Russia's resurgent drone program

Russia is believed to have about 800 unarmed drones, many of them smaller vehicles similar to this one being deployed as part of Russian military drills in March.

Story highlights

  • Russia is believed to have about 800 drones in its inventory, analyst says
  • All of the drones are believed unarmed

(CNN)Russia's drone program, for years dormant and lagging behind the West, has resurfaced in a big way recently, with widespread use in Syria punctuated Friday by the downing inside Turkey of an unmanned vehicle that could belong to Moscow.

Russia began fielding drones in Syria in September as part of the military buildup that preceded airstrikes on behalf of its ally, the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Russian drones are also reportedly in use in Ukraine.
All told, Russian military and security forces have an inventory of about 800 drones, all believed unarmed and primarily used for intelligence and reconnaissance purposes, an analyst with HIS Jane's told CNN Friday.
    It is not clear that the drone downed Friday by a Turkish warplane inside of Turkey -- which borders Syria -- is Russian. Moscow has denied the reports, although two U.S. defense officials say they believe the drone is Russian.
    But it is clear that after years with little in the way of drone technology, Moscow has ramped up its emphasis on unmanned aerial vehicles in recent years, said Douglas Barrie, senior fellow for Military Aerospace at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
    "In the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union UAV R&D was neglected, and it is only in the past decade or so that Russia has re-focused attention on this area of military capability," he said.
    In the last five years or so, Russia has relied significantly on models from Israeli defense contractors, some of which it has licensed to produce in Russia, said Derrick Maple, principle analyst for unmanned Systems at IHS Jane's.
    But Russia has pledged to spend nearly $10 billion over the next decade to further develop its drone fleet, including muscular armed drones similar to some fielded by the United States, Maple said.
    For instance, Russia has been developing an armed drone called Skat since at least 2005, according to IHS Jane's. The drone could be capable of carrying multiple anti-ship or radar missiles, guided bombs or conventional bombs.
    Here's a look at some of Russia's existing UAV fleet:

    Mini UAVs

    Inventory: About 500
    Examples: Variants of the Zala 421 and the Israeli-made Bird Eye 400a and Orbiter 2.
    These very small fixed-wing or rotary aircraft are often hand-launched, have a short range and are used primarily for frontline reconnaissance.

    Small Tactical UAVs

    Inventory: About 200
    Example: Orlan-10
    This UAV, built by the Special Technological Center in Saint Petersburg, Russia, can fly for 15 hours as high as 23,000 feet and has a range of 600 km (372 miles), Maple said. It carries a high-resolution still camera, a video camera and an infrared imager, according to Janes.

    Medium Tactical UAVs

    Inventory: About 100
    Example: Aerostar UAV
    Built by Israeli defense contractor Aeronautics Defence Systems, the Aerostar can fly up to 18,000 feet and stay aloft up to 14 hours, according to IHS Jane's. The Israel Defense Forces have used Aerostars for surveillance and anti-smuggling missions.

    Medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) UAVs

    Inventory: Maybe a handful
    Example: Heron
    The Heron can stay aloft for more than 40 hours, according to its manufacturer, Israel Aerospace Industries at a top altitude of 30,000 feet. It can be configured for use in intelligence, maritime and surveillance roles, the company says. Russia and Israel signed an agreement in 2010 to establish production of Heron UAVs in Russia, but it's unclear if that has happened, Maple said.