Innovative UAV Technology Helps Syrian Army Offensive in Idlib

 - February 27, 2020, 1:09 PM
A diagram shows how small UAVs—in this case a Katran—are being used to pass target co-ordinates to, and then provide laser designation for, precision-guided artillery. Data is transmitted from the UAV to its ground control station, and then into the command and control vehicle co-ordinating artillery strikes. (Image: Shipunov’s OKB)

The ongoing offensive of President Bashar Al-Asad’s Syrian Arab Army (SAA) in the rebel-held province of Idlib features extensive use of an improved reconnaissance and strike system deployed by the Russian expeditionary group. The system employs reconnaissance drones that are able to find and track compact military targets on the battlefield, determine their precise coordinates, and pass vital information in real time to a nearby artillery battery, which would then destroy the enemy object with standard or laser-guided shells.

Although this system has been combat-tested in the theater before, it now comes with a novelty in the form of a lightweight unmanned air vehicle (UAV) outfitted with a very compact laser rangefinder/target illuminator (LRF/TI). The concept involves the laser-emitting channel in the drone’s system producing a designation beam (“sparkle”) just as the artillery shell approaches and is in need of trajectory correction to achieve a direct hit on the allocated target. If successfully employed, this tactic reduces the risk of the laser emission being detected and ensures low consumption of electric power, an important factor for small UAVs.

Reportedly, the regular six-inch Krasnopol guided shell (broadly similar to the U.S. Copperhead) typically requires up to 30 seconds of target illumination. This projectile is a standard weapon in the arsenal of the Russian army’s 2S19 Msta series and can also be fired by the older 2S3 Acacia self-propelled howitzers of the Syrian army. Russian forces are also combat-testing more recent projectiles requiring a shorter designation time for precision guidance in the terminal phase.

According to the munition developer Shipunov’s KBP, suitable mission equipment set on a gyro-stabilized platform weighing 4.2 kg (9.3 lb) has been tested on the 40-kg (88-lb) MTOW Aerokon Katran UAV. The company’s statement reads: “Guided artillery munitions represent a means to maintain and multiply the role of artillery systems during the current phase of weaponry development, which requires higher mobility, shorter reaction time, and lower consumption of ammunition. An automated reconnaissance and strike system employing UAVs can provide timely annihilation of various targets on the battlefield using guided munitions at considerable ranges.”

For targeting, the Russian forces use LTsD-3/4 LRF/TI devices deployed close to the front line, as well as similar units carried by helicopters. Tests are being conducted on more compact laser designators weighing about one kilogram, and thus suitable for carriage by small UAVs. “Such laser devices will provide the basis for the creation of the next-generation of LRF/TIs for UAVs,” according to a statement from the Moscow-based Poisk scientific and research institute, which specializes in this equipment.

The Russian army seems to prefer this reconnaissance and strike system to larger, armed UCAVs for a number of reasons. A small unarmed UAV is harder for the enemy to detect and shoot down. Moreover, it is far cheaper, easier to build and maintain, while offering longer loitering times.

Having combat-tested several types in the given role, the Russian defense ministry has selected the Orlan-30 as the most suitable type for quantity production. Its developer, the Special Technological Center (local acronym “STTs”) describes the drone as a derivative of the earlier Orlan-10, the most popular Russian UAV used in Syria, and says it is intended for surveillance of moving and stationary targets, and passing their coordinates to artillery fire-control systems.

Last year, the Orlan-30 passed state acceptance trials. According to MoD statements, the UAV will enter service in large numbers starting in 2020. Weighing about 30 kg (66 lb), the Orlan-30 cruises at 150 km/h (81 kt) at altitudes up to 4,500 m (15,000 ft), and can loiter for over five hours at a distance up to 300 km (162 nm) from the launch point. Apart from the Krasnopol, it can also provide accurate targeting for the Smelchak mines fired by 240-mm Tyulpan mortars, as well as air-dropped munitions such as KAB-500/1500 series precision-guided bombs.