In recent years Russia has gained extensive combat experience using small and tactical drones, particularly in Syria, on reconnaissance, target acquisition, and battle damage assessment. With a growing emphasis on reconnaissance and aerial operations, Russia has increased the role of UAS in the conflict in Crimea and Ukraine and the Syrian war. Since the beginning of operations in Syria, some 70 Russian drones are operating in the country have accumulated 140,000 flight hours in 23,000 sorties.


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Although the drones operated in the Syrian theater proved highly effective in those missions, but the Russian forces acknowledge they were trailing behind other nations operating much more capable systems in the theater. These include the U.S. led coalition, Turkey, Iran, and Israel). While operations of small tactical UAS (Orlan 10), and Forpost (a former Israeli Searcher II, now assembled in Russia) proved effective, other nations deployed much larger and more versatile drones in the theater, with wider versatility and better mission effectiveness. Specifically, most of these drones, such as the American MQ-9, Turkish Anka and Bayraktar, and Iranian Shahed 129 are armed, and therefore capable of performing armed-reconnaissance missions, engaging targets of opportunity through quick ‘sensor-to-shooter’ cycles.

Apart of being light and unarmed, Russian drones are also limited in their capabilities – mission endurance, range, and payload versatility, limited their operation to visual flight rule – clear sky, day or night. Those drones are relatively small, are operate at medium to low altitude and do not have the capacity to carry weapons.

Guided and funded by government and industry, the Russian effort to match the capabilities of adversary nations and market competitors is gaining momentum, aiming to improve existing systems and introduce new platforms. This effort represents a major improvement in capabilities, as it leverages Russian knowhow in aeronautical design, radio-electronic, electro-optics, and electronic design, overcoming the inherent limitations of Russian technologies that are denied access to advanced capabilities by the sanctions imposed by the US government.

Following are some of the new and improved platforms based on this combat experience, introduced by Russian companies at the MAKS 2019 exhibition.

Orlan-10 – Over 1,000 units have been fielded and provide the most common UAS operating with Russian military land forces. [wlm_ismember]Launched by a catapult and retrieved by parachute, Orlan-10 weighs 18.7 kg and is powered by a piston engine. It carries a payload of 4.5 kg, comprised of stabilized, gimballed day or night EO payload, a combined stabilized day/night payload or electronic payload (EW or COMINT). Orlan can remain on a mission for 10 hours, at a range of 500 km, flying at 15,000 ft (about 5,000 meters) ceiling. Orlan is a robust platform capable of operating under a wind velocity of 36 km/h (20 kt).[/wlm_ismember]

A view of the Orion-E at MAKS 2019 showing the multi-sensor payload, pilot view forward camera and upper and lower data links. Photo: Defense-Update

Forpost M – an improved version of Forpost, has an improved EO/IR payload and the capability to carry a maritime and ground surveillance radar, improving the drone’s all-weather capability in maritime and coastal surveillance. Forpost M maintains the wing-span of 8.50 meters but adds two hardpoints supporting weapon carrying of small guided munitions.

[wlm_ismember]When Russia and Israel discussed the sale of Searcher UAS, which eventually evolved into the Russian Forpost, Moscow also requested to buy and locally assemble a Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) drone – the IAI Heron I. However, Israel refused to transfer technology or sell this type to Russia. Instead, Moscow embarked on the local development of such platforms, which gradually evolved into two classes – the MALE and High-Altitude Long Endurance (HALE). The Orion-E developed by Kronstadt (KT) represents the MALE class, with a drone designed for reconnaissance as well as attack missions. Since 2017 the company has flown several prototypes, undergoing company testing and MOD evaluations.[/wlm_ismember]

Orion-E – has a wing-span of 16 meters it is designed to operate at a maximum altitude of 22,000 ft (7,500 m), and a range of 250 km (300 with enhanced control link) and mission endurance of 24 hours. At a maximum take-off weight (MTOW) of one-ton, an Orion-E can carry a payload of 200 kg. [wlm_ismember]At MAKS 2019 KT displayed a notional firefighter variant of the aircraft with a canister containing fire retardant, but a military version of the aircraft could carry up to four 50-kg aerial guided munitions. Kronstadt has developed its own guided bomb unit for the aircraft in order to maximize the combat efficiency. The Orion-E carries a gimballed optoelectronic (EO/IR) module including two thermal imagers, a wide-angle TV camera, and a laser rangefinder and target designator. On reconnaissance missions, it can also carry radar, electronic combat, and high-resolution camera.[/wlm_ismember] More information on Orion is available here.

A view of the Orion-E at MAKS 2019 showing a fire retardant dispersion payload proposed for use on firefighting missions. Photo: Defense-Update

Orion-2 – KT also developed a larger version, known as Orion-2, designed to operate at higher altitudes (up to 40,000 ft). This version will have an MTOW of 5,000 kg carrying one-ton of payload at a speed of 350 km/h. Orion-2 will be able to fly missions exceeding 24 hours, or 5,000 kilometers range using a satellite communications terminal. KT displayed a full-scale model of Orion-2 at MAKS 2019, the company expects to fly the prototype in 2020-2021. According to company officials, most of the airframe and wings of Orion-E and Orion-2 are made composites, both structural and skin elements.

The model displayed at MAKS2019 shows a typical MALE platform powered by a single-engine. A twin-boom design coupled with an inverted V tail, clearing the necessary space for a six-swept-tip blade propeller. The large dorsal air intake and the propeller details indicate the use of a turboprop. The turboprop performs better at high altitude and is believed to offer a better economy, reaching cruising altitude and maybe when descend and ascending several times on a mission.

This side view shows some of the unique features of Orion-2 – the large engine intake, six-blade propeller, and inverted V tail. Photo: Defense-Update
Altius-M HALE drone shown on a test flight in 2017.

Altius – Since 2011 Sokol (Simonov design bureau) has built three prototypes of the Altius heavy HALE drone also designed for up to 5 to 7-ton MTOW. Operating at an altitude of 40,000 ft (12,000 m) and mission range of 10,000 km. Altius has a high-wing solution with a 28.5-meter span and a V-shaped tail. [wlm_ismember]It is powered by two diesel engines, likely the RED A03 V12 turbocharged diesel, each delivering 500 hp. According to the German manufacturer, these engines are cleared for operation at altitudes up to 50,000 ft. The engines were developed in Germany by RED Aircraft GmbH and are built by OKB Sokol. The first variant, Altair flew in 2016, with the second Altius-M joining the program in 2017. The third and last Altius prototype designated Altius-U flew for the first time last month. [/wlm_ismember]With the conclusion of the evaluation program, Altius could enter the prototype stage by early 2020.

The Altius HALE UAV is powered by two RED A03 turbocharged diesel engines, each delivering 500 hp.
Korsar tactical UAV on Korsar tactical UAV on display at the Army 2019 defense expo at the Patriot Park in Kubinka. Photo

Korsar – a new platform developed from tactical missions as a weaponized combat drone. At a 200 KG MTOW, the drone has a wing-span of 6.5 meters and an inverted V-tail. It is designed for operation at medium-low altitude at a range of 120 km. Korsar is designed to carry several payloads (EO/IR, electronic combat) and weapons on missions of up to 10 hours. [wlm_ismember]In 2018 Korsar was displayed on the May 9 military march in Moscow with two types of guided missiles, the Konkurs-M and ATAKA. While the operation of wire-guided Konkurs-M would be quite challenging, the beam-riding ATAKA has already been operated from unmanned weapon stations and unmanned ground vehicles (UGV) and could be integrated with UAS to maintain a stable laser guidance beam throughout the missile flight.[/wlm_ismember]

Korsar tactical UAV on display at Army 2019 showing an outsized fairing covering the radar and electronic payload module on the drone. Note heavy duty retractable landing gear enabling the drone to operate from temporary forward fields. Photo: Defense-Update

Frigate – The Kronstadt group has also developed an innovative tilt-rotor drone powered by two propfan units that provide vertical lift for takeoff and landing and transition to forward flight at higher altitude. Dubbed ‘Frigate’ the design also combines the wing and inverted V-tail to form a unique bi-plane configuration that adapts well to the convertible rotor. [wlm_ismember]At MAKS 2019 the company displayed a model of the light VTOL plane, which scales up to a platform of 7 ton MTOW, that can lift two-tons of useful payload to and from ships. The Frigate is designed to deliver payloads and cargo to and from ships at sea, and support manned and unmanned operations in areas with limited accessibility such as the arctics.[/wlm_ismember]

A small model of the Frigate drone on display at MAKS 2019. Photo: Defense-Update

Su-70 Okhotnik B – the Russian Sukhoi design bureau has recently flown the UCAV technology demonstrator designed to become an element in a future manned-unmanned team operated by the Russian Air Force. Read our full report here.