To Help Guide Artillery Rounds, Russia Deploys the Drones
But really, it won't help a whole lot
Russia is practicing using small drones help guide artillery rounds. In July, the TASS news agency reported that the Russian army’s Western Military District began fielding Orlan-10 drones “to facilitate timely and accurate adjustment of fires.”
“Fires” is artillery lingo for hurling explosive shells, typically from far beyond visual range. To be effective, the gunners need to be in contact with forward observers or use maps to calculate where they’re shooting. When the shells start landing, the observers radio the gunners, who then adjust their aim if necessary.
Drones are often depicted in the press as revolutionary weapons, which is … overstated. But for Russia at least, drones in the artillery reconnaissance role is an evolutionary adaptation.
The Kremlin lacks armed combat drones like the types flown by the United States, so it emphasizes smaller, cheaper models to augment existing conventional weapons. The Orlan-10 has a range of about 10 kilometers and does not carry weapons.
OE Watch, the monthly newsletter of the U.S. Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office, took note of the development.
The integration of UAVs into the Russian artillery spotting system should be of little surprise. The Russian Federation, as the Soviet Union, has put primacy on the artillery, while many Western armies focus upon the infantry. Motorized infantry and tanks are still required to capture and hold ground, but the vast majority of damage is doctrinally planned to be done by the artillery. Since artillery systems have ranges well beyond the line of site, (the Russian MSTA-C self-propelled howitzer has a range of 29-36 km), they rely on forward observers to find targets and correct fire. The use of UAVs for this purpose is an important capability for an artillery-centric way of fighting.
But the Orlan-10 is far from an all-seeing eye in the sky.
The Russian blogger lopatov_45 noted that to spot for artillery, a drone–or rather, its operator–has several choices. The machine can observe landmarks, used as reference points.
Second, the drone could fly over its target, spot with its cameras and transmit back its location to the guns. Basically, the artillery would target the drone when it got close enough to the enemy.
Two other options include using an electro-optical rangefinder mounted on the drone, or coming up with calculations vis-a-vis the drone’s angle to its target. The problem is that the Orlan-10 has poor sensors that are useless for these latter two tactics.
Judging distance from a landmark is more inaccurate the further away the target is from the landmark, but Russian military doctrine emphasizes area bombardment. Basically, Russia trades accuracy for throwing a mother-loving Hell of a lot of shells in the general direction of the enemy.
And you don’t need a drone to help do that.
Although less desirable than some other methods, the capability to affix a target’s location by relative terrain feature (method 1) is sufficient for many Russian artillery purposes, as Russian artillery batteries and battalions have several area bombardment missions that make precise target information useful, but unnecessary. In addition, the Russian Federation has a strong cartographic tradition. Undoubtedly, any Russian serviceman referencing terrain features for targeting purposes would have access to high-quality, large-scale digital maps of most places within the former Soviet Union. Although current UAV artillery spotting capabilities may be adequate for current purposes, these capabilities are very likely to continue to develop.
Until then, that leaves the second option of flying directly over the target. However, the downside is that it takes time for the drone to get to where it needs to go … near an enemy who may shoot back.