Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Russian Military Drones: Past, Present, and Future of the UAV Industry
Russian Military Drones: Past, Present, and Future of the UAV Industry

Russian Military Drones: Past, Present, and Future of the UAV Industry

 

Introduction

Since 2009, Russia has invested significant effort into developing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, for military purposes. They have used drones for reconnaissance, targeting, electronic warfare, and direct strikes. Some of these UAVs have been used in Ukraine and Syria since 2014, while combat UAVs (i.e., the Orion and Altius drones) still were on the research and development phase at the beginning of 2022.

However, after a year of war in Ukraine, the Russian military has lost the biggest part of its tactical reconnaissance and targeting UAVs. At the same time, it was still unable to deploy advanced combat UAVs. As soon as fall 2022, or roughly six months into Russia’s full invasion of Ukraine, Russia started the large-scale use of Iranian loitering munitions, and continues to be highly dependent on them as of fall 2023.

Despite efforts towards increasing their production, Russia’s use of its own loitering munitions remains insignificant.

Key Findings

  • Relying on global supply chains, Russia was able to develop its own UAV industrial base in the late 2000s and early 2010s. For UAV production, Russia imported electronics, engines, and industrial equipment (which is more important than electronic components) from Europe, the United States, Israel, and Japan, among other places.
  • The fundamental problem of integrating UAVs into the different branches of the Russian armed forces and Russian military doctrine was not solved by 2022. The full-scale aggression against Ukraine challenged Russia’s approaches towards UAVs and the UAV industrial base. Significant parts of the drone supply chains that Russia purchased before 2022 have been lost. Western sanctions and Russia’s decreasing financial, technological, and human capabilities undermine sophisticated UAV projects started in the 2010s, as well as the Strategy of Development of Unmanned Aviation for 2030–2035 issued in 2023.[i]
  • The Russian military recognized that Ukraine processed and exchanged information between drones and artillery much faster, and this processing—together with general compatibility of different systems in the Russian armed forces—needed crucial improvements.
  • The lack of command, control, and communication systems—together with an over-centralized decision-making process and the huge Ukrainian theater—made smaller tactical units in the Russian military dependent on imported small commercial and agricultural drones like those produced by the Chinese company DJI.
  • Unlike Ukraine, Russia cannot rely on the wide civic movement that systemically provides the armed forces with commercial drones and other equipment.
  • Based on the experience of using Iran-made “Shahed-136” and “Shahed-131” loitering munitions, the Russian military started efforts towards better tactics of using drone swarms as well as developing an efficient command and control system.
  • At the same time, the Russian military focused on further developing and improving counter-UAV capabilities in the face of swarms of small, cheap Ukrainian drones.
  • Uncertainty in the Russian UAV industry—and in the whole aerospace industry—will persist, if not increase, in coming years.
  • Given Russia’s long-term dependence on imported components and industrial equipment, together with a limited workforce and massive losses of UAVs during the ongoing war, Russia’s capabilities in reconnaissance and targeting, as well as in high-precision weapons, will stagnate, if not decrease, in the foreseeable future. Considering that Ukraine is making significant advances in using drones with assistance of its Western allies, Russia will not be able to restore its superiority in this aspect of military power.

1. Government of Russia,“Government approved the Strategy for development of unmanned aviation until 2030,” June 28, 2023, http://government.ru/news/48875/.

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