In the autumn of 2011 the Russian MoD announced R&D contracts for two relatively heavy unmanned aerial vehicles, with an approximate take-off weight 800kg and 4,500 kg.
Recognizing the need
The United States is the world leader in MALE-class (Medium Altitude, High Endurance) UAVs. It has been developing the Predator family of drones since the early 1990s. Early models saw their first action during the war in Yugoslavia, which highlighted the practical uses of the UAVs of that class, and stimulated further research and development. The second war in Iraq and the campaign in Afghanistan saw routine and wide-spread use of the Predator and Reaper drones. In addition to providing continuous aerial reconnaissance and target tracking, they have been used to launch missiles against targets on the ground, killing a number of key Al Qaeda operatives.
Russia has several obvious uses for MALE-class UAVs; many of them have to do with the sheer size of the country’s territory. The prospective users include the armed forces and several other uniformed agencies, especially the Border Service and the Coastguard.
Import or indigenous design?
The world’s most capable armed forces either operate MALE-class drones already or are studying how best to acquire them. Some countries pursue indigenous projects (sometimes in cooperation with foreign partners); others buy their UAVs abroad; several nations do both.
Apart from the United States, only Israel now makes its own MALE-class drones. The Israeli product range includes the Heron and Eitan (Heron TP) systems made by Israel Aerospace Industries. A recent addition to the Israeli product range is the Heron 900, made by Elbit systems. Italy buys Predators from the United States. Germany and France operate specially adapted Heron models. The UAE, India, South Africa, China and several other countries are developing MALE-class UAVs, either independently or in cooperation with foreign partners such as Britain and France.
Russia has long pursued a policy of developing and manufacturing all its weapons on its own. In recent years, however, it has come to realize that such an approach is no longer viable. Russian defense technology is increasingly lagging behind the foreign competition in a number of key areas. In addition, the Russian defense industry is often unable to deliver the new weapons ordered by the armed forces quickly enough or in sufficient volume. UAVs is one area where the technological gap has become especially obvious. To address the situation, in 2009 the Russian MoD placed an order for a batch of Israeli drones, including the Bird Eye 400 (mini-class) and the Searcher MkII (tactical class, which is closer to MALE). The drones were delivered in 2010, and the training of their operators was completed in 2011.
But the Russian army still doesn’t have any MALE-class drones. Buying them from the United States is out of the question owing to American export restrictions, and Israel has refused to sell, reportedly after coming under American pressure.
The Russian MoD has announced contracts for two UAV R&D projects. The first contract, worth about 2bn roubles, is for the smaller of the two drones; the winner must deliver a product ready for mass production.
The second contract, worth about 1bn roubles, is for the larger of the two drones; it is expected to deliver a working prototype.
The winners and losers
Several Russian companies submitted their bids. Three companies were in the running for the contract to build the smaller UAV: Tupolev, which is part of the United Aircraft Corporation (OAK); Luch Design Bureau, a Rybinsk-based branch of the Vega concern; and the Tranzas company from St. Petersburg.
Luch Design Bureau is the only company which already had an existing prototype when it submitted the bid. The vehicle, also called Luch, is based on Sigma-5, a small trainer aircraft for rookie pilots designed by the Sigma-TS company from Zhukovo, Moscow Region. Experts believe, however, that using a piloted aircraft as a UAV platform is not the best solution, even though this has already been tried in other countries. To make matters worse for Luch, its parent company, the Vega concern, it not held in very high regard in the MoD. Some time ago Vega was designated as Russia’s main developer of UAVs, but failed to live up to the generals’ expectations. Its designs have repeatedly come under criticism from Vladimir Popovkin, a former first deputy defense minister. One of the Vega products, the Tipchak tactical UAV, turned out to be a big disappointment during the 2008 conflict in Georgia, especially when measured against Israeli-made drones used by the Georgians.
Another bidder for the first UAV contract, Tupolev, is one of the founders of the Russian school of UAV design. Its first drones date back to the 1950s, but most of the Tupolev designs are extremely dated. The company is also struggling financially. In the absence of large new orders Tupolev’s R&D capability has seen a rapid deterioration. It is also finding it difficult to attract and retain the design and engineering expertise.
The contract for the smaller UAV has therefore been awarded to Tranzas. Its high-tech designs, well-known both in Russia and abroad, focus mainly on simulator systems. It also has experience in developing tactical UAVs.
The second MoD contract, for the larger of th]e two UAVs, attracted two bidders: Sokol Design Bureau (Kazan), and RSK MiG.
MiG has developed dozens of combat aircraft over the decades, most of them fighters and interceptors. It also has some experience in designing UAVs, although most of those designs date back to the past century. Its most recent UAV design, the Skat attack drone, was demonstrated at the MAKS-2007 airshow, but it appears that the project has never been completed.
For these reasons the MoD awarded the second contract to Sokol. The company is one of Russia’s leading developers and suppliers of aerial targets. It also has several active drone projects. In addition to its prior experience with UAVs, one of Sokol’s main advantages is that the company is relatively compact, which makes it a more nimble and effective operator in the new post-Soviet economic environment. The company also has its own manufacturing facilities.
The winners, Tranzas and Sokol, have announced that they are going to work on the two projects together. Sokol will probably focus on designing the airframe and on the subsequent mass production, while Tranzas will integrate the avionics and design the ground control stations for the two UAVs. Both projects will be led by Nikolay Dolzhenkov, a prominent Russian aircraft designer. He was the lead designer of the Pchela UAV, which is used in the Stroy-P, a regiment-level tactical aerial reconnaissance system. His other designs include the Yak-130 combat trainer.
It is not yet clear which design and engineering solutions will be used in the two UAVs. Some information will probably appear in the run-up to the MAKS-2013 airshow. It has been reported that both UAVs are expected to take to the air in 2014 and enter a flight test program in 2015.
Russia’s decision to design MALE-class UAVs independently has its upsides and downsides. On the one hand, the project will be expensive. It is for a good reason that several European countries have decided to pool their efforts in this area. On the other hand, independent projects provide for greater flexibility and impose fewer restrictions on any subsequent exports. Rosoboronexport already has a lot of foreign customers. Integrating UAVs into the existing Russian reconnaissance and weapons systems would make them significantly more attractive for international buyers.