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Russia lagging behind in combat drone technologies and trying to hide it through information operations

In this analytical review, InformNapalm volunteer intelligence community offers our readers a brief analysis of Russian information operations around unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV) amid Russia’s chronic lag in these technologies. The review was prepared by Yevhen Hriniov, a participant in the Russian-Ukrainian war who has combat experience in the use and countering of UAVs.

Russian UCAVs in a major information operation to cover up the chronic lag behind Western technologies

For a long time, the Russian mass media and industry sources had promoted the position that UCAVs were unsuitable for use in high-efficiency conflicts; the Russians had viewed them rather as a toy for military operations in third world countries.

This could be explained both by the conservative thinking of the Russian command, which was educated on the classical concepts dating back to the Cold War times, and by the complete inability of the Russian military-industrial complex to master the production of modern microelectronics.

In the pre-sanctions times, the problem was easily solved by imports. Even components of the Bulava missile or the K-433 submarine employed microprocessors from the Latvian company Alpha and the American Atmel. However, the situation for the Russian Federation has deteriorated sharply over the recent years.

In our operations in the Donbas, we shot down or forced to land multiple Russian reconnaissance UAVs like Forpost, Granat, Eleron, and Orlan. Their examination revealed that almost all internal components of these UAVs, with the exception of the airframes and parachutes, were foreign-made civilian-grade products. For example, Orlan has a Chinese-made GPS tracker, a US-made starter-generator PTN78020 from Texas Instruments Inc., a Japanese-made engine from SAITO SEISAKUSHO CO. LTD., flight control hardware from the European concern STMicroelectronics, and a US-made telemetry controller from Microchip.

Read more: Russian drone Orlan-10 consists of parts produced in the USA and other countries – photo evidence [1]

Eleron has a microcontroller made by STMicroelectronics and photographic equipment assembled from parts of Sony and Olympus point-and-shoot cameras (for more details look up the CAR report [2], as well as check the Military Review [3] website).

The findings are clear: not a single type of Russian UAV captured in Ukraine or Syria had any Russian-made microelectronics.

Apparently, Russians are aware of their hopeless lag in microelectronics. For example, back in 2020, the government stopped funding the development of new processors.

At the same time, it is becoming more and more difficult to ignore the unchallenged success of Turkish UCAVs in Syria and more recently in the course of hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh. Those Russians, who care about the development of their own aviation and the military-industrial complex, are concerned that Russia lags not only behind the United States, Israel and Turkey, but even behind the technical solutions of ISIS militants. Apparently, due to the conservatism and extreme corruption, the government did not generate any meaningful demand for the development of promising UCAVs through defense orders (new industries simply do not have a relevant domestic lobby), whereas private business in Russia is also unable to develop innovative technologies. Russia has wasted the time needed for research and development and is now unable to come up with anything competitive. However, at this point Russia cannot admit it, having touted its “unrivaled” military-industrial complex around the world. On the other hand, Russia is able to allocate (and waste) significant budgets for development of UCAVs. So it is no wonder that in the fall and early winter of 2021 there were exuberant reports in the Russian media about “the success of the Russian military-industrial complex in the field of drone production.”

AO Kronstadt, a new manufacturer of UAVs, reported that they were ready to mass-produce unique (!) small-size UAVs Merak and Luman.

This kind of series production was indeed quite simple to set up, as these are repainted AtomRC Fixed Wing Dolphin 845mm and Reptile Swallow-670 respectively, available for purchase on Ali Express.

Orion

Russian media went into an overdrive on December 17-20, 2021. One after another, news stories appeared about the tests of a “drone killer” based on the Orion UAV, the newest Okhotnik UAV (“the Hunter” in Russian), the combat use of the Lancet kamikaze drones in Syria, the conferences in the Russian science hub Skolkovo. Apparently, the purpose of these stories was to convince ordinary Russians that the Russian military-industrial complex was on the level with the global trends, and even that Russia was “at the forefront” in the most advanced segment of fighter UAVs.

It should be noted that both ordinary Russians and those not-so-ordinary Russians who actually approve development budgets and state orders are not very technically literate, and they can be easily tricked by a glossy picture of “grandeur”.

Let us take, for example, the Orion unmanned aircraft system (UAS), which is known in the domestic market as Inokhodets (“the Ambler” in Russian). It is produced in Ryazan, where two new production hangars with an area of 30 * 30 m each have recently been erected. Development has been underway since 2011, the first flight took place in 2016; since 2019 it has been in trial operation, which, however, began with a crash of the prototype.

On November 16, 2019, an Orion crashed during a test flight near residential buildings in the village of Listvyanka in the Ryazan Oblast. Local residents took a photo of the incident and posted it on social media. The cause of the crash was reported as “equipment failure”.

It is reported that this drone features a Russian-made optoelectronic reconnaissance station, whereas the latest modification spots a new radar cowling.

The engine is US-made, but they promise to have their analog soon. According to Russian experts, there really is such an engine in Russia, but its manufacturer is a private company, which is now being systematically strangled by the public sector. We could assume that the state wants to take over the technology.

A vivid example is the Altair UAV developed by the private Sokol Design Bureau (now the Simonov Design Bureau), whose chief designer [4] was imprisoned on trumped-up charges, and the developer of the RED A03/V12 engine V. Raikhlin emigrated to Germany.

Ammunition, guided and guideless…

Without going deep into the tactics of combat deployment of UCAVs, it should be noted that guided ammunition is at the core of their effectiveness. Broadly speaking, a UCAV is a high-precision instrument operating on the “came-saw-hit” principle. The combination of the striking range, the ability to “see” a specific target, and a high-precision guided ammunition – these are the key competitive components of UCAVs. Let us have a look at what the Russians have in this regard.

At first glance, the armament looks very solid, e.g. the UPAB-50 gliding bomb, as well as the guided KAB-20 and KAB-50 bombs. Along with these, there’s also a strange mention of the FAB-50, a pre-WW2 technology. But the main draw is the mysterious X-BPLA (or X-UAV) small-sized air-to-air missile. Let’s note this name.

In the meantime, let’s return to the UPAB-50. This ammunition is positioned as an analog and competitor of the well-known Turkish guided ammunition of the MAM series. However, even a cursory glance at both ammunition types is enough to understand that most of the usable space inside the UPAB-50 housing is occupied by explosives, and autonomous homing systems have no place it its layout. Consequently, it will be controlled only by GPS (its signal is easy to suppress even with DIY electronic warfare assets), while the MAM family has a GPS + inertial system + active or passive laser aiming.

UPAB-50 and MAM-L

Here we come to the age-old problem of the Russian Air Forces, which causes even the Su-34s in Syria to use unguided munitions: Russia lacks most of the modern guided ammunition types, and the available ones are very expensive, one of the main reasons being the small scale of their production. It is unrealistic to claim that Russians could independently manage to miniaturize the guidance systems for smart ammunition (by the way, MAM stands for Mini Akıllı Mühimmat, that is, Smart Micro Munition in English).

Of course, there is no public conversation about it in Russia. Even demonstrating full-scale models of their guided UCAV munitions is tricky, since obvious manipulations can be immediately spotted and exposed even on Russian military forums (despite the real danger of getting a prison sentence for “disclosure of state secrets” or “extremism in social media”).

Russia badly needs a quick fix. So, Inokhodets was urgently relabeled a “drone hunter”. Let’s see how that was done.

On December 18, a news story and a video was circulated through Russian web sites and Telegram channels focused on this subject, showing an Orion with two ATGMs mounted on its hardpoints (which is critically few for a UCAV) shooting down an unmanned helicopter target at the testing range in Crimea.

And here we come to the most interesting part – the mysterious X-UAV missile is actually the Kornet-D, an ATGM which has been mounted on helicopters in Russia for a while to engage high-value ground targets. The “elegant solution” is in essence putting two ATGMs on a UCAV, allowing for a successful demonstration with a live launch and a hit. However, this demonstration also raises many inconvenient questions:

We will not even compare the specifications of the X-UAV with the Turkish guided bombs. In addition to the obvious factors like prohibitively high cost and shorter range, there are many as things that are of significance to experts.

For example, the launcher container of the X-UAV remains on the carrier after the launch, reducing its flight performance. The rocket has no all-aspect capability. Finally, the altitude requirements for the effective use of the rocket forces the carrier to venture into the range of light air defense systems, whereas Bayraktars do not have this flaw.

This rocket was designed for use on attack helicopters to defeat armored vehicles and high-value targets, and the tactics of attack helicopters is fundamentally different from that of UCAVs.

The day before the demonstration of the “Bayraktor killer”, Russian TV showed the wreckage of the aforementioned UCAV. Initially, they planned a high-profile information operation [5], where these debris were supposed to have been “found” on the territory of the occupied areas of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, with a hint that the air defense of the “proud young republics” (read: Russia) easily avenged the howitzers hit by a Bayraktar [6] and “that the sky is secured”. However, the Ukrainian intelligence and special operations forces anticipated the move, so the Russians had to make do with just media reports without any field work. They

  1. showed fragments of some Bayraktar on TV
  2. demonstrated a rocket launch from an Orion at a target at a testing range,
  3. hinted that the footage is somehow related.

As usual, the devil was in the details: even Russian aviation enthusiasts saw that the debris on display belonged to the first-generation Bayraktar, which has not been in operation for several years.

Within the framework of the same media campaign, the very next day, the footage of an Okhotnik heavy UCAV firing its weapons was released. The drone looks massive, apparently featuring some stealth technologies, it is outwardly similar to the Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel (which entered combat operation approximately in 2009). The demonstration left the impression that Russia wanted to reassert its dominance in the area of reproducing other countries’ twenty-year-old designs. Given the fact that ten years ago a RQ-170 was lost by the Americans in Afghanistan and then fell into the hands of Iran, one could expect a decent job at reverse engineering of the basic hardware, however not of the electronics.

We will not speculate about real combat capabilities of the Okhotnik. But let’s have a look at the video [7] from December 19. It’s a testing range again, “a live use of strike munitions” again. The newest heavy combat drone equipped with stealth technology and advanced radars drops… a Soviet FAB-500 unguided bomb designed in 1950s. No more comments needed here.

The lame media spin with Orion and Okhotnik coincided with a stream of news from Skolkovo about civilian taxi drones, unmanned air mail of the future, concepts of urban air mobility, and, of course, about “artificial intelligence”.

Russia, most likely, will try to get components for mass drone production by bypassing sanctions under the guise of civilian use.

In fairness, we should admit that Russia demonstrated a successful use of kamikaze drones [8] in Syria in 2020. The footage looked realistic and the operation went well.

However, it’s been a year since the end of the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, but apart from the Lancet kamikaze drone, Russia has been able to come up only with firing an ATGM at a target at a testing range, dropping of an ancient unguided bomb from a supposedly “ultramodern combat drone” and the wreckage of an outdated Bayraktar model of unknown origin.

Meanwhile, even Kyrgyzstan (a CSTO member state) is buying Bayraktars. In Ukraine, a plant is being rapidly built to produce both Bayraktars and the much more advanced and powerful Akinci UCAVs. Finally, with the help of Ukraine, Turkey has come close to creating a jet-powered UCAV, and unlike Russia the Turks have suitable ammunition for it.

The United States and Great Britain are actively developing drone swarm technologies which would render any of the existing air defense systems ineffective. Recently, the Rapid Dragon technology has been developed, where cruise missiles and other guided munitions could be dropped for combat deployment from C-130 and other standard NATO airlifters on special pallets. It has been announced that the next generation of the Dragon will be unmanned. Their artificial intelligence for fighter aircraft munitions is being live-tested on the F-35s. At the same time, the use of unguided ammunition is rapidly becoming a thing of the past even in the mainstream military aviation because the scale of the serial production and sophistication of technologies makes it more cost effective to hit a target with smart weapons.

However, it is mission critical for Russia to demonstrate to the public, the success in development of its UCAVs. Therefore, we should reasonably expect that in the near future the wreckage of Kornet-D munitions and Lancet drones will be found next to the positions of the Armed Forces of Ukraine in the Donbas.

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By Yevhen Hriniov specially for InformNapalm. Translated by Artem Velichko, edited by Max Alginin. Distribution and reprint with reference to the source is welcome! (Creative Commons — Attribution 4.0 International — CC BY 4.0)
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