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Putin Has a Problem: Russia’s Drones Are Getting Killed in Ukraine

Russia's Orlan-10 drone. Image Credit: Russian State Media.

Russia’s Drones Looking to Step Up Their Game – Russia’s Orlan-10 reconnaissance and observation drone is showing mixed results in Ukraine. There are reports of it guiding artillery fire to destroy Ukrainian armored vehicles, but it has also been shot down by Ukrainian fighters.

The Orlan-10 is a scout drone that was used by the Russians in Syria and eastern Ukraine before the invasion. It identifies targets for aircraft, indirect fires, tanks, and infantry fighting vehicles. Going into the war it was expected that Russia had optimized drone tactics and techniques, but it remains to be seen if the Orlan-10 can replicate its success in other theaters.

Sometimes the Orlan-10 Works

Coffee or Die Magazine senior editor Nolan Peterson, who has been reporting from Ukraine since 2014, said on Twitter on March 10 that the Orlan-10 was doing its job against the Ukrainians.

“A Ukrainian soldier on the front lines in eastern Ukraine told me that a Russian Orlan-10 drone was orbiting over his position to ‘target howitzer artillery fire’ — resulting in multiple Ukrainian fatalities and wounded. He stressed the need for more anti-aircraft systems.”

Multi-role Recon Drone Flies in Tandem

The medium-range Orlan-10 gives the Russians many options besides targeting. It can also conduct electronic warfare by jamming radar and sniffing out radio transmissions. The Russians prefer using it in groups of two or three with one flying at 2,000 to 3,000 feet, one for jamming, and then another that sends back the intel data to a command and control center, according to U.S. Army’s Training and Doctrine Command.

Production began in 2010 by St. Petersburg defense contractor Special Technology Center. The Orlan-10 has a wingspan of 10-feet, a fuselage of 6.5 feet, and a weight of 36 pounds. The drone is launched by a catapult and is recovered when it deploys a parachute to land.

Observation Drone Make Good Use of Various Cameras

The drone is bursting at the seams with cameras – day-light, thermal, and video. Interestingly, the data link uses 3G/4G cellular networks, according to The Orlan-10 has an autonomous mode along with remote control. It can transmit data up to 372 miles from its base. The maximum speed is 93 miles per hour.

But the Drone Has Also Been Removed from the Battlefield

At least two Orlan-10s have been shot down by Ukrainian fighters. One was destroyed in the Donetsk region in November and one was downed on March 4.

The Orlan-10, if used in numbers with these tactics, should protect Russian soldiers and armored columns from getting ambushed. But there are numerous photos and videos of burning and smoking tanks and armored vehicles smashed by Ukrainian counter-attacks.

Not Enough for Every Unit

With Russian forces battling on multiple fronts and numerous supporting efforts around the country, it is likely that there just aren’t enough Orlan-10s or other recon drones to go around. The Russian army should not make tactical decisions without eyes and ears in the sky. Drone intelligence would keep them from getting hit so often.

Are Recon Drones Late the Party?

Why aren’t Russian drones being used as much as they were in Syria? Samuel Bendett at the CNA policy institute wrote in Defense One that Ukraine is doing an excellent job with its own electronic warfare efforts that can thwart drone use.

“One reason might be that the Ukrainian air defenses and electronic warfare networks seem to still be functioning so far, which could be interfering with Russian efforts to put its drones to use,” he wrote.

Russian armored columns are traveling down obvious avenues of approach seemingly without intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance data. They didn’t rehearse for war this way and observation drones are either being jammed by the Ukrainians or there are not enough unmanned vehicles to accompany all the Russian maneuver elements. This state of affairs has the Ukrainians running the Russians into the ground, and the counter-tactics of Ukraine’s army is beginning to rob the Russians of their will to fight.

Now serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood.

Written By

Now serving as 1945s New Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.