Russia’s failures in Ukraine have demonstrated that it has still not developed a competitive and productive UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) industry. It’s not for lack of trying. Late in the Cold War Russia ignored the development of modern UAVs in Israel and later the United States. In the 1990s, after the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union disappeared, Russian military leaders recognized that Russia was way behind the West when it came to UAV tech and the sheer number of UAVs in operational use for surveillance and airstrikes. After a few false starts, Russia finally focused on Israel as a solution. Russia produced the Israeli Searcher 2 as the Forpost and hundreds were built. First Russia used imported Israeli components but slowly developed local suppliers for these components. Some of these Forpost UAVs have been used, or rather misused, in Ukraine. The Russian problem with UAVs was their difficulty in adopting foreign concepts and technology.
Compared to Ukraine, Russia has not used its many UAVs much during the current invasion. This is apparently due to the bad experience Russia has had using UAVs in Ukraine since 2014. In contrast Ukraine has developed its own UAV force since 2014 which has proven far superior to what the Russians have.
Then there is the economic angle. In early 2017 Russia revealed that it had increased the number of modern UAVs in service from 180 in 2011 to over 2,000. The ones in service by 2017 were mostly models that have already been seen in action. These include Granat-1, Granat-2, Granat-4, Zavasta, Forpost, Zala-421, Irkut-10, Orlan 10, Eleron-3SV, Takhion and Zastava. Procurement and development slowed after 2017 because of sanctions imposed after the 2014 Russian attack on Ukraine. Russia continued using their UAVs in Ukraine, Syria, Armenia and Libya. Russia did introduce new models, but not in large numbers. There was a similar shortage of guided bombs and missiles for aircraft and large UAVs.
Meanwhile Russia developed special versions of some UAVs to operate inside Russia. Orlan-10 is one of few UAVs that Russia developed locally and that included a special version for functioning in Arctic environments. Orlan 10 is propeller-driven, 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 95-octane gasoline-powered engine provides a cruise speed of 90 to 150 kilometers an hour, a service ceiling of about 5,000 meters, and a flight endurance of 18 hours. Together with control and launch equipment, the Orlan-10 costs about half a million dollars. The aircraft is launched by a a portable folding catapult and lands by shutting down the engine and deploying a parachute.
The Eleron-3SV costs about $60,000 and is a battery powered, 4.3 kg (7.49 pounds) UAV traveling at speeds of from 70 to 130 kilometers an hour. Its flight endurance is up two hours, and its maximum altitude is 5,000 meters (16,000 feet). It is launched by throwing it and lands by flying close to the ground and shutting its engine off.
Most Russian UAVs require a catapult, often vehicle mounted, to get airborne and land by flying close to the ground and turning the motor off. In some models a small parachute is deployed. These crash landings often require some repairs before reuse. Larger UAVs are fewer in number and can operate from a road or air base.
In 2014 Russia began licensed production of the Israeli Searcher 2 UAV as the Russian Forpost. This came after seven years of negotiations and user trials by Russian troops. The Searcher 2 is a half-ton aircraft with an endurance of 20 hours, max altitude of 7,500 meters (23,000 feet) and can operate up to 300 kilometers from the operator. It can carry a 120 kg (264 pound) payload. In 2012 Searcher 2 was tested in northern Russia during cold weather and performed well despite extremely colder temperatures (especially on the ground, where it got to -30 Centigrade). In 2016 Israel suspended the Russian license for the Searcher 2, apparently because of accusations that Russia had violated the terms of license which prohibited use in a combat zone.
Back in 2004 negotiations to set up an Israeli UAV factory in Russia, as a joint venture, were stalled over potential problems with the transfer of UAV technology to Russia. The U.S. and Israel have been most successful in developing efficient UAVs in the last few decades, as a result of firms in both countries developing new technologies and manufacturing techniques that overcame many of the problems that hamper UAVs designed in Russia, China and many other countries. While UAVs are basically low-tech, putting them together so that they are effective and reliable has proved to be quite difficult. There was some trepidation about transferring those UAV manufacturing technologies to Russia, as the Russians might in turn transfer that tech, or high-grade UAVs, to countries like Iran, China, Syria or North Korea. It took a while to sort all this out. Russia also produced the Israeli Bird-Eye 400 under license as the Zastava.
Russia first approached Israel to purchase UAVs in 2007. That resulted in Russia buying over fifty aircraft, including the Bird-Eye 400, I-View MK150 and Searcher 2. The Bird-Eye 400 is a 4 kg (9 pound) micro-UAV with a maximum endurance of 80 minutes, max ceiling of 320 meters (1,000 feet) and can operate 15 kilometers from the operator. It is mainly for use by small infantry units. The I-View MK150 is a 250 kg (550 pound) aircraft with a seven-hour endurance, max altitude of 5,500 meters (17,000 feet) and can operate up to 150 kilometers from the operator. It can carry a 20 kg (44 pound) payload, which enables day and night vidcams. It can take off using an airfield, or from a truck mounted launcher. It can land on an airfield or via parachute. It is usually employed to support brigades.
Current Russian UAVs are a big improvement on earlier Russian efforts and make good use of proven Western UAV design and construction technology. Most modern UAVs are not high-tech and it was always baffling why the Russians insisted on holding on to their older UAV technology for so long. What stirred the Russians to change might be the success of micro-UAVs like the American RQ-11 Raven. While much less capable than their bigger cousins, micro-UAVs offer certain benefits not achievable before (small, cheap, reliable, easy to use and not dependent on airfields). Micro-UAVs can be deployed in large numbers, often by small infantry units or by artillery spotters, granting frontline ground units fast, easy, cheap and direct access to a part of surveillance capabilities that before had to be requested from and organized by higher level headquarters, which often prevented the vital intelligence from arriving to the ground troops in time, especially in poorly organized, heavily bureaucratic militaries, like those favored by China and Russia. In combat Russian soldiers would often bring their own commercial quadcopters, or pool their cash and buy them. This was a common practice with soldiers in many countries, including the United States.
In addition to all the new Russian UAVs put in service after 2017 Russia was working on even larger and more advanced models. In 2015 a Russian firm revealed that they were developing the one-ton Inokhodets (similar to the MQ-1 Predator) and the 4.5-ton Altius-M (similar to the MQ-9 Reaper) UAVs. Since then, Russia has revealed even larger, jet powered UAVs designed to replace some manned warplanes like the American five-ton Reaper and 13-ton jet powered Global Hawk did.
The U.S. sent Ukraine early model Raven UAVs in 2017 and the Ukrainians reported that its lack of encrypted communications made the UAV vulnerable to Russians jamming the signal and forcing the Raven down, or simply eavesdropping and seeing whatever the Ukrainian operator was seeing. Current Ravens have encrypted control signals and the Americans quickly replaced the older Ravens with the latest model. The Ukrainians also pointed out that in 2016 they had begun using the locally developed and manufactured PD-1 UAV. A similar effort produced the smaller PC-1 later in 2017.
In 2015 Ukrainian civilians organized a successful crowd-funding effort to create it themselves. This PD-1 (People’s Drone 1) was ready for service in mid-2016. This was all done by Ukrainian engineers, programmers and model aircraft enthusiasts who obtained OTS (off-the-shelf) components from suppliers locally and in Australia, China and the Czech Republic. The PD-1 was tested and accepted by the Ukrainian military and entered service in August 2016. American and NATO advisers witnessed the testing and were not surprised that PD-1 was equal to many American and Israeli UAVs of the same size and performance, but were impressed that it was built at a cost of less than $25,000 each. It proved to be as secure from Russian hackers and jamming as Western models. Ukraine soon offered the PD-1 for export.
The PD-1 is a 33 kg (73 pound) aircraft with an 8 kg (17 pound) payload. It is 2.54 meters (8.2 feet) long with a wingspan of 3.19 meters (10.2 feet). It lands and takes off on a tricycle landing gear and can also be catapulted into the air and recovered via a parachute. The gasoline engine drives a pusher propeller for speeds of 70-140 kilometers an hour at altitudes as high as 3,000 meters (nearly 10,000 feet, out of range of most anti-aircraft guns and portable missiles). Endurance is six hours.
PD-1 can take off and land under software control and can fly missions autonomously (which are hack and jam proof) and available sensors can either store video onboard or stream HD (1080p) video back to the controller who can view it in real time. This video signal is encrypted as is the control signal. It has worked under combat conditions against the best the Russians have to use against them.
The fact that a bunch of civilian engineers quickly organized an effort to deliver a world-class UAV at a low price got a lot of military brass around the world concerned about what might be going on in Syria, Iraq and the autonomous Kurdish provinces in northern Iraq, not to mention embarrassing questions from their various civilian superiors about the higher cost of comparable military UAVs. Islamic terror groups as well as more secular groups like the Kurds have adapted existing commercial UAVs, especially the quad-copter designs, to military purposes. These UAVs cost about a thousand (or up to a few thousand) dollars each, compared to $35,000 each for the Raven the American military has been using since 2003. The problem is not the performance of Raven, it has been excellent, but the cost and peacetime attitudes towards training expenses cause problems. Lower ranking commanders point out that when their troops, most of them with combat experience using Raven, are not training for combat they suddenly find themselves being ordered to use their Ravens less because, while they are “cheap” in a wartime situation (where they save American lives), in peacetime money is more of an issue and risking the loss of Ravens is considered unacceptable. At least it is unacceptable to the people who control the budget. But if the troops had cheaper UAVs they could, literally, get away with losing more of them in peacetime training. The Ukrainian team that developed the PD-1 then developed a cheaper, more “expendable” design called the PC-1, which is basically a quad-copter design durable for military use. The PC-1 also has an optional weapons package and is similar to the Switchblade design American troops have been using. Unlike Switchblade, PC-1 is more agile and reusable. By early 2017 the PC-1 was available as a 3.5 kg (7.7 pound) quad copter with an endurance of 30 minutes, ceiling of 2,000 meters (6,400 feet). PC-1 can operate up to five kilometers from the controller, normally operates at low altitudes (50-400 meters) and carries a stabilized day/night vidcam and is easily upgraded. Current flight software allows for autonomous operation.
A similar Ukrainian led to the development of the Punisher UAV, which was ready for service at the end of 2021 and quietly began operations soon after the February 2022 invasion. The team that designed the Punisher was composed of veterans of the fighting in eastern Ukraine since 2014. They formed a company, UA Dynamics, with the help of investors and are now manufacturing Punishers as quickly as they can at locations they want to keep secret from the Russians who would be eager to add Punisher manufacturing facilities to their target list.
Punisher is a small UAV with a 2,33-meter (15 foot) wingspan and payload of two kg (4.4 pounds). The payload can consist of one guided bomb or three smaller ones. Max altitude is 400 meters (1,300 feet) but endurance is up to three hours with a top speed of 52 kilometers an hour. Punisher uses a reconnaissance UAV to spot and verify targets, and the recon UAV’s operators then pass the location to Punisher operators who then launch guided bombs to hit the targets. The main targets are Russian supply trucks. Punisher has been able to operate deeper into Russian occupied territory than the larger Turkish TB2 UAV. Once Punisher expends its payload it uses its GPS guidance to return it to its base for reloading and recharging of its batteries, a process that takes about seven minutes. There is minimal communication between Punisher and its target spotter UAV, making it difficult for Russians to spot it via electronic signals. Punisher is small, quiet and difficult to spot from the ground or from the air. So far Punishers have been responsible for at least a hundred successful attacks on Russian vehicles and Russian efforts to detect, much less shoot down, a Punisher have failed.
There are no independent civilian UAV development projects in Russia so Ukraine has an edge in battlefield UAVs as well as many other aspects of modern warfare that Russia demonstrated it is not prepared for.