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Loitering munitions – a revolution in Russian warfare?

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The war in Ukraine is shaping the way the Russian Army fights and it is changing the country’s industrial priorities with significant effort being spent on loitering munitions. What role do they play for the Russians, and how will their use change the future of warfare?

The war in Ukraine has led to the introduction and widespread use of loitering munitions, drone delivered munitions, and First Person View (FPV) drones on both sides. Ostensibly there are two drivers of this trend; dispersion, and ammunition constraints. Forces in Ukraine are very dispersed in part for survivability, and in part because the force densities are insufficient for the terrain being fought over. This makes conventional targeting with artillery and airpower challenging, and at times a poor use of resources. There is little sense in engaging three personnel in a trench with a glide bomb, for example. So, drone-delivered weapons and loitering munitions represent an economical and accurate form of lethality that can be widely distributed and employed. This dovetails into the second aspect, ammunition scarcity. Russia has faced challenges in its ammunition consumption, mostly because the war has lasted longer than expected, and because of Ukraine’s efforts to destroy ammunition stores. Ammunition constraints and attrition have degraded Russia’s artillery park, which makes these drone-delivered means yet more appealing as they are cheaper and quicker to produce and better able to engage targets in spite of the dispersed nature of Ukrainian forces. Furthermore, loitering munitions, like Lancet, give the infantry a weapon system with the range of a multiple rocket launch system like the BM-21 Grad, but far greater accuracy. FPVs and drone-delivered munitions both provide reach and accuracy to tactical groups that would previously require fire support requests.

Russia’s defence industry has recognised this technological shift and is allocating resources accordingly, as indicated by the variety of systems displayed at Army 2023, Russia’s annual arms exhibition. However, much of the production is artisanal; small groups on both sides have established workshops that convert FPV drones – often used for drone racing – into munitions. This is achieved by attaching a warhead such as the PG-7 anti-armour rocket propelled grenade to the body of the drone. Similar efforts produce drones capable of dropping grenades. Loitering munitions such as Lancet-3M and KUB-BLA, however, are manufactured by Russia’s state-owned companies and represent the most advanced form of weapon within this category.

Theoretically, the threat posed by all of these systems is straightforward to counter using electromagnetic warfare (EW). Russia is a capable EW practitioner and yet has had to focus its resources in areas of need and to provide greater security for its critical nodes in an effort to protect them from precision munitions. This has degraded its ability to counter these weapons and they have likely led to considerable losses. Ukraine has had to do the same, which means that the threat posed by drone-delivered weapons and loitering munitions is not universal nor constant. This likely explains why so many videos appear to show drones and loitering munitions operating with impunity; the reality is that the footage released by these units shows either a brief window in EW operations, or a sector of the front where EW is not present. Nonetheless, they have changed the way that Russian units fight and will likely change the nature of most future conflicts. It is therefore necessary for NATO forces to study and understand them.

At the same time, it is important to note that Russia has dramatically increased its production of conventional artillery systems, armour and ammunition. It continues to employ the Orlan-10, a military grade drone with variants used for reconnaissance, signals intelligence, and artillery fire correction that has been in service since 2015. The Orlan-10 is designed for military use and so is more resistant to jamming and interference, it is also likely to be better enabled for passing target data between systems. The production of ammunition and use of Orlan-10 should serve as simple reminders that whilst the drones that make up the contents of this article gain a lot of attention, it is conventional military systems that make up the core of the Russian Armed Forces (RuAF) and are likely the cause for most of Ukraine’s casualties.

 

 

Lancet

Lancet is a loitering munition designed and manufactured by Zala Aero, a company within Russia’s Kalashnikov concern, which has come to play a prominent role in Ukraine. It is used to engage air defence vehicles, howitzers, and occasionally armoured fighting vehicles. The precision and efficacy of Lancet, provided in part by its electro-optical suite and apparent ease of use, have made it an important element of Russia’s revised artillery doctrine, which pairs precision strike assets like Lancet and FPV drones with massed artillery. It also enables Russian commanders to remove artillery from some areas of the front and concentrate it elsewhere, whilst maintaining pressure on the front Some evidence indicates it has been effective in this role – one source asserts that there have been more than 500 Lancet strikes in Ukraine. It is, therefore, an important element of Russia’s current concept of warfare, and its success means it is likely an enduring one worth understanding for the challenge it would present a western force.

Lancet provides RuAF with a form of precision strike munition that could be deployed by frontline units to engage targets of opportunity. First deployed to Syria in 2020 it was shown engaging individual vehicles, likely in use with Russian special forces. Utilised in Ukraine in July 2022, although it may have been deployed before that, its use has escalated rapidly since to reach the figure stated above. Lostarmour claims a total of 135 Lancet deployments in July 2023, many more times the number of strikes a year before. Ukrainian forces – especially its artillery units – felt the increase in Lancet use and described it as the main threat that they faced in June. Defending against them is difficult without EW and crews are often forced to flee, or try to shoot the Lancet down with small arms.

Lancet is best thought of as a system of systems, it is typically coordinated using a reconnaissance drone such as the Zala Aero, which has a longer endurance than the Lancet. Once it has identified a target the Lancet is launched and flown to the target’s location, it is then steered onto the target at speeds of 110 km/h. The warhead is understood to be a form of shaped charge, which makes it effective against armoured vehicles, but less than ideal against a towed howitzer in the open. It has also been through several design revisions that have revised the warhead and missile design. It can be jammed, according to Ukrainian accounts, and tends to be very prevalent where Ukrainian – and Russian – EW is lacking. In cases where it is used in critical areas, it is likely that some warning of its use is provided by the lifting of jamming in certain bandwidths.

It is widely used and appears to form a part of Russia’s combined arms tactics – as do the other drone types covered here. It is often used to engage vehicles that have been immobilised by mines in coordination with artillery and direct fire from ATGMs and tanks. Equally, it is used to individually hunt single guns and BM-21 Grad launchers and air defence systems. As mentioned above, the range and accuracy of Lancet make it well-suited for this role. It is increasingly a high-end asset when compared with the ubiquitous FPV, however, it has performed well for the Russians and will likely form a permanent element of the Russian armed forces going forward.

FPV

Lancet is mostly used against targets behind the front line or to engage Ukrainian armour as part of combined arms ‘fire bags’ – a combination of artillery, attack helicopters and defensive positions designed to slow down and destroy an enemy formation. FPVs in contrast are a tactical multi-purpose tool. They are typically a modified commercially available racing drone or a purpose-built frame, which is fitted with an explosive or a PG-7 rocket propelled grenade with an anti-armour warhead. The drones are controlled from a first person perspective, which means that the operator views the world from the drone’s perspective and can accurately control it onto a small target like a trench. The primary difference between an FPV and a standard drone-delivered munition appears to be speed, which makes them harder to avoid and quicker to reach a target. Their efficacy is indicated by data from Lostarmor, which claims to have documented video footage from more than 200 Russian FPV strikes in August and over 100 in September (as of 12th September).

Russian forces have wholeheartedly embraced the FPV concept and established training teams to teach pilots how to use them, and volunteer companies that are manufacturing them, sometimes from scratch and often through self-raised funding. A Russian state media report also claims there is an official FPV training course lasting three weeks, with a week spent on simulators and two weeks on real flights, the attending video showed practice engagements against disused armoured vehicles. The report referred to FPVs as the ‘long hand’ of assault units and said that they could attack targets at a range of 3 km. There are select Russian units that employ FPVs such as one that refers to itself as Beaver and states that it is an unmanned rapid reaction detachment of the Russian MoD.

One anecdote posted on Telegram indicates that FPV and grenade-armed drones can be used together. The author of the post noted that 12 drones were used by Russian forces defending Antonovsky Bridge. Some were FPVs, some armed with grenades and some providing reconnaissance for Russian mortars. The combined effects were sufficient to release a Russian unit from contact and recover its wounded personnel. One report from RIA Novosti states that Russian special forces combined FPVs with anti-tank missiles and automatic grenade launchers to conduct a mobile defence of Rabotino. A key component of FPV usage appears to be coordination and reconnaissance with a separate, unarmed drone. Both anecdotes indicate that FPV drones are similar in their use cases to loitering munitions, and at their core provide frontline forces with a cost effective and ready form of precision lethality. The various volunteer efforts appear uncoordinated and face numerous challenges such as standardisation and the procurement of spare parts, Sam Bendett, an analyst with the CNA think-tank has said. The scale of production indicates that they are widely used by Russian forces, but also suggests that counter-measures such as EW are relatively effective in preventing FPVs from completing successful strikes.

Grenades and cages

Grenades delivered from a small commercial drone are far from a new development in Ukraine or warfare in general.  ISIL was a capable user of both drone-delivered munitions and those deployed in a similar fashion to the FPVs above. It is estimated to have conducted 60-100 attacks per month, which forced Iraqi and western forces to modify their tactics and caused losses. This author spoke with a Ukrainian fighter in October 2017, who showed videos of drone-delivered grenades against separatist forces in the Donbass region. The Ukrainians were quick to realise their value and launched a domestic industry from 2015 that has developed them in workshops and through small organisations. The extensive use of drones by Ukrainians is likely the driver for the addition of roof cages to Russian tanks in the lead up to February 2022. At an official level, Russia continued to pursue primarily military drone designs such as the Orlan-10 and Orion, however the war has driven unofficial investment in commercial drones to deliver munitions – typically modified 30 mm grenades or mortars – against Ukrainian targets.

The benefits of drone-delivered bombs are similar for both sides. However, it is apparent that Russian forces use them to create casualties, safely approach and engage Ukrainian trenches before and after attacks, and destroy immobilised armoured vehicles. The munitions carried are inherently small – the drones cannot fly with heavier loads – and likely create casualties more than fatalities. Casualties can cause more issues for a fighting force than a fatality as casualty extraction in Ukraine is a high risk endeavour and resource intensive, and creates targeting opportunities.

One account from Northern sections of the front is indicative of Russian tactics in an offensive action: it began with reconnaissance using “seemingly limitless drones” before mortar fire targeted what cover remained and artillery set about engaging the roads into the settlement, which made casualty evacuation and resupply challenging. The same soldiers explained that they were being constantly observed by drones which they referred to as the “Eye of Sauron”. Types included the Orlan-10, a more conventional military design, as well as commercial drones carrying grenades. The effect was “hugely demoralising” for Ukrainian forces in the area.

Drone-delivered munitions serve an important role for Russian formations. The drones themselves act as a reconnaissance platform that can assist in the targeting of artillery and FPVs. They also provide an immediate form of lethality that is accurate if limited in its target set. Furthermore, forces are widely dispersed in Ukraine with some sections defended only by a handful of Ukrainians, which makes the use of precision guided munitions expensive and inefficient. Without massed artillery it is impossible to effectively target and destroy dispersed units beyond harassing fire and the Russian air force is seemingly reluctant to perform close air support unless absolutely necessary. Drone delivered munitions and FPVs provide an economical and sufficiently accurate form of lethality to account for dispersion, they fill the gaps left by attrition, they allow for the concentration of artillery on critical stretches of the front and address some of the shortcomings of the Russian air force.

Like FPVs, these drones use commercial radio technology to transmit imagery and receive commands, and GPS to navigate. Both are relatively straightforward to impede with EW, although it is apparent that the level of EW assets for both sides varies considerably by area, and is far from ubiquitous.

Future developments

At present the Russian use of loitering munitions, FPVs and drone-delivered munitions is at an early developmental stage. There is a lack of consensus on the type of materials to use in the airframe of an FPV, for instance, and how this should relate to cost. Most seem to agree they should be cheap – cheaper than a missile – and the use of a quadcopter design seems to be preferred. The Russian volunteer groups manufacturing drones and FPVs also face challenges in securing parts, although at least one has made visits to China in a bid to establish a more effective supply chain. It is possible that the near future will lead to greater integration and funding within Russia’s established defence industrial base as already indicated by Kalashnikov in mid-August.

Emerging developments include the use of repeater drones that extend the operational reach of FPVs and drones. At least two efforts are introducing artificial intelligence as an aiming tool to assist with the targeting of FPVs and drone-delivered munitions. It is also likely that FPVs and drones equipped with night vision will proliferate, although this will drive the costs up considerably. Wider use of both types should also be expected within the RuAF, one Telegram user claiming to have spoken with Russian soldiers suggests that not all units are using FPVs and drones, preferring to rely instead on heavier types like the Orlan-10. This suggestion is supported in some measure by the level of drone and FPV production; whilst both are significant, there are not enough being produced or funded by volunteers for wholesale adoption by regular Russian troops.

Finally, Lancet has proven itself to be a valuable addition to Russian combined arms operations. It appears to be used independently to hunt and engage those systems on Russia’s high value target list, as well as a part of the general response to Ukrainian units during their offensives. Its range may be its key advantage as both sides are likely keeping armour and artillery some distance behind the front to protect it. Furthermore, as Lancet has already been through several revisions, further changes to the design should be expected and it will likely have a permanent place within Russia’s inventory for the foreseeable future.

What does this mean for the British Army?

Overall, the available evidence indicates that loitering munitions, drones and FPVs have recently begun to play an important role for Russian forces fighting in Ukraine. They certainly represent an evolution in the Russian way of war, but any revolutionary characteristics are likely a result of the nature of the fighting in Ukraine. The extreme dispersion and difficulties with conventional indirect fire that result, combined with the ability of civilian volunteers to manufacture a technology that is genuinely helpful to a country’s war effort have provided the conditions for the spread and use of drone and FPV technology. They have also given impetus to the use of loitering munitions, however, it is far from certain that all of these technologies will continue. To do so, they will have to prove that they are at least as good, and ideally better than the existing conventional alternatives. A single FPV flown into a trench is certain to be devastating for those sheltering there, but there are many effects that artillery can deliver, which FPVs, drones, and loitering munitions cannot.

Nonetheless, it is reasonable to assume that the use of drones in Ukraine will leave an indelible mark on the RuAF. They will be better able to use and counter drones in the world that follows the war and more confident in the application of the tactics that have worked. Right now, it is reasonable to assume that the Russian lessons learned process is focused on Ukraine and making the changes necessary to win there. It is therefore prudent to look ahead at what the Russian military might become and how its doctrine might change to exploit NATO weaknesses. Short of catastrophic defeat in Ukraine, it is likely that Russia will continue to present a threat to NATO and others. When that time comes its military will have a wealth of experience and intrinsic understanding of the possibilities and limits of modern warfare as well as the tactics and technologies that make drone use successful in a combined arms setting. Continued monitoring of changes in Russian tactics and doctrine is therefore necessary if the UK is to position its armed forces to deter and defeat the Russian military in a world after Ukraine.

Image credits. All images taken from Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation and can be found here.

Sam Cranny-Evans

Sam Cranny-Evans was a Research Analyst at RUSI in C4ISR between October 2021 and December 2022. During his time at RUSI he focused on multi-domain integration, electronic warfare, and the war in Ukraine. He co-led the establishment of the Red Team project, which provides analysis of the Russian and Chinese militaries. He has also spent time researching lethal autonomous weapons and their proliferation risk. He has worked at Helsing, a defence AI company providing thought leadership in the role of AI in modern warfare and assisting with company communications.

Previously, he worked for five years at the Janes Information Group where he finished as a lead analyst in land warfare platforms. His primary role was the creation and maintenance of the Janes Armoured Fighting Vehicles yearbooks and online content set. His research in this area encompassed a range of topics from armoured vehicle design to their interaction with UAVs.
Alongside this he contributed to the Janes news and analysis publications, and assisted with or wrote more than 500 news articles during his time with the company. His research has included the development and modernisation of China’s People’s Liberation Army, artillery tactics in Ukraine and Russia’s concepts of escalation management.

Sam has a degree in War Studies from the University of Kent, where he graduated with first class honours in 2012 having written a dissertation on the morale of the Russian population during the Second World War. His studies included conflicts throughout history from the Punic Wars to the Falklands.

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