Russia Hopes to Build a Deadly Drone Swarm Weapon

Russia’s military is quietly forging ahead with investments into swarm drone technology, alerting the Pentagon to a potentially new type of security challenge.

Late last year, Russian news outlet TASS reported that swarms of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) were successfully used during Russia’s Kavkaz 2020 military exercises. “At the Kapustin Yar proving ground a combined group of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) was created. It incorporated Southern Military District units armed with drones Forpost, Orlan-10, Eleron-3 and others,” read a press statement issued by Russia’s Defense Ministry. These drones are capable of “spotting military units on the move, command centers, weapons, military equipment and manpower to adjust fire strikes being delivered against the identified targets,” according to TASS.

The Forpost is a license-produced version of the prolific Israeli drone Searcher II, boasting a range of roughly 250 km. Russia has procured a homegrown derivative, Forpost-R, replete with Russian components such as the 83-horsepower APD-85 engine as well as enhanced reconnaissance features. More recently, it was reported that Forpost is being modified with yet-to-be-identified strike capabilities. The Orlan-10 is a Russian reconnaissance stealth drone first introduced in 2010, while the Eleron-3 is a short-range tactical drone that was the subject of a new $15.5 million procurement deal. Russia’s military employed drones to remarkable effect during its Syrian intervention—Forpost, in particular, distinguished itself as a consistent source of valuable military intelligence against anti-Assad regime militants. “In Syria, the Forpost proved itself in the best possible way. We are therefore making plans for using these systems for the next decade. Naturally, they will undergo modernization,” said former Deputy Defense Minister Yuri Borisov. Russian UAV’s flew roughly 16,000 sorties in Syria, totaling 96,000 hours of operation.

But a bigger development looms on the horizon: TASS reported earlier that Russian firms are researching autonomous drone swarms capable of executing strikes, with the first model to emerge by 2022. “We are gradually moving towards remote-controlled aviation… Within the coming five years a swarm of intellectual drones will be created. They will be able to make decisions on their own, conduct combat operations and reconnaissance and so on and so forth,” said Concern Radio-Electronic Technologies (KRET) executive Vladimir Mikheyev.

Russia’s military-industrial sector already has at least one concrete proposal on the table. Unveiled at Moscow’s Interpolitex-2019 security exhibition, these drones—dubbed Flock-93—will carry an 5.5-pound explosive payload and operate in groups as large as one hundred units. It is unknown exactly how these drones, which are presumed to operate autonomously at a range of around 90-100 miles, will deliver their payload. Flock-93 is intended as a tactical weapon against vulnerable infrastructure and assets; it can also potentially saturate certain types of air defenses, particularly when used in conjunction with other weapons and aircraft.

Although it remains unclear if the Flock-93 proposal was or will be formally accepted into Russia’s defense budget, it is apparent that Moscow is poised to make further investments into swarm drone strike technology over the coming decade.

In a January 2021 report, the Pentagon acknowledged Russian strides in offensive UAV technology: “Russia is making sUAS platforms an integral part of its future warfare capabilities by improving its reconnaissance-fires complex and fielding reconnaissance and attack UAS.”

Mark Episkopos is the new national security reporter for the National Interest.

Image: Reuters.

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Mark Episkopos