A Russian soldier launching an Orlan-10 drone

A Russian soldier launching an Orlan-10 drone РИА Новости/Сергей Пивоваров

Russia Says It Used Autonomous Armed Strike Drones in a Wargame

But some observers have questions about the claim.

Russia’s massive Tsentr-2019 wargame in September included a first: a test of small drones that found and bombed their targets with minimal human guidance, Russian newspaper Izvestia reported on Thursday.

The drones were 15-kg Orlan-10s, which reportedly can carry payloads of about six kilograms, unnamed officials told Izvestia

“During the attack, the drone destroys objects with the help of air bombs or special guided missiles placed on board in small containers. Video cameras make sure that the target is destroyed,” Izvestia reported, adding that the drones used radar and radio find the targets “autonomously, without resorting to other weapons systems.”

Russia has been using some of its 2,000 the Orlan-10 drones in Syria for years, apparently without arming them.

Observers noted the small size of the payload.  

“The Orlan-10 only has a maximum takeoff weight of around 33 pounds, which would suggest that whatever weapons it might be able to carry are quite small. It certainly calls into question Izvestia's description of their new arsenal as including ‘special guided missiles,’”Joseph Trevithick wrote for The War Zone on Thursday. 

Russia probably launched its effort to create an autonomous armed drone following lessons learned in Syria, Sam Bendett, an adviser at the CNA Corporation a Fellow in Russia Studies at the American Foreign Policy Council, said in an email. “They have had combat UAVs on their wish-list for years, probably long before they entered the Syrian conflict. Their involvement in Syria only underscored the necessity of an unbroken chain of UAV operation, with drones not just identifying and tracking targets, but hitting them following a positive ID.”  

Bendett expressed skepticism about just how much autonomy has been given to the Orlan-10, which is generally piloted remotely by a human. “The article states that the drones identified, monitored and then struck targets ‘on their own.’ Not sure of the extent that these drones were actually working in a fully autonomous mode, as the language may indicate. If true, then this signifies a serious breakthrough for the Russian military,” he said. “What’s likely is ‘on their own; meant they did it without  the assistance of manned aviation or manned artillery/MLRS [multiple rocket launchers] – i.e - the UAV units conducted the entire operation without calling for extra support.”

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