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Russia may have just gained more than a thousand new bombers. But Ukrainian forces may have little to worry about, as Orlan-10 drones converted into attack planes do not look very effective.
A piece Friday on the Zvezda channel, the Russian Ministry of Defense’s very own state-owned nationwide TV network, showed a new bombing add-on kit for the Orlan-10 drone.
The Orlan-10 is the mainstay of the Russian tactical drone fleet, a machine with a ten-foot wingspan, launched from a catapult and powered by a four-stroke gasoline engine with a maximum endurance of sixteen hours. The Orlan-10 is by far the commonest type in use by Russian forces, with more than a thousand built, and is widely deployed by artillery units to direct fire. When an Orlan-10 appears overhead, it may herald the arrival of a massive artillery bombardment, and Ukrainian forces know to take cover. Luckily its engine, which sounds like a motor scooter, usually provides warning.
The latest video shows the Orlan-10 with a pod is fitted underneath each wing carrying two grenades. The drone, flying at its cruising speed of 60 mph at around three thousand feet, releases the grenades in quick succession over the target area.
The grenades appear to a version of the 40mm VOG-25P. Normally fired from a grenade launcher, this is an airburst fragmentation weapon. It is unusual in being a bouncing bomb: on hitting the ground, a small explosive charge throws it back into the air and it bursts at a height of about five feet, throwing out shrapnel in all directions with a lethal radius of twenty feet.
The Ukrainians have been developing the art of precision bombing from hovering multicopter drones, using anti-tank grenades to take out even the heaviest Russian tanks, including the latest T-90. This requires great accuracy as only a direct hit is enough to do damage. But the Russians seem to have taken a scattergun approach : as with their artillery fire, they seem more interested in laying down fire across a wide area than accurate targeting.
(Interestingly, this design is highly reminiscent of the drones used repeatedly by Syrian militants against a Russian airbase, garage-built copies of Orlan-10s armed with ten small grenades each.)
The Ukrainians do have a direct equivalent to the armed Orlan-10, a fixed-wing drone bomber called Punisher. But this carries a single four-pound bomb and is specifically designed for accurate bombing at low level, with a claimed accuracy of twelve feet. It was reportedly highly effective in the opening stages of the war.
The Russians say the Orlan-10 arrangement works; according to Zvezda, Orlan-10s with the new bombing system have “destroyed five military installations” in Ukraine.
“Presumably, they can be more or less accurate, depending on target,” says Samuel Bendett, an expert on the Russian defense scene and adviser to both the CNA and CNAS, who takes a particular interest in uncrewed systems. “This Orlan-10 refitting is relatively new, and there has not been additional information about Russian forces practicing with that combat Orlan-10 version apart from Zapad-2021 news. So it’s not clear what the level of competency is at this point.”
But analyst Nick Waters of Bellingcat, who has long studied the use of improvised drones adapted for bombing an authored the definitive guide to ISIS extensive use of drone bombing, is not impressed.
“Fixed wing drones dropping unguided munitions are unlikely to be particularly accurate,” Waters told Forbes. “Although they can carry a larger payload than multi-rotor drones, they cannot hover and so provide the precise effect on target that makes these kinds of attacks so effective.”
Bendett believes the Russians may gain combat experience and learn to use the Orlan-10 as an effective attack drone
“In this war, many drone operations and concepts are changing quickly and are adapting to combat conditions ‘on the fly,’” says Bendett.
However, the Orlan-10 with its noisy motor and significant thermal signature is an easier target than quadcopters or the quiet electrical Punisher. In the Zvezda piece an operator notes that they have to stay above 3,000 feet to avoid being noticed, which will affect bombing accuracy.
Even so, Russia has been losing Orlan-10s in increasing numbers in recent days — and flying directly over enemy positions on a bombing run is more perilous than observing artillery fire from long range. There is also the question over whether the drones can be spared from other missions which might have more actual effect.
The Russian may be hoping that by copying Ukrainian tactics they can emulate their success, but it is doubtful whether the Orlan-10 — which uses a number of Western components — is the answer.