U.S.-supplied HIMARS guided rocket launchers are inflicting severe punishment on Russian forces in Ukraine, most recently punching holes in Antonivsky bridge in Kherson. The agile, truck mounted systems can shoot and scoot before they can be targeted, but now Russia wants to seek and destroy them with kamikaze drones.
“[Russian Defence Minister] Shoigu recently stated that the Russian goal is to take out Ukraine’s long-range missile and artillery weapons,” Samuel Bendett, an expert on Russian drones, Analyst at CNA and Adviser at CNAS, told Forbes. “This is a hint that Russia either needs, or will soon field, loitering munitions.”
In the first few months of the war, Russian loitering munitions only carried out a handful of strikes — now they are appearing on a daily basis. Loitering munitions, otherwise known as kamikaze drones, offer something that Russia desperately needs: the ability to find and hit mobile targets like HIMARS from long range. Unlike a missile, the operator can fly a loitering munition around looking for targets and does not need to know their location in advance.
The type most commonly seen so far is the KUB (“Cube”), a delta-winged drone with a four-foot wingspan launched by catapult and powered by an electric motor. The KUB, made by Kalashnikov subsidiary Zala, can carry out either reconnaissance or attack missions, with alternative payloads of cameras or a 3-kilogram warhead. This creates ambiguity — and with crashed KUBs it’s not clear whether the remains are of a scout or a dud loitering munition.
However, Russian forces have started to release videos of KUB strikes, shot from other drones; the KUB is visible as a small white triangle coming in at its 80 mph maximum speed before detonating. Other videos can be seen here and here. As with U.S. Switchblade drones, the small warhead means strikes are usually unimpressive unless they trigger secondary explosions of fuel or ammunition in the target, leading some to believe they are ineffective. In fact it is difficult to judge, but at this point the KUB does not seem to strike fear into Ukrainians – unlike Russia’s Orlan-10 artillery spotter drone, with an engine which sounds like a motor scooter which signals the imminent danger of accurate artillery or rocket fire.
On July 15 a new loitering munition entered the conflict, with images from Ukraine of Russia’s Lancet-3. A Lancet can be seen carrying out a strike in this Russian video shared on Thursday. Like KUB, this is made by Zala and is a similar size with a 3-kilo warhead (possibly the same one?), but Lancet-3 a more modern design that was first tested in Syria.
In particular, Lancet has autonomous capability. While KUB may have some capacity to find its own targets, Gregory Allen of CSIS suggests this is overtstated – but Lancet does have autonomous target seeking. As well as being able to hit targets under remote control or using GPS coordinates, Lancet has a combined mode in which it flies to an area and then uses its camera to locate a target without human guidance. This would make it an ideal weapon to track down a HIMARS launcher scooting after a fire mission. The rough area can be easily located as the rocket launch can be seen on radar, then it is a matter of looking for vehicles fleeing the scene – and the truck-mounted HIMARS is limited to roads.
But Russia may simply not have enough loitering munitions in stock.
“I don’t think there are sufficient numbers yet,” says Bendett.
Russian has not stated the numbers procured, but unlike the ubiquitous Orlan-10 drones, loitering munitions currently appear to be in short supply.
“The Ministry of Defense did say they wanted that capacity yesterday, and I’m sure the Kalashnikov factory is working in overdrive now, but Russia needs hundreds of these in the air to make an impact against Ukrainian forces,” says Bendett.
As an alternative, Russia is now also deploying its Lastochka-M (“Swallow”) drone – the Russian analog to Ukraine’s Punisher drone. This is a miniature aircraft, looking a lot like the Israeli Skylark, armed with two grenade-sized bombs, and seen previously attacking targets in the Zapad exercise in 2021. NGO Conflict Armament Research documented the first known Lastochka downed in Ukraine on Tuesday and promise to provide a detailed breakdown of this rare drone later.
The long loitering time – estimated to be several hours – makes Lastochka-M useful for seeking targets and the small warheads are sufficient to destroy unarmored HIMARS trucks.
“I was also thinking when Lastochka would make a debut in Ukraine,” says Bendett. “My educated guess is that there simply aren’t that many of them out there.”
Russia’s first choice for acquiring more drones would be China, a major military drone exporter, but Bendett notes that there is no sign of China supplying hardware. Hence perhaps the recent drone shopping trip by Russian representatives to Iran.
Russia also seems to be getting loitering munitions from an unlikely source. On July 12th, a Chekan (“Battleaxe”) loitering munition made in Belurus was shot down in Ukraine, the first time it is known to have been used in action. Again this is a tactical weapon with a 3-kilo warhead and it remains to be seen how many more will turn up.
For the time being, Russia simply does not seem to have enough loitering munitions or small attack drones to make a difference. Yesterday the U.S. announced that more HIMARS were on their way to Ukraine. Expect more loitering munition action on both sides in the months to come.