Russia’s Predator-Like Drone Is Now Shooting Down Other Drones

Testing the Orion UAV in a drone interceptor role over Crimea also looks like a clear signal to Ukraine.

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RUSSIAN MINISTRY OF DEFENSE / YOUTUBE SCREENCAP

Russia has been testing its Orion unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) in a ‘drone-killer’ role, using a new variant of an existing guided missile to shoot down a rotary-wing target drone during trials in Crimea. The Russian Ministry of Defense has claimed the experiment proves that the Predator-like Orion drone is now capable of engaging other drones in combat, part of a broader effort to introduce various new weapons capabilities to this and other Russian UAVs.

Video of the test campaign was released recently by the Russian Ministry of Defense and was apparently first shown as part of a documentary on the state-owned Russia-1 TV channel. The Orion drone — also known by the project name Inokhodets, meaning Pacer in Russian — is shown firing a new air-launched version of the 9M113 Kornet anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) against the helicopter drone, serving as the target. The report states that the two drones began around 60 miles apart and the target was engaged at a distance of around 2.5 miles. 

The basic Kornet ATGM uses laser beam-riding guidance and requires manual control to take it to its target. The air-launched version reportedly also has infrared and TV-guided modes although it’s not clear if these are used for missile guidance or simply to help the operator detect and track targets and the process by which the drone operator initially finds the target remains unknown. A related report from Russia’s state-run media outlet RIA Novosti suggests the same missile can also be used from the Forpost and Altius UAVs.

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A maintainer works on a missile launcher for the Kh-BPLA under the wing of an Orion drone.

The Orion is typically fitted with a turret that mounts electro-optical and infrared cameras, as well as a laser target designator to deliver guided weapons against targets on the ground. The footage suggests that a pilot in the ground control station uses these sensors onboard the drone to initially acquire the target and then command a missile launch. 

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The penetrating jet of the missile’s HEAT warhead is visible immediately prior to impacting the drone target.

More details about the air-launched Kornet missile appear in the RIA Novosti report, which quotes an unnamed source in the military-industrial complex. The source says the missile — designated Kh-BPLA — has completed “dozens of successful tests” from the prototype Ka-52M attack helicopter. The same source attributed a maximum range of 6.2 miles to the missile and said it can destroy both low-flying, low-speed aerial targets as well as armored vehicles. In fact, a version of the Kornet with an anti-aircraft capability already existed. The 9M133FM-3 was developed to provide ground troops and vehicles with a means to defeat UAVs, helicopters, and other low-flying threats and it appears to be this model that has now been adapted for air launch.

Previous reports had indicated that a version of the Vikhr-M missile would be tested on the Orion drone, but it’s unclear if those plans have been superseded or if both missiles will be employed from the UAV.

Repurposing an ATGM for air-to-air use is not altogether unheard of in Russia, with an earlier iteration of the Vikhr also having been used by the Su-25 attack jet to down an unmanned Tu-16 bomber. This remained purely experimental, however, and the Vikhr was never adopted for service as a Su-25 weapon.

An air-to-air version of the Vikhr ATGM shoots a Tu-16 bomber converted as a target drone:

As for the rotary-wing target drone used in the test, this appears to be an example of a type developed by CSTS Dinamika, a division of Russia’s Technodinamika Group. This UAV, developed specifically as a target, bears a strong resemblance to the Austrian-made Schiebel S-100 Camcopter and was unveiled last year. So far, the designation of this drone has not been revealed.

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Three of the rotary-wing target drone UAVs at the exercise range in Crimea.

In one sequence in the latest Russia-1 report, Maj. Gen. Alexander Novikov, the head of the Russian General Staff’s Office for UAV Development, says the Orion drone can shoot down the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 and other UAVs. The TB2 has been widely heralded as a game-changer in recent conflicts in Syria, Libya, and between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Most significantly, it has also been operated in combat by Ukraine, a country with which Russia has been deeply embroiled in conflict since 2014. 

It is, therefore, more than just a coincidence that the latest missile test took place in Crimea, an area that Moscow seized from Ukraine in 2014 and which has since been the focus of renewed military activity, from amphibious landing drills to anti-ship missile exercises.

Russian officials pointing to the specific ability of the Orion to now shoot down TB2 drones seems to be intended as a very clear signal to Ukraine. But it is also just as relevant to potential export customers of the Orion, to counter not only the TB2, which Turkey keeps finding new customers for but also other similar drones, and to more generally provide competition for them on the export market.

In the past, we have looked more broadly at the significant military potential offered by the Orion UAV, which had previously been used to test air-launched weapons in an air-to-ground role, including during combat trials in Syria in 2018.

However, the launch of air-to-air missiles, or at least dual-role weapons with the ability to hit targets in the air as well as on the ground, seems to further point toward the Orion moving toward operational capability. Until now, the Orion program has had some problems, including rejection of the first examples by the Russian Ministry of Defense due to “additional requirements that were not originally included in the technical specification.” There have also been at least one crash and difficulties in securing a reliable Russian-made powerplant.

At the same time, these kinds of capabilities will only make the export-configured Orion-E version even more attractive to foreign customers, especially those who face a threat from enemy UAVs.

As we have pointed out in the past, there is little in the way of direct U.S. competition to the armed Orion or the TB2, although China does offer a range of similar capabilities for export. In the case of Chinese-made drones, however, there have been high-profile problems relating to these and their serviceability.

With a gross weight of around 2,250 pounds and an endurance of up to 24 hours, the Orion is broadly similar to the MQ-1 Predator, sharing a long, straight wing and pusher-propeller propulsion. The U.S. Air Force has retired the MQ-1, and it is no longer in production.

Employing a drone to engage low-flying, low-speed drone target is still very much a niche capability, although in the past helicopters have been adopted for this mission by some operators. Israel, in particular, has used its AH-64 Apache attack helicopters to down hostile UAVs, also using Hellfire air-to-ground missiles, the agility and low-speed handling of the rotorcraft making it a good match to intercepting even smaller drones. 

However, there have only been a few examples of engagements involving drones as the launch platforms for air-to-air missiles in any conflict to date.

The U.S. Air Force began work in this direction at least as early as 2003 when it armed MQ-1s with the air-to-air version of the heat-seeking Stinger missile to provide a degree of protection against Iraqi jets. You can read more about that effort here. Since then, the U.S. Air Force has used its MQ-9 Reaper to launch an air-to-air missile, firing an AIM-9X Sidewinder against a maneuvering target during a test in November 2017.

Iran, meanwhile, has reportedly used its Karrar UAV as an “interceptor drone” to destroy aerial targets during exercises. While imagery has been released showing the Karrar launching the Azarakhsh missile, which was originally claimed to be a combination anti-tank and short-range surface-to-air weapon, there does not appear to be any conclusive evidence that missiles fired by Karrar drones have actually hit any targets.

Otherwise, developments in the field of drones with air-to-air capabilities are increasingly focusing on more sophisticated platforms, like the U.S. Air Force’s loyal wingman-type drones as well as programs like LongShot, which aims to field an aircraft-launched drone equipped with its own air-to-air missiles to engage adversary aircraft.

All in all, these developments indicate just how seriously Russia is taking its efforts to arm its new drones with a wide array of ordnance for both air-to-ground and now air-to-air missions. After lagging behind the United States, China, and other countries in developing modern drones of any kind, Moscow seems to be focusing its attention not only on filling niches in terms of size and performance — the Orion and Okhotnik being good examples of this — but also providing novel weapons capabilities for them. It remains to be seen, however, whether these ambitious technologies fulfill their promise.

While the Russian military budget may not be enough to sustain all these programs in the long term, it’s possible that some, at least, could win export orders. After all, Russia has an extensive list of existing arms customers, less restrictive export conditions than the United States, and a track record of using creative financing to help secure sales of military equipment.

Contact the author: thomas@thedrive.com