Russian projects of reconnaissance and strike UAVs and their successes

The Orion complex handed over to the troops in 2020. Photo by Kronstadt

Until recently, the situation with domestic reconnaissance and strike unmanned aerial vehicles left much to be desired. It was reported about the development of several new models, but their entry into service was a matter of the distant future. By now, the situation has seriously changed and is conducive to optimism.

Success of the “Walker”

The most successful of the domestic reconnaissance and strike UAVs can be considered the Orion complex, created as part of the Pioneer development work. This complex has been designed since 2011, and flight tests have been carried out since 2016. In 2018, experienced equipment was used in Syria as part of real operations. By now, all test activities have been completed, which allowed the finished UAV to get into the troops.

In mid-2019, the Kronstadt company, which developed Orion, announced the start of mass production. In April 2020, the first complex with three aircraft was handed over to the armed forces. It was planned to put it into trial operation in order to quickly master the new technology by the troops.

Tests of the UAV “Altius”. Photo of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation

At the end of February, the leadership of the Ministry of Defense visited the Kronstadt plant and got acquainted with the current work of the enterprise. During this event, it was announced that during 2021 the armies will transfer six or seven new Orion complexes, each of which will include three UAVs and related equipment. At the same time, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu demanded an increase in the pace of construction of equipment.

Currently, the production of Orions and other unmanned vehicles is carried out at the existing production facilities of Kronstadt. By the end of the year, the company plans to put into operation a new serial plant, with the help of which it will be possible to increase production. It is very likely that, as a result of these events, the army will be able to receive at least 10-15 unmanned systems with several UAVs each year.

Ordered “Altius”

In 2011, the development of another reconnaissance and strike UAV called “Altius” / “Altair” started. In the future, the project faced various difficulties, which is why the developer was replaced in 2018. Currently, the Ural Civil Aviation Plant is engaged in the project and preparation of the series. Despite all the difficulties, the new drone was brought to the test and then carried out all the necessary procedures.

Joint flight of Su-57 and S-70 “Okhotnik”. Photo of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation

The flights of the experienced “Altius” began in 2016, but were later interrupted due to a change in developer and resumed in 2019. It was reported that flights were carried out in remotely controlled and autonomous modes. Payload verification activities were also expected. Whether the weapon was tested is unknown.

On February 20, the completion of the Altius development work was announced. As a result, UZGA received a contract from the Ministry of Defense for the production of a pilot batch of six drones. The contract will begin shortly; the timing of its completion has not been specified.

The UAVs of the pilot batch will be handed over to the armed forces and will undergo trial operation. After that, a new order should be expected – for a full series. Thus, over the next few years, new Altiuses will be added to the already supplied Orions.

Waiting for the “Hunter”

Great hopes are pinned on the Sukhoi project under the designation S-70 Okhotnik. This heavy reconnaissance and strike UAV first flew in August 2019 and is undergoing various tests so far. The flight performance of the aircraft was checked, and the issues of interaction with manned aircraft were investigated. In addition, tests of combat capabilities were carried out using guided and unguided weapons.

Model of the shock “Thunder”. Photo

Currently, only the first experienced Hunter is participating in the tests. In mid-February, domestic media reported, citing industry sources, that the construction of three new prototypes had begun. The second prototype will be built taking into account the test results of the first, which will lead to some differences. The airframe and control systems will undergo modifications. The third and fourth prototypes will also differ from their predecessors: their appearance will correspond as much as possible to the serial one.

According to current plans, in 2023, all four experimental “Hunter” will go to state joint trials. These events will last until September 2025 and will determine the further strategy of the Ministry of Defense. By this time, serial production of equipment can be organized, and already in 2024-25. the first S-70 complexes will go to the troops.

Thus, work on the “Hunter” project continues and during the tests, new capabilities of this UAV are regularly demonstrated. However, the adoption of the new complex for service is still a matter of the distant future. However, given the overall complexity of the project and the expected opportunities, such terms of work seem to be acceptable.

New developments

Several other projects of reconnaissance and strike UAVs with different features, characteristics and capabilities are now being developed. So, at the exhibition “Army-2020” the company “Kronshtadt” for the first time showed a model of the product “Thunder”. This project provides for the creation of a heavy drone capable of operating in the same link with a manned aircraft and complementing it or taking on part of the combat missions.

Supposed model of the “Lightning” product. Photo of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation

It is assumed that a mixed air group with manned and unmanned vehicles will be able to perform a wide range of tasks. UAVs of the promising “Thunder” type will be able to enter the enemy’s air defense zones without exposing the manned leader aircraft to risks. Their task will be to identify enemy targets and then defeat them using air-to-surface weapons.

UAV “Thunder” is made in the form of an unobtrusive aircraft less than 14 m long with a wingspan of 10 m. Takeoff weight – up to 7 tons, of which up to 2 tons of payload. Guided bombs with caliber up to 500 kg are considered as the main armament. Perhaps, in the future, the drone will be armed with missiles, and will also “teach” to attack air targets.

Active work is underway in the field of light reconnaissance and strike UAVs – loitering ammunition. Thus, the Zala Aero company has already presented the Cube-UAV systems and two versions of the Lancet product. They have ample opportunities to conduct reconnaissance and can hit the identified target “at the cost of their own lives.” Probably, in the future, new projects of this kind will appear.

Recently it became known about the development of the complex of group application “Lightning”. It will include special UAVs, similar in appearance and characteristics to a cruise missile. They will have to work from the carrier aircraft and help it solve combat missions or do it on their own. It is planned to develop and implement fundamentally new control systems and algorithms that ensure the interaction of drones within the swarm.

Loitering ammunition “Lancet-3”. Photo Zala Aero

Due to the limited size and weight of the UAVs “Molniya” will become, first of all, scouts. The possibility of using electronic warfare equipment is also being considered. With the help of a light and low-power warhead, they can be made an analogue of loitering ammunition.

Development trends

Over the past few years, the situation in the field of reconnaissance and strike UAVs has seriously changed. Previously, it was only about the development of promising models, and the adoption and launch of operation remained a matter of the future. In addition, there were no developments in some classes of technology.

To date, two projects of heavy UAVs with strike capabilities have been brought, at least, to production and experimental military operation. Another heavy vehicle is being tested and demonstrating a wide range of capabilities. The direction of loitering ammunition is being mastered and concepts that are new for our industry are proposed.

Thus, a major and important modernization of the unmanned aircraft of the armed forces is expected in the near future. A number of promising models will allow the aerospace forces and other structures to obtain fundamentally new capabilities and increase their potential. In addition, it will be possible to close the gap with the leading foreign countries. However, the desired results will not be obtained immediately and will require a lot of time and effort.

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