New weapons: Drones, UAV, UUV

This category covers drones, new special (“sustained”) cruise missiles, other unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and unmanned underwater vehicles (UUV).

They represent new and progressively developing branch with diverse applications both in air and underwater, strongly financed in numerous countries worldwide. They can serve as delivery methods both for conventional and nuclear warheads (cruise missiles, UUV).

Military drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV)/ unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV), have been in military use for a long time and their first tactical use with reconnaissance cameras was tested by Israeli Intelligence in the late 1960s. Israel continued to develop the technology and the US military also adopted it, successfully using the Israeli-developed Pioneer UAV for real-time intelligence over Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo during the 1990s.

Quite soon weapons were deployed on US drones and this occurred immediately after 9/11 when Osama bin Laden was observed from an unarmed Predator UAV. Since then the US has widely used drones in attacking a host of targets across Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen and Libya. Other countries have also started purchasing weaponized drones in last ten years.

These drones are usually under real-time human control, with varying levels of autonomy. Aircraft of this type have no onboard human pilot.  As the operator runs the vehicle from a remote terminal, equipment necessary for a human pilot is not needed, resulting in a lower weight and a smaller size than a manned aircraft.

The US, Israel and China are widely recognized as industry leaders in UCAV technology. Several other countries have operational domestic UCAVs and many more have imported armed drones or have development programs underway.

European nations have acted collectively to develop the next generation of armed drones, involving France, Italy, Greece, Poland, Spain, Switzerland, and Sweden. The desire to develop armed drones domestically extends beyond European borders.

Pakistan, Turkey, Iran, Russia, Taiwan, and India have taken steps toward independent armed drone production with varying results. The number of countries with military drones has skyrocketed over the past decade, a new report revealed, showing that nearly 100 countries have this kind of technology incorporated into their armed forces.

In 2010, only about 60 countries had military drones, but that number has since jumped to 95, a new report from Bard College’s Center for the Study of the Drone revealed. Dan Gettinger, the report’s author, identified 171 different types of unmanned aerial vehicles in active inventories.

Around the world, there are at least 21,000 drones in service, but the number may actually be significantly higher. Newer systems are appearing at a rapid rate. “I think drones will be a ubiquitous presence on future battlefields,” Gettinger told, explaining that drone technology is contributing to an evolution in warfare. “They represent an increase in combat capacity, an increase in the ability of a nation to wage war.”

The drone proliferation is accelerating,” estimates Center for New American Security (CNAS) adding that the countries having access to military drone technology, around 20 have armed drones, higher-end systems that are becoming more prolific. China has emerged as a major exporter of unmanned systems, to include armed drones, and others export drones around the world.

Drones come in all shapes and sizes and levels of sophistication and they have become important tools for both countries and non-state actors such as the Islamic State in several different countries, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the Houthi-rebels in Yemen.

Recent data from the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) identifies 56 different types of UAVs used in 11 different countries, the US, by far the largest, having about 70% of all military drones.

However, that data is very biased because China, Russia, Turkey and many others do not disclose their number data.

According to Jane’s Markets Forecast for next 8 years, the US will purchase over 40.000 new drones, China about 8.500 drones and Russia about 7.000 drones. The vast majority of the new military drones are used for surveillance. Analysts at information group Jane’s estimate that more than 80.000 surveillance drones and almost 2.000 attack drones will be purchased around the world in the next 10 years.

UAVs in the US military

The US military operates a large number of unmanned aerial systems (UAVs or Unmanned Air Vehicles). Some well-known brand names are MQ-1 Predator, MQ-1C Gray Eagle, RQ-4 Global Hawk, RQ-7 Shadow, MQ-9 Reaper and RQ-20 Puma.

The number of UAVs today may amount up to 15.000 units. The military role of unmanned aircraft systems is growing at unprecedented rates. According to the modern concept of US military, the use of UAVs is to have the various aircraft systems work together in support of personnel on the ground. The integration scheme is described in terms of a “Tier” system and is used by military planners to designate the various individual aircraft elements in an overall usage plan for integrated operations.

As the capabilities grow for all types of UAVs, the US continues to subsidize their research and development, leading to further advances and enabling them to perform a multitude of missions. UAVs no longer only perform intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, although this still remains their predominant type. Their roles have expanded to areas including electronic attack, drone strikes, destruction of enemy air defense, network node or communications relay, combat search and rescue and derivations of these themes. According to various US military reports, armed UAV strikes had dramatically increased already under President Obama and the trend is continuing during Trump Administration.

MQ-1 Predator UAVs armed with Hellfire missiles have been used as platforms for hitting ground targets. Armed Predators were first used in late 2001 from bases in Pakistan and Uzbekistan, mostly aimed at assassinating high-profile terrorist leaders, etc. inside Afghanistan. Since then, there have been many reported cases of such attacks taking place in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.

The advantage of using an unmanned vehicle rather than a manned aircraft in such cases is to avoid a diplomatic embarrassment should the aircraft be shot down and the pilots captured, since the bombings take place in countries deemed friendly and without the official permission of those countries. There are, in America, a number of critics of the use of UAVs to track and kill terrorists and militants. A major criticism of drone strikes is that they result in excessive collateral damage. However, others maintain that drones allow for a much closer review and much more selective targeting process than do other instruments of warfare.

The development work of UAVs continues at heated pace in the US. As currently conceived, the new MQ-X models would be a stealthier and faster fighter-plane sized UAVs capable of any number of missions – high-performance surveillance, attack options, including retractable cannons and bomb or missile payloads and cargo capacity. Future models may be RQ-170 Sentinel, MQ-4C Triton or MQ-25 Stingray.

Russian drone technology

Russia started utilizing drones rather late and was clearly behind the US and China in the first decennium of the 21st century. But since 2014, the progress of Russia both in development, production and utilization of military drones has been very fast.

At the end of 2018, about 2.000 drones are in service with the Russian armed forces. The most popular of them is the multipurpose Orlan UAV, which can travel at the distance of about 600 km. A project to design multipurpose far-range and long duration drones is nearing completion as part of Russia’s state armament program. Since the start of the anti-terrorism operation in Syria, Russian drones performed over 23,000 flights, lasting 140,000 hours in total. In particular, Russian drones provide 24-hour monitoring of the ground situation, covering almost entire territory of Syria.

A new heavy drone Altair is also coming in flight test phase, Altair is the 5-ton heavy vehicle with a wingspan of 28.5 meters, a maximum altitude of 12km and a range of 10,000km at a cruising speed of 150-250km/h, flight endurance 48 hours, payload two tons, which allows the creation of a strike version. The vehicle is able to autonomously take off and land or be guided by an operator from the ground.

Russia’s UAV program includes the development of a range of large, small, and mid-sized drones. The Orion-E medium altitude long endurance, one-ton vehicle was unveiled in 2017. The Orion-E is capable of automatic takeoff and landing. It can fly continuously for 24 hours, carrying a surveillance payload of up to 200 kg to include a forward looking infra-red (FLIR) turret, synthetic aperture radar and high-resolution cameras. The drone can reach a maximum altitude of 7,500 m. Its range is 250 km.

The Sukhoi design bureau is currently engaged on a project to build the Okhotnik (Hunter) strike drone with a range of about 3,500 km. The drone made its maiden flight in 2018. The Okhotnik features stealth technology and the flying wing design (it lacks the tail) and has a take-off weight of 20 tons. According to unconfirmed information, the drone has a jet engine and is capable of developing a speed of around 1,000 km/h.  All the tactical and technical characteristics of the new drone are kept secret. It is known, however, that the strike drone is equipped with the artificial intelligence of a sixth-generation fighter.

The most advanced Katran rotary-wing unmanned aerial vehicle was publicly shown for the first time in the spring 2018 and will enter flight tests before the end of the year. The Katran features the coaxial rotor scheme and has a take-off weight of up to 500kg. The option of equipping the helicopter with reconnaissance systems is being considered, as well as the installation of various types of armament.

In addition, Russia has developed a radio monitoring module codenamed Cheryomukha (Bird Cherry) capable of spotting drones and identifying the location of their command center. Cheryomukha is now being integrated with the drone resistance system incorporating a passive radar and radio-electronic jamming module Serp. Another new sector is radio-electronic warfare systems installed on drones, which are capable of jamming the enemy’s communication systems within a range of 100 kilometers as well as “suicide drones” and “drone killers”.

Other Russian unmanned projects

Poseidon (UUV) appears to be about 20m long, which makes it more like a mini-submarine or an underwater ballistic missile. Poseidon is propelled by a nuclear reactor to a maximum speed of 200 km per hour and operates at deep depths up to 1.000 meters. It is armed with a massive 2-megaton warhead powerful enough to generate a giant tidal wave to destroy coastal cities. The high speed of ‘Poseidon’ will be possible due to supercavitation, whereby a gas bubble, which envelops the torpedo at maximum speed. This minimizes water contact with the torpedo, significantly reducing drag.

Poseidon is designed to create a tsunami wave up to 500 meters tall, which would contaminate a wide area on an enemy’s coast with radioactive isotopes, as well as being immune to anti-missile defense systems. Special-purpose submarine Belgorod that was floated out in the second quarter of 2019 will be the first carrier of Poseidon nuclear-capable underwater drones.  The Belgorod is expected to assume combat duty in 2020 and it will be capable of carrying eight Poseidon strategic underwater drones. The second basic carrier, a submarine Khabarovsk, is expected to the floated out in the spring of 2020 and be made operational in the Russian Navy in 2022. Two Poseidon-carrying submarines are expected to enter service with the Northern Fleet and the other two will join the Pacific Fleet. Each of the submarines will carry a maximum of eight drones and therefore, the total number of Poseidon on combat duty may reach 32 vehicles.

Burevestnik, Russia’s next-generation nuclear-powered cruise missile is capable of hitting targets around the world. It could be launched from bombers or submarines at much greater ranges than legacy systems, to penetrate any air defense network due to its expanded range, low visibility and limited radar cross section. The missile can be equipped with a nuclear warhead. The main purpose of the new cruise missiles is the suppression of the operational bases of the probable enemy and the destruction of interceptor-based missile defense systems or group of ships (like Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System). The missile has an intercontinental range in unlimited distance, a long standby time coupled with an equally unlimited ability to maneuver. It will make the missile extremely hard to intercept while penetrating an enemy’s defenses. The exact present development phase of Burevestnik is not known publicly.

Chinese drone technology

Besides the US, China is one of leading developers and users of military drones today and will stay such in the near future. China has invested strongly in UCAV technology.

In 2018 China showed the latest addition to its range of stealth drones at the 12th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition. The CH-drone family got the new member, the CH-7, or Rainbow-7, unmanned aerial vehicle was on display. The CH-7 is a high-altitude, high-speed, long-endurance stealth drone capable of carrying out a range of missions, from reconnaissance and early warning to air defense suppression, ground attack and air combat. It has a wingspan of 22 meters, a length of 10 meters and maximum take-off weight of 13 tons. It can fly at altitudes of up to 13,000 meters and has a top speed of 919km/h.

In October 2019 PLA unveiled a number of new pieces of high-end military hardware during a large-scale parade staged to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. One was the WZ-8 hypersonic surveillance drones which had the most significant implications for the PLA’s future capabilities.  The WZ-8 represents an entirely new and unique capability, not only for the PLA but worldwide and one which effectively complemented and could serve as an effective force multiplier to many of China’s new tactical weapons systems.

Like the American A-12 and SR-71, the Soviet MiG-25R and the current American SR-72 program, the WZ-8 is intended to fly at extreme speeds and altitudes over enemy territory to provide both general intelligence and targeting data on enemy positions. The WZ-8 combined with China’s considerable satellite assets provides one of the most diverse means of collecting intelligence fielded by any major power. The drone can travel at maximum speeds of between Mach 6 and Mach 7 meaning it is near impossible to shoot down for enemy defenses – even without considering factors such as electronic warfare countermeasures. Able to fly high above the battlefield and collect data on targets across the South and East China seas, the WZ-8 can provide targeting data to the PLA’s foremost ship hunting assets, guiding a wide variety of missiles from the land-based DF-21D ballistic missile to the ship launched YJ-100 cruise missile to strike their targets with precision.

 In October 2019, was showcased first time a new GJ-11 stealth attack drone, capable of attacking strategic targets, which is in active service. The drone is believed to have strong stealth capability, enabling it to sneak deep into enemy territory and launch strikes with weapons hidden in its weapons bay on key hostile targets, military analysts said. Military observers speculated that the GJ-11 is the final version of the Lijian, or Sharp Sword, stealth drone that made its first test flight in 2013 due to similarities. Russia is also developing the S-70 Okhotnik, a similar flying wing stealth attack drone, while the US has made the likes of X-47B stealth drones.