Russia may be counting on a quick and relatively bloodless (on their side) victory as the only acceptable outcome of a conflict with Ukraine. Putting drones rather than crewed aircraft on the front line eliminates the risk of losing pilots, but Russia has lacked the weaponry to make its drone fleet into an effective strike force – until now.
In recent conflicts — notably in Nagorno-Karabakh, Libya and Syria — Russia-backed forces have taken a beating from Turkish-made TB2 Bayraktar drones firing MAM-L laser-guided missiles. Now Russia is seeking similar capabilities with a new arsenal of drone weapons, ranging from substantial Hellfire-sized weapons to submunitions small enough for a quadcopter.
“While Bayraktar TB2s demonstrated how effective such tactics can be, the Russian MoD has been working towards that goal for years at this point, before 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war and even before its Syrian involvement,” Samuel Bendett, an expert on the Russian defense scene, and adviser to both the CNA and CNAS told Forbes.
An article in Izvestia on January 8 catalogs the latest Russian drone armament, including some not previously described. While such reports should be treated with caution, the new weapons have a common theme: taking out armored vehicles, from mobile surface-to-air missile launchers to heavy tanks.
As in the recent conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in which drones played such a major role, they can knock out air defenses before moving on to tank formations.
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The Izvestia article suggests a key weapon is a new a modified version of the Kornet-D missile known as X-BPLA which has been successfully test-fired from the air. It has a range of at least 8 kilometers/5 miles, and can destroy even the heaviest vehicles: “They can even pierce [U.S.] Abrams tanks head-on,” according to Izvestia’s expert.
The Inokhodets can also carry a more powerful missile, the Vortex-M developed for attack helicopters, with guidance for two missiles to be fired at once to overwhelm active protection systems.
“Potential roles include ground-attacks tactics, with the ability to strike a range of targets,” says Bendett. “This is in line with the Russian MoD’s decision to field combat drones in missions where they can potentially replace crewed assets like planes and helicopters.”
Izvestia mentions another recent development, the S8-L missile made by Kalashnikov, first displayed at last summer’s Army-2021 show. This is a laser-guided version of the established 80mm unguided S8 rocket, fitted with an anti-tank warhead.
The concept of the S8-L almost identical to the U.S. Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System, which transforms 2.75” aerial rockets into low-cost precision weapons with the addition of a laser guidance system. The difference is that the Russians want them for use against armored vehicles rather than insurgents. While the 80-millileter, 11-kilo rocket cannot take out the heaviest tanks, it will destroy more lightly armored air defense vehicles, personnel carriers, self-propelled guns.
The light weight of the S8-L mean it can be carried by even smaller drones — the new Termit uncrewed helicopter, which is the size of a small car, can pack three of them, which could make it a potent but disposable anti-tank platform.
The last category of drone weapon in the Izvestia piece is perhaps the most intriguing: bombs dropped from small quadcopters. Russia has not revealed anything in this line before, but the newspaper says there a range of such munitions have been developed from existing grenades and submunitions, plus incendiary weapons, and notes that: “With an accurate hit, they can disable not only people and vehicles, but also heavy tanks.”
This is of particular note because, although no such capability has been revealed before, Ukraine has alleged that on several occasions Russian special forces attacked their ammunition dumps with small quadcopters. On several occasions ammo dumps were set ablaze with high-temperature incendiaries setting off explosions destroying thousands of tons of munitions.
Such drones only have a range of a few kilometers, so would be used by troops capable of infiltrating Ukrainian lines, as with the alleged drone attacks on ammo dumps. Their advantage is that they can evade normal air defenses and strike virtually without warning. If Russia really does have weaponized quadcopter to target tanks, they could present a particular headache for Ukrainian forces assembling to counter a Russian invasion.
While Russia has not yet made much use of drones for attacks, their military planners have devoted some effort to looking at how they can expand their use from reconnaissance, intelligence gathering and other support roles to strike and countering air defenses.
“Expect the Russian forces to come up with CONOPS [concepts of operations] and ordnances to make this happen,” says Bendett.