Warplanes: Ukraine Builds Its Own


October 1, 2022: The war in Ukraine has been giving a lot of weapons their first combat tests. This includes Ukrainian-developed systems like the R18 octocopter UAV. R18 was one of many UAVs adapted or developed by Ukrainian firm Aerorozvidka (Ukrainian for “aerial reconnaissance”). Founded in 2014 by some civilian UAV enthusiasts, its first products were consumer quadcopters from DJI for ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance) missions against Russian forces in Donbas (eastern Ukraine), where there was still a lot of fighting despite a 2015 ceasefire agreement. Aerorozvidka were tested and developed under combat conditions and the Ukrainian military found these ISR systems very useful. Aerorozvidka quickly adapted its quadcopters to successfully operate at night and deal with Russian electronic jamming. This was done by sending the quadcopters on autonomous missions using night vision sensors to take photos and store them in memory devices on the quadcopter. This gave the Ukrainians an edge in combat intelligence, something the Russians could have also developed but didn’t.

In 2017 Aerorozvidka began developing an octocopter that could carry weapons and attack targets that its ISR quadcopters had detected. This led to the R18, an octocopter that was large enough to carry a weapon like the RKG-1600 that could destroy Russian light armored combat vehicles (like BMP and BMD Infantry Fighting Vehicles) as well as small groups of infantry and supply stockpiles. It was later found that using several RKG-1600s could destroy or disable stationary tanks. RKG-1600 is a 1.8 kg (4 pound) modified RPG (Rocket propelled grenade) warhead with 454 grams (one pound) of explosives and lengthened with added stabilizing fins as well as a new fuze. Dropped from a height of 100 to 300 meters the RKG-1600 regularly hit within a meter of the point it was aimed at.

Development began in 2017 and the first R18s entered service in 2019. It could carry up to 5 kg (11 pounds) of weapons and this often meant two RKG-1600s. R18 can operate up to four kilometers from the operator and stay in the air 40 minutes at a time. R18s often operate in cooperation with Ukrainian-made PD-1 fixed wing UAVs that carry night vision sensors and can stay in the air up to ten hours at a time. If the Russians are using signal jamming the PD-1 was sent out on a preprogrammed route and transmit high-resolution pictures back to the controller using an encrypted data link that is difficult to jam. This encrypted data is useless if the Russians capture any of it. PD-1 entered service in 2016 and has been modified as new technology was available. For example, Ukrainian gained access to the high-speed Starlink satellite network shortly after the Russians invaded in 2022 and that enabled PD-1 to send photos and GPS coordinates of potential targets to Ukrainian artillery units. That could then fire on stationary or moving targets and promptly receive photos from the PD-1 that spotted the target. The PD-1 photos were also available to infantry commanders equipped with a Starlink receiver (which displayed the photos on a laptop) so the troops could move to ambush Russian vehicles or examine destroyed vehicles for information on what they were carrying, or even capture Russian soldiers who survived the artillery or R18 attack. PD-1s also found targets for R18s.

Aerorozvidka was known to UAV enthusiasts in NATO countries and that led to obtaining 3-D parts maker equipment that enabled damaged components of R18s and PD-1s to be quickly created as needed. The current version of the R18 costs $40,000. There are currently twenty R18 teams operating with combat troops. The R18s spend most of their time carrying out ISR missions to provide Ukrainian commanders with current information on the location and strength of Russian units. R18s still carry out combat missions at night, using RKG-1600s to attack ground targets. This often includes Russian tanks and other combat vehicles that are parked next to civilian homes at night to discourage Ukrainian artillery from attacking them. The more accurate R18 RKG-1600s hit these targets without harming nearby civilians and the Russians then seek other hideouts for their combat vehicles.

R18s are also used to attack Russian headquarters or supply stockpiles. This has led to the loss of many Russian commanders, especially when PD-1s note the arrival of a lot of commanders at a headquarters for a conference. The R18 soon arrives to kill or wound the maximum number of people at that headquarters.

The Russians know about systems like the R18 because they also know of Israeli quadcopters, similar to the R18, being manufactured and used by Azerbaijan (another independent component of the Soviet that became independent in 1991). Azerbaijan has a manufacturing license from Israeli firm Aeronautics that developed the Pegasus 120 octocopter. This is heavier than the R18 and carries a 75 kg (165 pound) payload. The operating characteristics of Pegasus 120 are similar to that of the R18 but it has a range of 10 kilometers with max payload. This capability is described as a lifesaving feature when items (water, medical gear, ammunition) have to be delivered across obstacles in a hurry.

In 2018 Azad, a state-owned defense firm in Azerbaijan, began production of the Pegasus 120 octocopter, which is also available in a quadcopter UAV version. Azad builds, sells and services Pegasus 120 and other UAVs under license from Israeli UAV developer and manufacturer Aeronautics. Actually, Aeronautics owns part of Azad and was a major factor in creating Azad in 2011. Most of Aeronautics UAV sales go to government and police organizations, but military sales are a significant part of their UAV business.

Azad also builds the Israeli Orbiter 2 UAV, which weighs 9.5 kg (21 pounds) and its battery-powered motor can keep it in the air for about three hours per sortie. Maximum altitude is 3,200 meters and top speed is 120 kilometers an hour. Since the UAV can't operate more than 80 kilometers from the controller, top speed is rarely needed. The Orbiter is launched by a catapult. It lands via parachute, is waterproof and floats. Orbiters are sold as “systems.” One of the three UAVs in each Orbiter system can be launched while the other has its battery replaced and the parachute repacked and ready for another sortie in under ten minutes. The day/night vidcam transmits video back to the handheld controller, where the images can be stored. The Orbiter can also be used at sea, and Israel uses them on some of its patrol boats.

Azerbaijan is one of the few Moslem majority countries that is a regular customer for Israeli military equipment. Since 1992 Azerbaijan has bought over $5 billion dollars’ worth of Israeli weapons and military equipment. This includes a license to build (for internal use and export) the Israeli Orbiter line of UAVs and others as well. The partnership with Azad made it possible to export Israeli UAVs to other Moslem countries. There were many customers because the UAVs were Israeli technology but identified as “Made In Azerbaijan.” Most Moslem majority nations honor (some more than others) the long-standing Arab boycott of Israel over the Palestinian dispute. These days most Moslem nations prefer to be on good terms with Israel. It is still considered politically dangerous to buy from Israel. Buying from a Moslem nation like Azerbaijan is a different story.

Most of the weapons Azerbaijan was buying from Israel and elsewhere were to deal with a decades-old territorial dispute with neighboring Armenia that flared into open warfare in the 1990s when Armenia and Azerbaijan became independent countries. Russia has helped broker a ceasefire and is promoting settlement talks. Russia also builds Israeli UAVs under license and wants this matter settled. Azeri stockpiles of Israeli weapons finally paid off in 2020 when another round of fighting with Armenia resulted in Azerbaijan winning and taking a lot of disputed territory from Armenia. Russia has long been an ally and supplier of weapons to Armenia but lost its access to most Israeli tech because of their attacks on Ukraine in 2014 and 2022. Russia also had less money to spend on defending Armenia and this helped Azerbaijan in 202o.

Despite a larger military budget and more resources, Russia has not developed much modern UAV technology. They hoped to remedy this by obtaining licenses to build Israeli UAVs but this was halted by sanctions.




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