attacks in Europe.
  • Countries should invest funds in UAV research project. This would allow them to modernize armed forces and their tactics.

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