Can Russian UAVs Close the Gap with America or Israel?
The next several years will be pivotal for Russia’s work with its military unmanned aerial vehicles.
In a recent interview to Russian daily RIA-NOVOSTI news agency, Russian Vice Premier Dmitry Rogozin made a number of interesting statements about his country's state of military unmanned aerial aviation. Referring to his country's falling behind such UAV leaders as US and Israel, Rogozin confidently remarked that Russia's gap with these two technology leaders has been greatly lessened, and soon Moscow would completely catch up to these two nations and achieve UAV parity. Rogozin specifically noted that he was referring to intelligence-gathering drones, or ISR (intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance duties), as well as combat (strike) UAVs. According to him, there are "no grounds for concern in connection with any (technological) lag...From the point of view of the development of communication channels, from the point of view of the availability of weapons, from the point of view of the unmanned systems themselves, I can say only one thing: there is no need to speak about any lag. It has been sharply reduced and will be completely eliminated in the near future."
Were Rogozin to speak in 2025-2030, perhaps his statements may ring true, to an extent. Russia is currently trying to develop a range of unmanned aerial systems, pursuing a wide range of projects dealing with small to mid-sized UAVs, quadrocopter/multi-rotor models, unmanned helicopters, as well as larger, long-range machines capable of potentially carrying weapons. For example, during the recent International Maritime Defense Show in St. Petersburg, a Russian company Radar MMS introduced several unmanned helicopter models, including large BPV-500 prototype capable of carrying weapons. Other recent major developments include Kalashnikov Design Bureau's Zala 421-16E2 noiseless reconnaissance and surveillance drone. In fact, there are major announcements related to UAV developments, testing and evaluation coming out of Russia almost on a weekly basis. However, many such statements deal with prototypes or test beds, and that is hardly equal to thousands of American and Israeli UAVs operating across the world on a daily basis.
While it’s true that Russia has achieved a quantum leap in the use of smaller ISR UAVs as force multipliers in its conflicts in Eastern Ukraine and Syria, resulting in more effective operations against a wide array of adversaries, it’s hard to believe that Moscow’s utilization of a much-smaller number of technologically-simple unmanned aerial vehicles capable of carrying only surveillance and observation equipment resulted in Russia substantially narrowing a technological “gap” with Israel and the United States. Moreover, Russia still relies on imported Israeli UAV technology- its drone with the longest range is a “Forpost,” a Russian licensed copy of Israeli “Searcher.” Even recent announcements that Russia will build an upgraded version of this UAV still underscore Russia’s dependence on imported technology.
Moreover, Russia has long sought to build combat UAVs to match American Predators and Global Hawks, as well as Israel’s long-range strike drones, but success has eluded Russian defense establishment and its sprawling military-industrial complex. Its long-range, heavy Altair/Altius UAV project has been plagued by delays and cost overruns, delaying its eventual introduction into Russian armed forces - despite several prototypes making very public appearance at testing ranges. Its “Ohotnik” stealth combat UAV is likewise delayed, having been on the drawing boards and at various stages of design and testing since 2009, with public statements calling for its eventual unveiling in 2018. Other potential combat UAVs have been discussed and their models shown at various military exhibitions and symposiums, but no working models have yet to be unveiled. It seems that in the immediate future, Russia’s only real potential success in fielding combat UAVs will come from a small T-16 drone, launched via catapult and capable of carrying a small 6 kilogram payload.
It’s likely that with increasing attention that Russian military establishment is finally giving to various unmanned systems, the country’s Armed Forces may eventually start getting their long-planned and awaited combat UAVs. Likewise, Russian military will continue to stock up on smaller ISR drones, with nearly 2000 already in service. However, that would hardly qualify as “closing the gap” or even achieving parity down range with countries where unmanned systems development received tremendous amount of financial, industrial, intellectual and political support. What Rogozin may have meant is that even with Russia’s limitations with building its UAVs, its military has achieved battlefield successes that have surprised military observes worldwide. Rogozin’s statement can also be interpreted as highlighting the fact that as far as Russia’s military is concerned, the “parity” with American and Israeli UAVs means not the same technological sophistication of Western drones but the ability to as effectively achieve set goals with smaller UAV numbers as Americans or Israelis tend to do with more numerous or more sophisticated machines. Either way, next several years will be pivotal for Russia’s work with its military unmanned aerial vehicles, as many projects have promised to finally produce working models for service entry between 2018-2020. Time – and Russia’s handling of it state armaments orders - will tell if Rogozin’s words will translate into working solutions for the Russian military.
Samuel Bendett is a researcher at the CNA Corporation and a foreign affairs contributor to the RealClearWorld.com blog. Previously he worked at the National Defense University on emerging and disruptive technologies for government response in crisis situations. The views expressed here are his own.
Image: United States Air Force