Russian UAVs: What went wrong?

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Since the beginning of its large-scale aggression against Ukraine, Russia has demonstrated relatively weak capabilities regarding its unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), much weaker than one would expect given the considerable resources that Moscow has devoted to this aspect of its army. Over the past 12 years, Russia has invested heavily in the development and procurement of all spectrums of military drones: from reconnaissance and targeting drones to electronic warfare and combat-capable drones coupled with roving munitions. . Nevertheless, the Russian armed forces soon faced a serious deficit of reconnaissance drones after only a few months of fighting against Ukraine. Most likely, this deficit was apparent even on the eve of the invasion, but the massive losses since have further aggravated the situation. Overall, we saw several examples of Russian forces using the Russian-made Lancet and KUB-BLA stray munitions (Life.ru, November 9) and only a few less effective examples of them using Orion combat drones (UNIAN, April 9; EurAsia Daily, October 21).

Due to this deficit, hundreds of Chinese-made commercial drones (including various models of DJI Mavic) were purchased by volunteers from various Russian regions (Ura.news, October 10). The Russian government itself has purchased hundreds of Iranian-made munitions and drones. Nevertheless, the infusion of these supplies did not change the situation on the battlefield. And the lack of necessary electronics and technologies, coupled with a reliance on imported components, are just some of the causes here. Other even more important causes lie in the political-economic system of Russia, the specific problems of its defense industry and the distribution of limited resources among too many projects.

Most Russian developers and manufacturers of military drones are officially private companies among large state defense companies: Special Technology Center (drone Orlan-10, which is used for artillery tactical reconnaissance and in the war system Electronic Leer-3); Kronshtadt (Orion drones); Zala Aero Group (small tactical reconnaissance drones and Lancet and KUB-BLA roving ammunition); and UZGA (Altius/Altair project for heavy drones). However, these entities were either affiliated with the Russian military from the start, such as the Special Technology Center, whose owners are directly affiliated with the Russian Armed Forces (Vas.mil.ru, October 2022, November 2022), or merged with those companies directly or indirectly affiliated with state defense companies and the Russian government.

These companies relied on global supply chains for some electronics, other (often consumer-grade) components, motors, and industrial equipment. Additionally, the most advanced Russian reconnaissance drone, Forpost, is a licensed copy of the Israeli IAI Searcher drone. After the annexation of Crimea and the start of the Donbass war in 2014, Russian drone development became slower and plagued with increased maintenance issues. For example, at first the Orlan-10 drone seemed much more robust than originally expected, which partly compensates for the lack of proper technical maintenance (Cast.ru, viewed on November 10). Moreover, the Altius project seemed too sophisticated for the developers (Business-gazeta.ru, October 9, 2018; RIA Novosti, June 25, 2021), and it was not even ready for active combat testing after the Russian reinvasion. of Ukraine in February 2022.

In addition, state defense companies, including Rostec and United Aircraft Corporation (now part of Rostec), tried to develop drones on their own, launching the Korsar and S-70 projects, respectively (Rostec, July 15, 2019). ; UAC , 14 December 2021). However, it seems that the Korsar test units have already been lost in Ukraine (Focus.ua, November 10) and the S-70 is far from operational, despite a decade of development (TASS, August 16, 20).

Russian combat drones are represented only by Orion drones, but the main problem with this drone is the lack of mass production. The production plant was only recently completed at the end of 2021, and its planned annual manufacturing capacity is only 45 drones (RIA Novosti, August 20, 2021). However, in July 2022, the plant was still quite far from reaching its planned capacity (Indubnacity.ru, July 4). As a result, Orion drones will be less present on the battlefield for the foreseeable future.

Presumably, the situation with the manufacture of vagrant ammunition in Russia is almost the same: the mass production of Lancet and KUB-BLA units is rather limited (Vedomosti, October 24). The current annual manufacturing rate can be estimated at 50-60 units, but certainly not in the hundreds or thousands.

Moreover, given the losses of Orlan-10 and other drones, Russia now faces the difficulty of replenishing its stockpile of drones, and it is unclear whether existing factories will be able to handle production. mass of replacement systems (Dp.ru, October 14). All of this means that Moscow’s previous approach to drone development was far from effective.

When it comes to drones, Russia has tried to become an equal with the US and Israel, but instead its drone industry appears to be weaker than Turkey’s. In truth, the development of drones in Russia is fraught with pitfalls because Moscow has tried to spread scarce resources among too many projects and tried to control drone developers, rather than stimulate private initiative and improve the global toxic institutional environment. Although, in this regard, even private initiatives will not be enough, given the Western embargo on the supply of critical industrial technologies, components and equipment to Russia.

Nevertheless, Moscow will pursue all its military drone projects for as long as possible. Most likely, the Kremlin will even redistribute resources from other arms purchases in favor of drones. Russian officials are also pinning their hopes on smuggling, industrial espionage and evading sanctions through Russia’s allies. These efforts will probably be too little, but they can still give Moscow the opportunity to learn lessons and restore some of its military power, aiming to start the next phase of the war, especially in the event of an immediate stalemate. of battle.

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