January 12, 2023:
Since February, Russian defense production has been crippled by detailed and regularly updated sanctions based on continuing searches for smuggled Western parts. Such was the case with the Russian Orlan-10 UAV, whose production should have been shut down by 2016 sanctions but wasn’t. Oran-10s then required several Western electronic boards and chips that were not manufactured in Russia and had to be imported. By 2017 it was clear that Russia was not simply using existing stockpiles of now banned components to build new Oran-10s. This was a major problem because Orlan-10 was a key observation asset as it could spot targets for Russian artillery or rocket fire. Oran-10 can operate high enough to be safe from rifle or machine-gun fire and it is difficult for a lightweight anti-aircraft missile like Stinger to hit. At night it is even less vulnerable to ground fire.
In Ukraine some Orlan-10s continued to be shot down or crashed because of equipment failure. The wreckage could be examined for the presence of banned components and these items were still there. The banned items were common, not custom-manufactured for Orlan-10s. There were dozens of distributors you could order from. Government efforts to sort out which distributors were selling the Oran parts to a firm with a link to Russia had come up empty. In late 2022 three media organizations, RUSI, Reuters and iStories, pooled their resources and soon found out how the banned components were getting to Russia.
The key to this effort was iStories, a Russian investigative media organization that was created in early 2020 to investigate and report corruption and misbehavior in general inside Russia. The “i” stands for important and iStories output was often very important if you were Russian and angry at the rampant corruption inside Russia and the war in Ukraine. iStories is a non-profit news gathering operation created in response to the growing government repression of Russian media. Two years after it was founded, the Russian government banned iStories and arrested some of its staff. By then most of the iStories staff was operating from outside Russia. The iStories website moved after the 2022 ban but could still communicate with sources inside Russia because iStories had distributed techniques on how to get around Russian restrictions on the use of the Internet. The iStories staff and their many informants inside Russia made it easier to take the material RUSI and Reuters had on the smuggled Orlan components and track down the missing link that was funneling the parts into Russia. Russia considers iStories an enemy of the state and the feeling is mutual. If there are more efforts like the Oran smuggling operation Russia may decide to escalate and add some members of the iStories staff to the kill list maintained by the FSB and GRU overseas assassination programs. FSB (the former KGB) and GRU (Russian overseas military intelligence) handle foreign espionage and dirty tricks. Going after high-profile news organization personnel is rare because it causes such a huge blowback.
Orlan-10 is one of two modern UAV designs Russia is known to have. It weighs about 15 kilograms (33 pounds) and can carry a payload of up to 6 kilograms of various kinds of recon equipment, including infrared cameras, or an array of multiple cameras used for creating 3-dimensional maps. Its gasoline engine provides a cruise speed of 90 to 150 kilometers an hour, a service ceiling of about 5 kilometers, and a flight endurance of 18 hours. Together with control and launch equipment, the Orlan-10 costs approximately $480,000. The aircraft is launched via a portable, folding catapult, and lands by shutting down the engine and deploying a parachute. Orlan-10s entered service in 2012 and were used in Ukraine and Syria before 2022. Russia uses all this combat experience to help export sales of Orlan-10s and its new electronic warfare features.
In 2016 Russia introduced a new accessory for Orlan-10s which turns them into the equivalent of a cell phone tower, or a cell phone tower detector and jammer. Troops with the proper equipment and software can use an Orlan 10 to send and receive text, voice and images (including video). This system works with another Orlan 10 accessory, the RB-341V (Leer-3), that will precisely locate cell phone towers and can also jam those within six kilometers. Locating the towers is important because troops on the ground can then go destroy or capture the equipment. Artillery or airstrikes can, with an accurate location, destroy the cell phone gear remotely.
These capabilities are nothing new, American aircraft have had this stuff for over a decade. It’s not particularly high tech but it does represent a unique aspect of modern warfare in which cell phone networks often continue to function on modern battlefields and, if the commercial networks are out of operation in a battle area, the military can deploy temporary ones suited to their own use. Russia has, since the 1990s, made quite a lot of money exporting military grade electronic weapons. They don’t have the latest stuff, but are willing to provide gear that is still restricted to military use in the West.