Air Weapons: Russian Predator Appears

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February 18, 2021: Russia now has an armed Predator-type UAV called Orion, a one-ton UAV with a 200 kg payload and 24-hour endurance. In 2018 an armed version (Orion-E) was revealed but it did not actually fire a Hellfire-type missile until the end of 2020. The Russian missile is the S-5Kor, which is similar to the American APKWS, a smaller laser guided missile that replaces of supplements Hellfire on many helicopters and fighter-bombers.

Orion was revealed in 2017 but did not officially enter service until late 2019 and did not actually combat zones until early 2020. The main reason for the delays was unreliable engines. That delayed availability for several years and apparently that engine problem is not entirely solved yet.

APKWS is a 70mm laser guided missile that entered service in 2012. APKWS weighs 13.6 kg (30 pounds) with a 2.7 kg (six pound) warhead and a range of about six kilometers. Helicopters carry APKWS 70mm rockets in seven rocket pods already used for unguided rockets. That pod can be rewired to fire the APKWS, which are preferable to the larger (45 kg) Hellfire because the smaller warhead allows the APKWS to be fired against targets that are very close to civilians or friendly troops. Since APKWS are smaller and lighter, more can be carried. Hellfire has been around since 1984 with over 130,000 produced so far and most of them used in combat or training.

The Russian version of APKWS is a guided version of their 5 kg (11 pound) S-5 unguided rocket. S-5Kor, the guided version, first appeared in 2000 but was not very reliable and it took more than a decade to fix that. The range of the laser guided S-5Kor is up to 7 kilometers. Larger unguided rockets, like the 80mm, 15.2kg S-8Kor have a range of up to eight kilometers and the still larger 130mm, 70 kg S-13Kor has a range of nine kilometers. All three are much more accurate at shorter (3 to 5 kilometers) ranges.

Russia did create a laser guided missile similar to the Hellfire. The Vikhr (9K121/AT-16) laser guided missile is a 45 kg (99 pound) Vikhr is similar to the American Hellfire but did not show up until 1990. Vikhr's guidance is the less effective than the Hellfire and APKWS laser homing system that simply homes in on laser light reflected off a target. Vickhr sales have been slow, in part because another Russian manufacturer had a similar missile Ataka V using more reliable SACLOS (radio controlled) guidance. While Vikhr is similar in size and function to Hellfire, it uses a less effective laser beam riding guidance system that depends on the pilot being able to see the target. That means daytime range is 10 kilometers but only half that at night. Vikhr has a 10 kg (22 pound) warhead. It is primarily used on navy Ka-50/52 helicopters and army Su-25 ground attack aircraft.

Russia is apparently obtaining Hellfire type laser guidance tech from Turkey, who has their version of Predator, the locally designed and built Bayraktar. Entering service in 2014, Bayraktar is a 650 kg (1,433 pounds) aircraft with a 55 kg (110 pound) payload and an endurance of 24 hours. In 2016 Bayraktar TB2 was equipped to carry two 22.5 kg (50 pound) Turkish designed Mam-L laser-guided missiles. With a range of 8 kilometers, the Mam-l weighs half as much as the American Hellfire and is light enough for Bayraktar TB2 to carry two of them. These are used regularly against PKK separatists in Turkey and Islamic terrorists and rebel groups in Syria as well and more recently against Armenian and Libyan forces. Before using a laser guided missile, the Orion used 50 kg KAB-50 TV or laser guided glide bombs which were unpowered and could glide to targets as far as 30 kilometers distant. The U.S. Air Force introduced this tech during the 1970s as the Paveway bomb. Russia may be building their own version of Mam-L, which Ukraine already did in 2019 when it ordered Bayraktar TB2s armed with Mam-L.

In mid-2020 a larger version of Orion called Orion 2 was revealed in mock-up form. This five-ton UAV is similar to the American Reaper, which made its first flight in 2001 and entered service in 2007. Orion-2 is not expected to make its first flight until 2023.

Russia is somewhat embarrassed that China and Turkey and have made more progress catching up with the Americans, who followed the lead of the Israelis in the 1990s to get the Predator into service. Israel is still a leader in UAV technology and Russia already builds some older and smaller Israeli UAVs under license. This is another reason why Russia cooperates with Israel in Syria and other defense matters.

 


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