May 16, 2023:
Russian leader Vladimir Putin has ordered major changes in Russia’s UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) design and production capabilities. The Ukraine War saw Russia suffering heavy UAV losses due to Ukrainian countermeasures and shortcomings in Russian UAV design and tactics. Putin ordered expansion of Russian UAV production and less dependence on foreign, especially Western, components. To pay for this Putin budgeted $59 billion for procurement of 670,000 Russian UAVs through the end of the decade. Most of the new UAVs will be smaller models, especially quadcopters, while 16,000 will be larger (half-ton and up) models. Ukrainian forces made heavy and effective use of commercial quadcopters during the current war. Noting that, Putin is also expanding training for UAV operators and designers. This heavy spending makes possible the construction of more production facilities, including factories producing all the needed components. Putin expects Russian industry to develop effective substitutes for foreign components by the end of the decade. This will be difficult because foreign producers not only design and build better components but are constantly developing new technologies. Even after the demise of the inefficient Soviet industries in the 1990s, Russia was unable to replace them with Western quality equivalents. Since the 1990s Russia has lost a lot of the local tech talent; this exodus accelerated after Russia seized Crimea in 2014 and especially since Russia invaded Ukraine over a year ago. Putin pledged to exempt technical talent from being mobilized into the army for the Ukraine War but proved unable to prevent local officials from ignoring these restrictions. The talent saw this coming and now Russia has a shortage of skilled workers in general. The talent began leaving as soon as the Soviet Union collapsed. This allowed Russians to freely travel abroad. In the last year Putin has enacted laws limiting trips outside Russia but it’s too late.
Since 2014 and especially 2022, Russian defense production has been crippled by detailed and regularly updated sanctions that led to Russian firms seeking sources of smuggled Western parts. One of the worst cases was the Orlan-10 UAV, whose production is heavily dependent on imported components. Oran-10s required several Western electronic boards and chips that were not manufactured in Russia and had to be imported legally or otherwise. By 2017 it was clear that Russia was not simply using existing stockpiles of now banned components to build new Oran-10s. This was a major problem because Orlan-10 was a key observation asset as it could spot targets for Russian artillery or rocket fire. Oran-10 can operate high enough to be safe from rifle or machine-gun fire and it is difficult for a lightweight anti-aircraft missile like Stinger to hit. At night it is even less vulnerable to ground fire.
In Ukraine some Orlan-10s continued to be shot down or crashed because of equipment failure. The wreckage could be examined for the presence of banned components and these items were still there. The banned items were common, not custom-manufactured for Orlan-10s. There were dozens of distributors you could order from. Efforts to sort out which distributors were selling the Oran parts to a firm with a link to Russia were initially unsuccessful but eventually smugglers were identified and shut down. More appeared, demanding more money for the illicit components. That’s how smuggling works. Russia could still get the needed components but had to pay more and deal with delays before the needed items arrived.
Orlan-10 is one of two modern UAV designs Russia is known to have. It weighs about 15 kilograms (33 pounds) and can carry a payload of up to 6 kilograms of various kinds of recon equipment, including infrared cameras, or an array of multiple cameras used for creating 3-dimensional maps. Its gasoline engine provides a cruise speed of 90 to 150 kilometers an hour, a service ceiling of about 5 kilometers, and a flight endurance of 18 hours. Together with control and launch equipment, the Orlan-10 normally costs approximately $480,000 but that increases 20 percent or more when there are export sanctions imposed on Russia. Orlan-10 is launched via a portable, folding catapult, and lands by shutting down the engine and deploying a parachute. Orlan-10s entered service in 2012 and were used in Ukraine and Syria before 2022. Russia uses all this combat experience to help export sales of Orlan-10s and its new electronic warfare features.
In 2016 Russia introduced a new accessory for Orlan-10s which turns them into the equivalent of a cell phone tower, or a cell phone tower detector and jammer. Troops with the proper equipment and software can use an Orlan 10 to send and receive text, voice and images (including video). This system works with another Orlan 10 accessory, the RB-341V (Leer-3), that will precisely locate cell phone towers and can also jam those within six kilometers. Locating the towers is important because troops on the ground can then go destroy or capture the equipment. Artillery or airstrikes can, with an accurate location, destroy the cell phone gear remotely.
These capabilities are nothing new, American aircraft have had this for over a decade. It’s not particularly high tech but it does represent a unique aspect of modern warfare in which cell phone networks often continue to function on modern battlefields and, if the commercial networks are out of operation in a battle area, the military can deploy temporary ones suited to their own use. Russia has, since the 1990s, made quite a lot of money exporting military grade electronic weapons. They don’t have the latest tech, but are willing to provide equipment that is still restricted to military use in the West.
Putin’s plan to increase production is the easy part. Creating a Russian capability to develop and produce the latest tech is something that has eluded Russia for centuries.