In the current limited military operations in Ukraine, the Russian Army is actively using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) of all available classes and types, unlike Ukraine, which has almost ceased to operate after initial claims of success. This shows the potential of the UAVs in war.
“We don’t see” the Russian drones, “but they see us,” and all they can do is “hide,” said an unnamed Ukrainian soldier to the Sunday Times.
UAV based air dominance
In recent years, many light-class UAVs designed for reconnaissance have appeared in the Russian Army and, to a lesser extent, other sister forces. The most known are Orlan-10 and Eleron unmanned systems. There are also types of UAVs, although fewer in number. Since their inception, they have been actively used in military exercises. The Russians have used them in the Syrian operations, and now they are solving tasks over the Ukrainian sky.
The most important feature of UAVs is they stay for a long time in the air if designed so. In addition, they carry multi-channel optical-electronic stations and transmit the picture to the operator in real time. Unmanned systems are integrated into a single tactical level control system, which simplifies and speeds up issuing data to headquarters and fire weapons.
As per the information from the battlefield, Orlans and Elerons keep a constant eye on the critical areas of the battlefield, Ukrainian rear deployments, etc. In the absence of serious air defense, drones can perform all assigned tasks and constantly supply troops with up-to-date information.
Data from reconnaissance UAVs are used in organizing various combat operations, but as per the videos published by the Russian Defense Ministry (MoD), the role of supporting the artillery is of great importance. With the help of the Orlans, targets are detected, their coordinates are determined, guns are aimed, and the results of firing are monitored.
Recently, light “Orlans” have been used for bombings. The Russians have special container-holders which can carry small-sized “air bombs”. If Turkish Bayraktar’s are synonymous with low cost high impact UAVs, the Russians have taken the art further. Because of the limited carrying capacity of the drone, such weapons are not very powerful but give the U.S. Switchblades a run for their money. At the same time, it allows the aircraft to independently attack the target immediately after the detection. In several situations, this gives a significant tactical advantage.
By the time the Special Operation began, several types of domestic UAVs with strike capabilities were mass produced, including reconnaissance-strike Forpost-R and Pacer of the heavy class, as well as light loitering ammunition Kub-BLA. Orlan-10 has a new strike version.
While the Russian Army seems adept at using the UAVs, as seen in the massive Zapad-2021 exercise, they are on a learning curve on the newer models introduced.
Although used in Syria, the attack UAVs entered the Russian frontline only recently. During Zapad-2021, we saw the Russians using the UAVs primarily in the reconnaissance and support roles.
Russian UAV numbers are not enough
The Russians used the first domestic UAV in a real military operation in 2015. In Syria, they searched for terrorist targets, issued target designation for all fire weapons used, and so on.
The Russians appear to have deployed UAVs on a larger scale; they don’t appear to have them on mass scales. This is true for specialized UAVs, which seem to be limited in number to make impactful news worldwide. Although now military purchases are a state secret, the Russian Army does not seem to be purchasing UAVs in a mass centralized manner.
The Russians seem to be also using commercial UAVs, especially the affiliated militia from Donbas, which crowdfunded the purchases. Donbas’s quiet crowdfunding for commercial drones strategy seems to be more effective than high decibel Ukrainian crowdfunding attempts for military drones.
Counter Drone battle
Russia appears to be now better at counter drone equipment too. Anti-air defenses form the bulk of Russian counter drone fight along with Electronic warfare. At the same time, Russians had used Uran-9 reconnaissance and combat robots in the Zapad-2021 exercises. The Uran-9 combat systems, among other tasks, have the function of fighting drones against perimeters. It is found in Russian experimental units specifically formed for the use of Uran systems. It is unclear if these drones are in use in actual combat.
The Russian military uses machine guns and air defense systems such as the Tor to shoot down Ukrainian UAVs. Recently, the Russian MoD published a video showing the Russian Krasukha-4 system incapacitating a Ukrainian drone.
Russia’s ground-based air defense is better placed and organized in the Donbas. Therefore, Ukrainian forces are now limiting the use of drones because Russia has fought them more effectively.
While the Russians seem to have mastered the medium altitude UAV containment, the Americans are grappling with the question of the supply of MQ-1C Gray Eagle to Ukraine. The move does not have the support of the informed Ukrainians as they are expensive, but it supports the massive military factories of America. Washington risks a loss of face like M777 Howitzers, HIMARS, Switchblade 300, Javelins etc., which have been underperforming against the Russians. The Russians will promptly shoot them down on the first mission, say a couple of Ukrainian pilots to “The Drive”, prompting the American fear of sophisticated technology falling into the adversary’s hands.