Moscow’s Developing Love Affair With Drones
Russia continues to slowly but surely move toward greater integration of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) into its armed forces' tactics, techniques, and procedures. Russian daily Military-Industrial Courier (VPK) offered the latest review of where and how UAVs are being utilized by the Russian Armed Forces. Interestingly, Russians also consider themselves to be the first users of UAVs in a military conflict, notes VPK:
"[W]hen Princess Olga (one of the first Kievan Rus rulers), who lived in the 10th century, used pigeons against disobedient Drevlian Slavic tribe and burned their town of Iskorosten in 945AD." According to historical records, Olga asked for three pigeons and three sparrows from each Iskorosten household. Once the night fell, “Olga gave to each soldier in her army a pigeon or a sparrow, and ordered them to attach by thread to each pigeon and sparrow a piece of sulfur bound with small pieces of cloth. Olga then bade her soldiers release the pigeons and the sparrows. So the birds flew to their nests, the pigeons to the cotes, and the sparrows under the eaves. The dovecotes, the coops, the porches, and the haymows were set on fire. There was not a house that was not consumed, and it was impossible to extinguish the flames, because all the houses caught on fire at once."
VPK notes that aerial drone usage is a cultural change as much as a technological one in today's Russian military, quoting a special forces officer who remains skeptical of UAV use: "[I]n his opinion, certain FSB (external intelligence agency) or the GRU (military intelligence agency) components have drones that are appropriate for the tasks and they are, as a rule, foreign-made, while commanders tend to save them and use such vehicles only in exceptional cases. Some (military) bosses tend to believe that it is easier to account for a dead soldier lost during a reconnaissance and intel-gathering mission than for an expensive drone." These UAVs, notes VPK, can be career-killers for Russian officers who tend to think on the fly: "Even if the UAV is not shot down, it can be lost or fall into enemy hands, which is fraught with far more serious consequences for the officer's career. Our special forces, following the adage that ‘necessity is the mother of invention,’ manage to fly homemade and improvise devices that, in some cases can be better than domestic factory samples." For the record, one of the most widely utilized foreign-made drones in Russian military is "Forpost,” an Israeli-made "Searcher" UAV used in a variety of conflicts.
VPK discusses the various technical and procedural disadvantages of today's drone usage in Russian military or reconnaissance missions -- the drones in question tend to be small, low-altitude, propeller-drive designs:
"[T]hey emit a lot of noise that makes it easier to locate them, are used more frequently during the day, when they have a better chance to be seen and shot down, their electronics are imported and in case of a potential military conflict with the UAV-producing country, such drones would no longer be acquired and used by the Russian military. ... If the enemy hides in the reeds or dense undergrowth, these (light) drones cannot perform an adequate detection mission, since their battery lasts maximum 1.5 hours, and if electronic connection with the UAV is lost, they tend to lose orientation and fall on the ground, so it is necessary to solve the problem of the drone's automatic return to the launching point."
VPK also notes that tactical special forces prefer helicopter-type drones, but their numbers are still small across all services.
Despite these challenges, VPK notes that domestically produced UAVs are contributing to recent military successes. Starting in 2010, special reconnaissance platoons are now operating two types of small tactical UAVs -- Eleron-3CB and Eleron-10SV, produced by the Enex company in Kazan, Russia. These drones weighs an average of 15.5 kilograms (34 lbs), can carry up to 4.5 kilograms (10lbs) of payload, have an operational radius of 60 kilometers (37 miles), and can be in the air for about 2.5 hours. In March 2012, a terrorist unit numbering 18 individuals was discovered and destroyed near the Dagestani village of Gubden, all due to Eleron UAV use. This terrorist unit was able to successfully hide in the rugged mountainous region for a long time and was detected only by the drones. According to VPK, the final result justified all the material and moral costs invested in that reconnaissance drone. VPK also notes the continued evolution of the relationship between drone production companies and their users in the military -- in some cases, there is a continued dialogue between the parties aimed at improving the drone performance, but in some cases, the prevailing attitude is to "sell (the drone) and forget."
None of today's challenges in using new drone technology will impede Russia's large-scale production and incorporation of UAVs in military operations -- Russian military is aiming to train and educate its forces in the UAV use and operations domestically and internationally.