Procurement: Russia Building Better UAVs

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May 18, 2019: Russia continues to play catchup when it comes to developing and manufacturing battlefield UAVs. Russia entered the 1990s dubious about American and Israeli enthusiasm for these new unmanned aircraft, in part because Russia did not have the tech to build comparable models. That was less the case twenty years later and recent experience in Syria has convinced Russia that it is time to close the UAV gap. The latest example of this is the Korsar UAV, which is similar to the U.S. Army RQ-7 Shadow 200, a 1980s design that has been so useful that several attempts to develop a suitable replacement have failed. The Russian equivalent will go on sale late in 2019. Korsar is a 200 kg (440 pound) propeller-driven UAV with a 6.5 meter (20 foot) wingspan and a top speed of 150 kilometers an hour. It is, in just about every respect, identical to the RQ-7. Korsar can operate up to 120 kilometers from the control station

The RQ-7B has been one of the most heavily used “medium UAVs” in American service. Each 200 kg RQ-7BV2 UAV costs over $2,000,000 and over 500 have been manufactured since 1990. A day camera and night vision camera is carried as well as accessories like laser designators. Able to fly as high as 4,900 meters (15,000 feet), the Shadow can go into hostile territory and stay high enough (over 3,200 meters/10,000 feet) to be safe from hostile rifle and machine-gun fire. The Shadow can carry 25.5 kg (56 pounds) of equipment, and is 3.5 meters (11 feet) long with a wingspan of 4.1 meters (12.75 feet). The Shadow ground controller has a range of about 50 kilometers. The U.S. Army has had great success with the Shadow 200, which is what caught the attention of foreign customers and led to several export sales.

In Syria Russian made UAVs have, since late 2015, flown 140,000 hours during over 23,000 sorties. Most of this was done with recent Russian UAV designs like the 16.5 kg Orlan 10, plus the 500 kg Forpost, a license-built Israeli Searcher 2. Another Russian firm introduced Orion, a Russian version of the American Predator, in 2017. This is a one ton UAV with a 200 kg payload and 24 hour endurance. In 2018 an armed version (Orion-E) was introduced. Russia also builds, under license, the S-100 helicopter UAV. Russia is replacing these license built models with local designs now that Russia has developed the engines, commo gear and sensors needed to make modern UAVs work.

Russia is also adapting its UAVs for civilian uses as well as military service. In 2018 Russia began using a new version of the Leer 3 Orlan 10 UAV mounted cell phone jammer that increases the range of the jammer from 28 kilometers to about 100 kilometers. The cell phone jammer version of Orlan 10 first appeared in 2016 as one of several EW (electronic warfare) accessories for Orlan 10. The Leer 3 accessory turned the aircraft 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 the 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 to 28 kilometers. Locating the towers is important because troops on the ground can then destroy or capture the equipment. Artillery or airstrikes can, with an accurate location, destroy the cell phone gear remotely. Ukrainian troops have observed two or three Orlan 10s operating together with one operating as a communications relay so that one or two others can operate farther (210 kilometers rather than the usual 120 kilometers) from the operators usually with one doing photo reconnaissance while the other carries a jammer. Ukrainian troops have come to realize when they see a pair of Oran 10s overhead, it means their cell phones are about to become unusable and after that, they will be hit with an attack they won’t be able to report immediately. Ukrainian troops have found using cell phones is more effective for battlefield communications than the usual AM or FM military radios. That is only true if there are enough cell phone towers working in the area and the Russian UAVs are not nearby jamming the signals.

These EW capabilities are nothing new, American aircraft have had this stuff since the early 2000s. 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 don’t, the military can employ a temporary one largely 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 stuff but are willing to provide gear that is still restricted to military use in the West. Orlan 10, with its larger payload, can carry more of the EW accessories along with the usual cameras.

The Orlan 10 is one of two modern UAV designs Russia is known to have and used heavily in Ukraine, Syria and for border patrol in Russia. Earlier in 2018, Russia announced the availability of the Orlan-10E. This is the latest version of the Orlan 10 but available to for export. That means any evidence of classified equipment can be equipped with while in Russian service. Otherwise, Orlan 10E is identical to the latest version Russian forces use in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere but has much better performance. Orlan 10E weighs about 15 kilograms (33 pounds) and has a maximum takeoff weight of 19 kg. Max payload is six kilograms (13 pounds) and that involves kinds of electronic or 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 up to 16 hours (depending on the weight of payload). Max range from the operator is 300 kilometers.

Together with control and launch equipment, and three UAVs an Orlan-10 "system" costs about half a million dollars. The aircraft is launched via a portable, folding catapult, and lands by shutting down the engine and deploying a parachute. Orlan 10 entered service in 2012 and has been used extensively in combat zones like Ukraine and Syria. Orlan 10 has also been put to use in the Russian Far East for patrolling borders as well as coastal waters. Orlan 10 can operate in extreme cold. The Orlan 10E was used (tested) in Armenia, which has Russian peacekeeping troops known to be using the regular Orlan 10 but Armenian troops are also using it now. Orlan 10 has been seen along the Afghan border (used by Russian troops stationed in neighboring Tajikistan).

About a dozen Orlan 10s have been lost in eastern Ukraine and nearby Crimea since 2014, along with at least four of the larger Forpost UAVs. Five were shot down by Ukrainian troops while the others crashed because of equipment problems. At least as many have been lost in Syria, where a Turkish F-16 shot down one that crossed into Turkey. Various rebel factions have reported shooting them down and some have been lost to accidents. Photos of the wreckage show similar components and serial numbers that indicate that up to a thousand Orlan 10s have been built since 2012. It has been Russia’s most effective, reliable and affordable UAV so far.

Russia is using this combat experience to help export sales of Orlan 10 and the two new electronic warfare features as well as the new Orlan 30. The larger "30" model is based on the Orlan 10, entered service in 2017. This larger Orlan 30 is similar in shape to the existing Orlan 10 but is larger and still taking off and landing like the Orlan 10. The Orlan 30 weighs 27 kg (60 pounds) with a max payload of 7 kg (15.5 pounds). Orlan 30 has a pusher (propeller in the rear) propulsion while the Orlan 10 has the propeller up front. Orlan 30 also uses a gasoline engine that provides a top speed of 170 kilometers an hour and cruise speed of 150. Max range from a controller and video transmission is 300 kilometers but since max endurance is five hours it is possible to program a course and have video captured onboard. The shorter endurance of Orlan 30 compared to Orlan 10 has limited use of Orlan 30 and, to remedy that, the manufacturer is trying to increase endurance to at least ten hours.

One problem with the Orlans is the miniature gasoline engine it uses. Orlan 30 uses a similar gasoline engine to the German one used in Orlan 10. This use of foreign engines was discovered when Orlan 10s that crashed and were recovered by Ukrainian troops all appeared to be using a German engine sold widely for use by hobbyists. This is not unusual as manufacturers of equipment that can use COTS (commercial off the shelf) components buy from whoever can provide the right part for the right price. With the sanctions, Russia is forced to get a lot of COTS components, especially mechanical and electronic, from China. But when it comes to engines of all sizes, Germany is still the place to look first. Russia is trying to replicate that technology but so far has had little success.

The EW (electronic warfare) payloads for Orlan 10 are Russian designed and manufactured. In addition to cell phone jammers, locators and detectors the reconnaissance payloads include a gyrostabilized thermal imager and detectors for military radios as well as commercial ones (and walkies talkies). Orlan 10 has a jam resistant radio link and can be equipped with a satellite link. The navigation system also includes an INS backup and a “return home” option if normal communications are lost. Another new payload is one for CBRN (Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear) weapons detection. The Orlan 10 has to fly low (under 200 meters) to get the best results from the CBRN detector. Normal operating altitude is 1,000 meters and up to 5,000 meters or 16,000 feet.

Russia is hoping that one of the new designs, like Korsar or Orion, will prove as reliable and affordable as the Orlan but so far the Orlan is still the best they have.

 


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