Signed by President Putin in January, Russia’s State Weapons Program 2018-2027 calls for the procurement of unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs), AIN has learned from industry sources. Unlike major western powers, the Russian armed forces have long remained skeptical of strike drones, preferring manned aircraft for kinetic action. As of now, none of the 2,000 UAVs in the Russian armed forces inventory is able to perform strikes, yet some have been employed as elements in “reconnaissance-strike” and “reconnaissance and fire-control” systems. Although Russian industry has worked on UCAVs for decades, with some programs reaching flight test, the main customer did not order them—until recently.
What compelled the military to change its mind was the Syrian war. Since Russian involvement began in October 2015, the intensity of Russian UAV flights over Syria has increased by 250 percent, from 400 flights per month to 1,000. The fleet in theater has reached 80 units, all being lightweight vehicles below 1,000 pounds gross weight. When Moscow announced the military defeat of the Islamic State forces in December 2017, the total number of flights by UAVs had reached 16,000 for a total duration of 96,000 flight hours, a figure that has now surpassed 100,000.
“With the help of unmanned air vehicles, we are monitoring the situation across almost the entire Syrian territory all-day, round-the-clock,” reported defense minister Sergei Shoigu. The chief of the Russian Armed Forces main operative directorate, General Sergei Rudskoi, added that every day 60 to 70 Russian UAVs carry out surveillance, reconnaissance, and electronic warfare flights over the war-torn country. He remarked, “In the past five years, we have made a big leap forward. Today, it is unthinkable to conduct successful combat operations without air drones.”
Russia is expected to employ a UCAV in action following the recent announcement by the defense minister that their deliveries “are forthcoming” and the fact that Syria provides a useful testing ground for modern weapons. Deputy minister for weapons procurement General Yuri Borisov said that four UCAV systems that were “able to solve tasks in tactical, operative, and strategic depth” continue in development, after the ministry had closed down “several other projects.” Apparently, these include the RAC MiG Scat unveiled in 2009 and a pilotless version of the Yakovlev Yak-130 armed jet trainer from Irkut. One of the surviving four programs is believed to be a pilotless version of the Sukhoi Su-57 fifth-generation fighter. The respective contract was awarded in 2011, calling for flight tests to commence in 2018.
Controversy continues to shroud the Tupolev Tu-300 Korshun, historically the first Russian UCAV design that went as far as operational trials. A developmental prototype featuring a delta wing and carrying a KMGU pod for bomblets on a single under-fuselage weapons pylon was on display at MAKS airshows in 1993 and 1995. Powered by a single turbojet, the 6,613-pound (3-tonne) air vehicle would have an operational range of 108-162 nm (200-300 km) at a speed of 513 knotst (950 km/h) and a typical flight altitude of 20,000 feet (6,000 meters). In terrain-following mode, the Tu-300 would be able to carry out low-level penetration missions at 165 feet (50 meters). Mission equipment includes side-looking radar and FLIR and photo cameras. Although that system was widely believed to have been discontinued, there are some recent indications to the contrary. The manufacturer appears to have assembled a number of operable examples and submitted them to the defense ministry for trials at its testing ranges.
In addition to jets, there are a number of propeller-driven systems under consideration, including an armed version of the Orion from RET Kronshtadt, Russia’s first MALE UAV unveiled at MAKS 2017. The smallest Russian UCAV design to have surfaced is the S300M Burevestnik. Its developer, Pilotless Systems, stated that operable prototypes had completed factory trials. Featuring a flying wing aerodynamic layout and laser designator for target illumination, this drone can carry payloads on three hardpoints, including 55-pound (25-kg) and 110-pound (50-kg) guided bombs from Aviaavtomatika, which were unveiled in public at ARMY 2017. Baseline versions have Glonass/GPS guidance, but may alternatively be outfitted with laser or TV heads.