Russia’s New Arsenal Of Deadlier FPV Drones Is Coming— If They Can Get Through The Bureaucracy

Barely a year on from their first use in Ukraine, FPV kamikaze drones have become a breakout success. Simple loitering munition made from repurposed racing drones, these $500 weapons can take out a tank costing millions from several kilometres away. Russian troops have also adopted FPV kamikazes in a big way, despite resistance from further up the command chain, and Russian engineers are now working to make them more powerful with longer range, smarter guidance and less need for a human operator. The technology is advancing, but is held back by military politics.

Samuel Bendett, an expert Russian drones and adviser to both the CNA and CNAS, told Forbes that at present Russian FPVs are mainly used by irregular units from the Russian-controlled DNR/LNR region and contractors such as Wagner.

“The official military units have fewer FPV units in service, their use has not yet been reflected in the official combat regulations or instructions,” says Bendett. “There were many FPVs and quadcopters presented at the ARMY 2023 last month, taking the spotlight away from the usual large-scale UCAVs. But the Russian MoD has too much invested in legacy UAVs and drone systems already to quickly adapt.”

Bigger Warheads

As with previous FPV developments, the latest round of enhancements come from small startups and volunteer organizations. One obvious development is the scaling up to bigger warheads. Both sides started with FPV drones carrying 1.5 kilos, around twice as much as Mavic-type drones , and enough for an RPG warhead or similar payload. But bigger warheads are needed to reliably take out a tank with one hit, and both sides are fielding ‘heavy FPV’ variants. Russian group Sudplatov’s latest carries a 3-kilo warhead, as does the new Lotosnik drone. Cost is quoted at around $400. Another Russian group has shown off an FPV carrying a KZ-6 warhead, the same type fitted to the Lancet loitering munition . Lancet appears fairly effective against tanks.

Longer Range From Airborne Antennas

Alexander Khodakovsky, a leading drone pioneer with the pro-Russian Vostok Battalion recently commented on his Telegram channel that he had introduced a setup which keeps the drone operator inside in a bunker. This employs a special antenna, known as Bashnya (“Tower”) which also allows FPV pilots to operate from armored vehicles. Ukraine had been targeting Russian drone operators, and Khodakovsky boasts that since this technique was introduced not a single operator has been lost.

Both also sides now use ‘repeater drones,’ quadcopters acting as flying communication relays. Communication tends to be limited to line of sight, and a flying relay extends the range of the drones by several miles to hit targets far behind the front line. The operator stay well away from the action, although some still needs to be on the spot the launch the drone.

The ultimate development of this would mirror the U.S. Air Force’s drone operation, in which relays of pilots at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada control MQ-9 Reapers on the other side of the world via satellite communications. We may not see anything so sophisticated here, but a central pool of elite FPV pilots could carry out missions across a wide area, freeing forward troops from the need to be skilled drone operators.

Remote Launch

An extension of this idea turns FPV into defensive weapons to supplement minefields. In July, TASS reported that Russia’s Center of Integrated Unmanned Solutions had developed a technique for Joker FPV drones to go into sleep mode. Pre-positioned drones can be left weeks in advance, hibernating on rooftops or other vantage points in the line of an enemy advance. Once activated, the drones can carry out surprise attacks from close range, without the need for boots on the ground.

Remotely-launched FPVs can also be used in the attack. At ARMY 2023 the Svyaz Spetszashchita company showed off an FPV drone carrier. This is a larger, aircraft-type drone carrying FPVs and releasing them in the target area. The carrier also acts as a flying communication relay. While this makes the whole arrangement considerably more complex and costly, it potentially allows multiple FPVs to strike deep behind enemy lines.

Smarter Drones

FPVs are also getting smarter. At present, the operator has to control the drone into the target right up to the moment of impact. However, the line-of-sight communication means that the video feed from the drone typically cuts out half a second before it hits, so there is a risk that a target, especially one which is maneuvering rapidly, may escape. The developers of the Russian Ovod (Gadfly) FPV drone say they have trained a neural network system to lock on to objects, and that it can following dynamic targets with 90% reliability. This resembles the lock-on system used by the U.S. Switchblade 300. If effective, it could significantly increase the hit rate for FPV strikes and allow less skilled operators to use FPVs.

Dmitry Kuzyakin, from the Center for Integrated Unmanned Solutions, told Russian state television that “some [drones with terminal guidance] can even chase and target helicopters.” Helicopters are generally faster than FPVs, but this capability presents a threat to helicopters carrying out pop-up attacks, and potentially gives ground troops masses of anti-helicopter/anti-tank weapon for a few hundred dollars.

Technology Is Fast But The Bear Is Slow

All these new capabilities offer huge potential, but as Bendett explains, the technology is moving too fast for the Russian military’s sluggish pace of adaptation.

“There is no official pilot training in military schools. There is training across certain military districts or bases, but there is no official MOD directive to implement this drone technology across services,” says Bendett. “FPV combat experience is not shared widely and evenly, while, according to many Russian commentators, the tactical situation is constantly changing due to the rapid FPV developments.”

There is still some doubt over how committed the Russian military establishment is to FPV drones, and for the mean time soldiers still have to procure their own, as they are not issued through normal channels.

“The relationship between the official MoD offices, the military-industrial complex and the volunteers is rather tenuous still, even in light of FPV successes already visible at the front,” says Bendett. “This relationship is still evolving, but it’s likely that volunteers will continue to deliver their own FPVs to the front for some time.”

Russian engineers are developing a host of technologies to make FPVs even more dangerous, but is struggling to get them into the field rapidly. Ukrainians are of course working on parallel developments, many of which closely resemble their Russian counterparts, and Ukraine’s more open and decentralized system (as seen in the highly successful Army of Drones initiative) may give a definite edge when it comes to deploying new technology at scale.

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