As we have pointed out in the past, there is little in the way of direct U.S. competition to the armed Orion or the TB2, although China does offer a range of similar capabilities for export. In the case of Chinese-made drones, however, there have been high-profile problems relating to these and their serviceability.
With a gross weight of around 2,250 pounds and an endurance of up to 24 hours, the Orion is broadly similar to the MQ-1 Predator, sharing a long, straight wing and pusher-propeller propulsion. The U.S. Air Force has retired the MQ-1, and it is no longer in production.
Employing a drone to engage low-flying, low-speed drone target is still very much a niche capability, although in the past helicopters have been adopted for this mission by some operators. Israel, in particular, has used its AH-64 Apache attack helicopters to down hostile UAVs, also using Hellfire air-to-ground missiles, the agility and low-speed handling of the rotorcraft making it a good match to intercepting even smaller drones.
However, there have only been a few examples of engagements involving drones as the launch platforms for air-to-air missiles in any conflict to date.
The U.S. Air Force began work in this direction at least as early as 2003 when it armed MQ-1s with the air-to-air version of the heat-seeking Stinger missile to provide a degree of protection against Iraqi jets. You can read more about that effort here. Since then, the U.S. Air Force has used its MQ-9 Reaper to launch an air-to-air missile, firing an AIM-9X Sidewinder against a maneuvering target during a test in November 2017.
Iran, meanwhile, has reportedly used its Karrar UAV as an “interceptor drone” to destroy aerial targets during exercises. While imagery has been released showing the Karrar launching the Azarakhsh missile, which was originally claimed to be a combination anti-tank and short-range surface-to-air weapon, there does not appear to be any conclusive evidence that missiles fired by Karrar drones have actually hit any targets.
Otherwise, developments in the field of drones with air-to-air capabilities are increasingly focusing on more sophisticated platforms, like the U.S. Air Force’s loyal wingman-type drones as well as programs like LongShot, which aims to field an aircraft-launched drone equipped with its own air-to-air missiles to engage adversary aircraft.
All in all, these developments indicate just how seriously Russia is taking its efforts to arm its new drones with a wide array of ordnance for both air-to-ground and now air-to-air missions. After lagging behind the United States, China, and other countries in developing modern drones of any kind, Moscow seems to be focusing its attention not only on filling niches in terms of size and performance — the Orion and Okhotnik being good examples of this — but also providing novel weapons capabilities for them. It remains to be seen, however, whether these ambitious technologies fulfill their promise.
While the Russian military budget may not be enough to sustain all these programs in the long term, it’s possible that some, at least, could win export orders. After all, Russia has an extensive list of existing arms customers, less restrictive export conditions than the United States, and a track record of using creative financing to help secure sales of military equipment.
Contact the author: [email protected]