Small Russian drones continue to claim casualties among Ukrainian forces, directing laser-guided artillery shells with deadly precision. But the drones aren’t as advanced as you might expect, with new video of a captured airframe showing it fitted with a standard Canon DSLR camera.
The Russian Air Force has not been effective and even its most modern aircraft continue to be shot down. Confirmed casualties to date include at least 19 combat aircraft and 32 helicopters, but the actual total will be higher (although probably lower than the 152 airplanes and 137 helicopters claimed by Ukraine). But their unmanned fleet seems to have been more efficient.
Many drone videos released by the Russian Ministry of Defense show similar scenes: a Ukrainian armored vehicle, often self-propelled artillery, is observed for a few seconds before suddenly exploding, destroyed by an invisible projectile. Sometimes videos show several vehicles recovered one after the other. Sometimes the vehicles shelter behind buildings Without effect.
The killer is the Krasnopol laser-guided artillery shells, made by the drone taking the video. While the United States makes extensive use of laser-guided bombs and missiles, sometimes guided by drones like the MQ-9 Reaper, it has shown little interest in laser-guided artillery since the 1970s Copperhead program. Russia, on the other hand, has used few laser-guided bombs in Ukraine, but Krasnopol appears to be widely deployed.
Russia has many 152 mm heavy artillery pieces capable of firing at Krasnopol, from the old D-30 towed howitzers to the latest 2S19 SPG. The original Krasnopol version weighs 110 pounds has a reported range and 20 km, although updated versions are said to be able to hit targets 43 km away with 95% reliability. The 14-pound warhead comes in at a steep angle, piercing through thin upper armor, and is said to be capable of knocking out even heavy tanks.
You can see Krasnopol operations from the perspective of the artillery crew here.
The success of the Krasnopol is due to its association with a drone. Laser designators only have a range of a few miles, and ground observers cannot find targets – such as enemy artillery – behind the lines. The drones move freely and their bird’s-eye view allows them to easily spot vehicles, especially when their tracks leave telltale lines of beaten terrain in open fields.
The exact type of drone used for these strikes is not known, but Russia has generally assigned Orlan-10s to artillery units.
The Orlan-10 entered service in 2010 with cameras and other sensors, in 2020 a further upgrade saw it equipped with a laser designator. The drone is modular, meaning payloads can be swapped out to accommodate new devices.
Bendett notes that Orlan-10s are often used with long-range Russian artillery. the Orlan-10 is a small vehicle with a wingspan of about ten feet, which can cruise for up to 18 hours at a leisurely speed of 80 mph. So far, 14 have been destroyed in the conflict.
While Russia generally uses its coordinated drones with big guns to quickly knock down massive artillery fire, guided tours have significant advantages. One shot, one kill gives the target no chance of getting out of an artillery barrage, and single shots don’t require the convoy of ammo trucks needed to support a barrage.
“A single precision-delivered lathe costs less,” adds Bendett.
Although we don’t have the figures for the Russian ammunition, an unguided US Army 155mm M795 high explosive shell costs about $800, while the GPS-guided M982 Excalibur is over $100,000. So if it takes 125 unguided hits to hit a vehicle – if it stays in the area long enough – then the guided version is more profitable.
While the Orlan-10 is believed to be entirely made in Russia, Ukrainian forces recovered one in 2016 and detailed study discovered that many electronic components of the drone’s communication and navigation system had been imported from American companies. Other components came from China.
A new video shows that Russian manufacturers were even more creative in the use of foreign devices. It shows a captured Orlan-10 being disassembled to reveal that the payload bay carries a ready-to-use Canon consumer camera – not a commercial drone, but the DSLR OS 750D used by amateur photographers everywhere. The camera is held in place with Velcro straps; it is possible that images are downloaded during the flight, but more likely that they are stored on board and collected after the return of the drone.
It should be noted that the same module also has a thermal camera and another camera. What we don’t know is the quality of the images from the camera or other sensors.
While this type of improvisation suggests a shortcoming in Russian technology, it also indicates a preference for simple, practical solutions that make the most of modern commercial technology – like a rugged $500 camera. Both sides’ use of commercial DJI drones and thermal imagers is a similar sign that consumer electronics can get the job done cheaply and efficiently.
As Russian military commentator Viktor Suvorov said when the Americans criticized soviet low-tech equipment: “A stupid weapon that works is not a stupid weapon.”
However, the Russians are not the only ones with laser-guided shells and drones. Ukraine has similar technology, and recent videos suggest they have similar success destroying Russian armor at long range with guided shells. Bayraktar TB2 drones may be the only Ukrainian assets capable of laser designation at present, but you can bet Ukraine army of drone developers are working on alternatives.
The war in Ukraine is now moving into a new phase where we could see massive armored warfare on broad fronts, supported by artillery batteries. The result may be less WWII style tank battle than some expect, plus a case of which drone-guided towers can take out the enemy first. Attacks are likely to focus on artillery first, then anything that moves on the ground.
It’s possible that both sides will get better at taking down drones, but right now the drones seem to have free rein to search and destroy at will, putting them in a position to dominate the battlefield.