Supplied in USA HIMARS Guided Rocket Launchers mete out harsh punishments to Russian forces in Ukraine, most recently by blowing holes in Antonivsky Bridge in Kherson. Agile truck-mounted systems can fire and fly before they can be targeted, but now Russia wants to seek them out and destroy them with suicide drones.
“[Russian Defence Minister] Shoigu recently declared that the Russian objective was to eliminate long-range missiles and artillery weapons from Ukraine“, Samuel BendetRussian drone expert, analyst at CNA and advise CNAS, told Forbes. “It’s a hint that Russia needs, or will soon deploy, the ammunition lying around.”
In the first months of the war, Russian trailing munitions carried out only a handful of strikes – now they appear daily. Vagrant ammo, otherwise known as kamikaze drones, offer something Russia desperately needs: the ability to find and hit moving targets like HIMARS at long ranges. Unlike a missile, the operator can pilot a wandering munition in search of targets and does not need to know their location in advance.
The most common type observed so far is the KUB (“Cube”), a delta-winged drone with a four-foot wingspan launched by catapult and powered by an electric motor. The KUB, manufactured by Kalashnikov subsidiary Zala, can carry out reconnaissance or attack missions, with alternative camera payloads or a 3-kilogram warhead. This creates an ambiguity — and with Crushed KUBs it is unclear if the remains are of a scout or a dud loitering ammunition.
However, Russian forces began to release videos of the KUB strikes, fired from other drones; the KUB is visible as a small white triangle entering at its maximum speed of 80 mph before exploding. Other videos are visible here and here. As with US Switchblade drones, the small warhead means strikes are generally unimpressive unless they trigger secondary fuel or ammo explosions in the target, suggesting they are ineffective. In fact, it is difficult to judge, but at this stage the KUB does not seem to scare the Ukrainians – unlike the Russian artillery observation drone Orlan-10, with a motor resembling a scooter that signals imminent danger accurate artillery or rocket fire.
On July 15, a new vagrant ammunition entered the conflict, with images from Ukraine of Russia’s Lancet-3. A Lancet can be seen performing a strike in this russian video shared Thursday. Like KUB, it’s made by Zala and it’s a similar size with a 3 kilo warhead (maybe the same?), but Lancet-3 a plus Modern design which was tested for the first time in Syria.
In particular, Lancet has an autonomous capability. While KUB may have some ability to find its own targets, Gregory Allen CSIS suggests this is overkill – but Lancet has standalone target finding. In addition to being able to hit targets under remote control or using GPS coordinates, Lancet has a combo mode where it flies to an area and then uses its camera to locate a target without human guidance. This would make it an ideal weapon for tracking down a trotting HIMARS launcher after a fire mission. The rough patch can be easily located as the rocket launch can be seen on radar, then it is a matter of looking for vehicles fleeing the scene – and the truck-mounted HIMARS is restricted to roads.
But Russia may simply not have enough ammunition in stock.
“I don’t think there are enough numbers yet,” Bendett says.
Russia has not indicated the quantities purchased, but unlike the ubiquitous Orlan-10 drones, the munitions lying around currently appear to be in short supply.
“The Ministry of Defense said they wanted this capability yesterday, and I’m sure the Kalashnikov factory is running full steam right now, but Russia needs hundreds of them in the air to make an impact against forces. Ukrainians,” Bendett said.
As an alternative, Russia is now also deploying its Lastochka-M (“Swallow”) drone – the Russian analogue of The Ukrainian drone Punisher. It is a miniature plane, very similar to the israeli larkarmed with two grenade-sized bombs, and previously seen attack targets during exercise Zapad in 2021. NGO Conflict Armament Research documented the first known Lastochka was shot down in Ukraine on Tuesday and promises to provide a detailed breakdown of this rare drone later.
The long stroll time – estimated at be several hours – makes Lastochka-M useful for searching for targets, and small warheads are enough to destroy unarmored HIMARS trucks.
“I was also thinking when Lastochka would debut in Ukraine,” Bendett explains. “My educated guess is that there just aren’t many out there.”
Russia’s first choice for acquiring more drones would be China, a major exporter of military drones, but Bendett notes that there is no sign of China supplying equipment. Hence perhaps the recent drone buying trip by Russian representatives to Iran.
Russia also appears to be getting ammunition lying around from an unlikely source. On July 12, a Chekan (“Battleaxe”) roving munition manufactured in Belurus was shot in Ukraine, the first time it is known to have been used in action. Again, this is a tactical weapon with a 3 kilo warhead and it remains to be seen how many more will appear.
At the moment, Russia just doesn’t seem to have enough ammunition or small attack drones to make a difference. Yesterday the United States announced that other HIMARS were on their way to Ukraine. Expect more vagrant ammo actions from both sides in the coming months.
UPDATE July 22: Russian state news source TASS reports that a improved version of the Lancet-3 is now in use in Ukraine with a 5 kilo warhead and a flight time of one hour compared to the original’s 40 minutes. Given the 110 km/h cruising speed, this means it could exceed the range of HIMARS, but there is no mention of autonomous target finder capability.