International monitors prepare to launch a surveillance drone that could change the game on the ground in Ukraine. By Patrick Tucker
A special drone is about to take flight over Ukraine—a peace drone. The unmanned aircraft will monitor movements of pro-Russian separatists and Russian forces, working to ensure that they are living up to commitments made in the Sept. 5 Minsk ceasefire agreement (the so-called Minsk Protocol). If the drone’s operators like what they see through their eyes in the sky, the situation in Ukraine could begin to look a lot brighter in the months and years ahead.
“The UAVs will enhance existing monitoring capabilities in fulfillment of our mandate in Ukraine,” the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE’s, Chief Monitor Amb. Ertugrul Apakan said in a statement. “They will compliment what our monitors observe on the ground, which will still be our primary source of information gathering.”
The unarmed drone from Austrian UAV manufacturer Schiebel is called the Camcopter S-100. It takes two operators, has an ISR ceiling of 18,000 feet in international standard atmosphere conditions and, with normal payloads, a six-hour endurance.
The drone’s operators will be looking to verify that pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine and Russia are acting in accordance with the Minsk Protocol, and specifically that “illegal military formations, military equipment, as well as militants and mercenaries” leave Ukraine—all things that U.S. military and intelligence spyglasses have been monitoring already for months. Pro-Russian separatists now must open up corridors to allow humanitarian assistance flow in while refugees evacuate and separatist forces withdraw heavy Russian weapons from residential areas.
If these and the other provisions of the Minsk Protocol are met then the political status of the disputed regions will change. The areas of Donetsk and Luhansk would be given greater independence from Ukraine (but not full independence) and special elections would be held. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland has even suggested that fulfillment of the terms of the agreement would allow the U.S. to lift some sanctions against Russia.
But that’s hardly a certain conclusion. Last week, the leader of one of the separatist groups in Donetsk made a series of comments panning the Protocol. “Ukraine can adopt any laws, but they don't concern us. We are an autonomous state, the citizens of which voted for independence," Alexander Zakharchenko, prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, told RIA Novosti, (as reported by the U.K. Telegraph.) Fighting quickly flared up again.
Both the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian militants in Donetsk have accused one another of violating the agreement. Despite that, the ceasefire, and a more permanent solution, may still be salvageable if Russia and the separatists decide to live up to their end of the agreement, as verified by monitors and the S-100 drone.
The OSCE’s S-100 isn’t the only robot that will be keeping its steely eyes on the area. Russia has drones, too.
Robots Over Russia
Regardless of the final outcome, relations between Pro-Russian separatists, the Ukrainian government, NATO and Russia will remain in a Siberian chill probably for years, possibly with both sides accusing the other of various treaty violations. A growing number of Russian drones could be crowding the grey Ukrainian skies for the foreseeable future.
Russia actually owns a fleet of 500 drones, which come in 43 different flavors. Probably the most sophisticated armed drone under development is the Altius-M, a MQ-19 Reaper knock-off that Russia wants to deploy by 2016. Experts say that Russian armed drones are years behind those of United States in terms of capability. But Russia has recently signaled a big commitment to drone development, as a way to compensate for a shrinking pool of draft-age young men.
In 2012, the Russian Defense Ministry formed a division to manage drone research. At the end of last year, Russia opened up a new center to train the country’s next generation of drone operators and builders. The impetus for the center came from Russian Minister of Sergey Shoygu, according to Russian and India Report.
“Only after Sergey Shoygu became minister for defense was the training of [Bezpilotniy Letayuschiy Apparat, BPLA,] operators taken seriously. Now general headquarters and a special directorate is in charge of training operators of unmanned aircraft, procurement of BPLAs themselves and of developing tactics, as well as modes and methods of operation.”
Russia plans to spend $12 billion on drone development between 2012 and 2020, about $1.5 billion per year. That’s far below what the United States spends (around $4 billion per year). Drones played a relatively small role in Russia’s 2008 conflict with Georgia, but Putin has signaled a greater willingness to use them particularly for surveillance. Human rights watchers have also documented the use of drones to monitor political demonstrations, as well as during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
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It’s all in-line with Putin’s promise of a truly Russian approach to drone use. “Today they [drones] are used more and more widely in the world. We won't do it the way other countries do. This is not a game; this is not a computer game, these are serious combat complexes both shock and reconnaissance ones, and it is absolutely clear that they have good prospects," he said in a fall 2013 speech before the Russian Air Force as quoted by Voice of Russia.
How will Russia use drones in a way that other countries do not? Future events in Ukraine will likely give some indication. Whatever happens next in Donetsk, there will be will be more metal in the sky in the months ahead, sending data to agents on both sides of the conflict who will likely have wildly different interpretations of what they see.