The United States has been among the most proficient adopters of drone technology for the battlefield of any national level military. The CIA was using drones for surveillance over conflict ridden areas as far back as the year 2000, and racked up the nation’s first confirmed kill with an unmanned aircraft only two years later, on February 4th, 2002.
The intended target, Osama Bin Laden, wasn’t actually there, it would turn out – but technologically speaking, that event changed a great deal about America’s war fighting doctrine.
Other nations have also demonstrated a propensity for drone-based warfare, including Israel and China, but one military power that has lagged behind its competition in the realm of drone warfare is none other than the very nation recently touting their advanced missile technology: Russia. Despite Vladimir Putin’s claims regarding nuclear-powered missiles with limitless fuel reserves and ICBMs that can decimate entire states, advanced unmanned aerial vehicles remain elusive for the nation.
In fact, it wasn’t until 2014 that the Kremlin finally announced plans to begin developing an armed unmanned aerial vehicle. The Russian Ministry of Defense claimed they planned to field the 10-ton drone fighter by 2020, but the Kremlin’s recent push to retrofit weapons onto their legacy Searcher II platforms might indicate that their large-scale combat drone program may have fallen victim to tightening purse strings in the face of Russia’s stagnating economy.
Russia’s slow adoption of more advanced drones doesn’t mean the Ministry of Defense has no interest in the technology at all. In fact, recent reports suggest that as many as 50 different drone platforms are currently employed by the Russian military in one capacity of another, first seeing service (though unacknowledged officially) during their military annexation of Crimea in 2014. Those drones, like the ones currently employed by Russia over Syria, primarily served in reconnaissance roles, providing targeting information for weapons platforms like Russian artillery or even their ship-based Caliber cruise missiles.
There are a number of reports of drone manufacturers working on heavy combat drones that could serve an offensive purpose, but surprisingly, many of these defense oriented drones are not being developed specifically for the Russian military, but rather with the international market in mind. Although that may not seem like a significant issue, that lack of concept of operations (or CONOP) established by the Russian Ministry of Defense and then pursued by drone developers, has left the Russian military with an array of off-the-shelf options, but few purpose built aircraft.
“This points to one of the biggest problems that the MOD [Ministry of Defense] and its military industrial complex have to overcome,” Sam Bendett, a researcher at the Center for Naval Analyses, told The National Interest. “A lot of unmanned systems development was driven by the manufacturer, not by a military requirement handed down from the MOD.”
Russia’s drone industry is booming, despite a lack of direct cooperation with the Russian military. China, for instance, has been one of the nation’s largest importers of Russian combat drone technology, despite developing more advanced platforms of their own internally. Purchasing drones from Russia makes sense, however, if China is working to develop their own concept of operations for unmanned combat aircraft. Cheap Russian drones could ultimately serve as “proof of concept” demonstrators for different potential applications of drone technology.
In the meantime, Russia has recently begun working to corral their own domestic drone supply, by establishing a set of requirements they want fulfilled by a new platform.
“Often, a manufacturer will exhibit a system that was not necessarily required by the Russian military,” Bendett said. “So today, the MOD is trying to reverse this trend and marshal its bureaucracy to take control of unmanned weapons developments that are actually needed by the military and will be used by its forces.”
Closing the UAV capability gap will be an expensive endeavor for Russia however, and Russia’s defense spending may not allow progress on the timeline Russian defense officials may prefer. The United States, meanwhile, has a number of advanced drone programs working their way toward operational capabilities.
Which begs the question: will unmanned combat aircraft be an integral element of 21st Century warfare? If so, Russia may soon find itself left behind.
Feature image courtesy of the Russian Ministry of Defense
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