Will Russia cope with the terrifying gap in the field of unmanned aircraft?

This post was published in EurAsia Daily. The point of view expressed in this article is authorial and do not necessarily reflect BM`s editorial stance.


MOSCOW, (BM) – The International Military-Technical Forum Army-2020, held from 23 to 29 August in the Patriot Park near Moscow, was marked, as always, with a number of premieres of various types of military equipment, as well as a rich business program, including the signing of multibillion-dollar contracts, as in interests of the Russian Ministry of Defense, and export.

At the same time, promising unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) deserve special attention at the current exhibition: it is in this category of weapons that the most important novelties of this year are presented.

Orion – the first Russian MALE drone goes into serial production

All key innovations in the field of unmanned aircraft at Army-2020 were presented by the Kronshtadt group of companies. The company’s exposition included three heavy UAVs belonging to the international classification of MALE class vehicles [medium-altitude long-endurance – medium altitude and long flight duration].

Until today, there were no UAVs of this class in the Russian Armed Forces, but the situation is already changing. Thus, the Orion UAV, demonstrated at the forum, is the lightest and most compact of the three [maximum take-off weight 1150, wingspan 16.3 meters, length 8 meters], has already been in experimental military operation since April 2020 and has even been used in Syria … According to Nikolai Dolzhenkov, General Director of Kronstadt, a contract has already been signed for the supply of serial Orions.

Despite the fact that the characteristics of the device cannot be called outstanding – the Orion has a low combat load [60 kg during normal flight, which can last up to 24 hours, 250 kg is maximum] and there is no satellite control channel [the combat radius is strongly limited by the radio control channel].

The aircraft is Russia’s first step towards narrowing the colossal gap in the field of unmanned aircraft. To understand the situation – in the US military operation against Iraq in 2003, MALE-class MQ-1A Predator strike UAVs were already actively used, in their characteristics and appearance very similar to Orion [even the piston engine in both devices uses the same – the Austrian Rotax 914], but already then had a satellite communication channel.

At the same time, MALE-class UAVs, in contrast to Russia, are produced by many countries, such as Israel, Turkey, South Korea, South Africa, Iran, etc.

Sirius and Helios – the real future of Russian unmanned aircraft

In fact, the rest of the products demonstrated by Kronstadt will help to be on the list of leaders. One of them, the heavy Sirius UAV, had already been demonstrated once at Army-2019, but then it was a civilian version of the vehicle. In a new, military look, “Sirius” has a maximum takeoff weight of 2500 kg, a wingspan of 23 meters, a length of 9 meters and a combat load of up to 450 kg.

What is very important, the UAV must receive a satellite communication and control channel, which will allow the vehicle to be used within a radius of at least 1000 km. Like Orion, Sirius will be capable of using various guided missiles and bombs. Note that there is no information on the timing of the completion of the development, and a layout was demonstrated on the forum.

An even larger UAV, developed by the Kronstadt group, is the Helios-RLD. It has an even more impressive take-off weight of 4 tons, a wingspan of 30 meters, a length of 12.6 meters and can carry up to 800 kg of payload. The combat radius of the vehicle is an impressive 3000 km.

In the configuration shown, “Helios” is a radar reconnaissance UAV [it patrols the airspace, identifying targets on the ground, on the water and in the air using a radar station], however, the given characteristics will allow creating a strike version of the device, which will be able to approach the most advanced its western counterpart – the American MQ-9 Reaper, although it will not reach it in terms of payload.

It is quite obvious that the Kronstadt Group, demonstrating Helios, shows its intentions to impose competition on another heavy UAV project – Altius-U, which was previously developed by the Design Bureau named after M.P. Simonov, and since 2018, after a serious scandal and the arrest of the general Director of the company Alexander Gomzin, is being developed by the “Ural Plant of Civil Aviation”. The attempts of Kronstadt can be useful – competition is always the key to success.


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