Russian losses in Ukraine have continued at a steady rate throughout the invasion; the number of tanks captured or destroyed recently topped 700, according to an estimate by the OSINT analysts behind the blog Oryx. But one aspect of the recent casualties stands out: after just a few losses early on, Russia’s drone fleet is now being decimated. In particular the workhorse Orlan-10s are falling fast and it seems that Ukraine may have figured out how to take them down, removing the eyes in the sky that direct Russia’s artillery, including lethal laser-guide Krasnopol rounds, with jammers. And this success may be due to corruption in Russia’s military procurement process.
A Russian Orlan-10 drone recently brought down by Ukrainian forces.
Ukrainian Ministry of Defence
The Orlan-10 is the most common type of drone in Russian military service — by some estimates over 2,000 have been built, compared to just 30 of the larger Orion drone. It has a ten-foot wingspan and an internal combustion engine which sounds like a scooter, giving an endurance of sixteen hours at a cruising speed of around 65 mph.
“It’s likely that Orlan-10 represents a significant share of the pre-Feb. 2022 Russian UAV [Uncrewed Aerial Vehicle] fleet – maybe up to a half,” Samuel Bendett, an expert on Russian drones and adviser to both the CNA and CNAS, told me. “It was certainly the most visible drone in context of Russian military operations, drills and exercises.”
The first recorded Orlan-10 loss did not occur until March 5, after about nine days of combat. Twenty-five Orlan-10s were brought down during the first seventy days according to Oryx’s database of confirmed Russian losses – followed by another twenty-five in the next seventeen days. In other words, the loss rate has roughly quadrupled in the last couple of weeks or so.
Why are so many Orlan-10s dropping out of the sky? Well, it is notable that portable jammers are starting to appear in the hands of Ukrainian forces. One video shows a Ukrainian paratrooper armed with a ЕDМ4S ‘Sky Wiper’ anti-drone jammer supplied by a Lithuanian company; elsewhere we can see the KVS anti-drone weapon, and Australian-U.S. DroneShield have also supplied a number of devices.
In appearance the jammers resemble ray guns from a 1950s Sci-Fi B-movie; they project a beam of radio waves which interfere with the drone’s ability to receive commands from the operator. Once jammed a drone may attempt a soft landing, continue flying in a straight line, or simply crash.
A Queensland Police Service officer with DroneShield DroneGun MKII in 2018
Such jammers are highly effective against small consumer drones like the DJI quadcopters widely used by both sides, but military-grade hardware should be more resistant to radio jamming.
“Right before the war, there was a claim that some Orlan-10s were proofed against Ukrainian countermeasures,” says Bendett.
This is echoed by the maker’s publicity which suggests that the Orlan-10 is able to survive in an environment of intense electromagnetic warfare.
However, in Russia, the military equipment you get is not necessarily as described in the specifications. Corruption and a pervasive culture of kleptocracy means that corners are cut and money that is supposed to be spent on hardware vanishes into thin air. The Orlan-10 procurement process was no exception, and in a major scandal a large amount of cash for electronic components disappeared without a trace.
“There is no question at all that someone stole 446 million rubles,” according to an investigation published in 2021.
One of the effects of these problems was that the cost of the Orlan-10 soared from something like $80,000 per vehicle to over $300,000, making them much less expendable. Another effect was that military-grade electronics supposed to have been built in Russia were apparently replaced by cheap commercial components from the Far East.
The end result is that the Orlan-10 is not as jam-proof as operators might hope.
“Russian Orlan-10, from the open intel we seen, actually has a lot of western and Chinese components,” Oleg Vornik, CEO of DroneShield, told me. “This makes it fairly similar to something like DJI Phantom in terms of detection and defeat.”
Vornik cannot comment on how well his company’s hardware is doing in the field or any feedback he is receiving from Ukraine. However, images of recent Orlan-10 losses, including this one and this one and this one, appear to show (with few exceptions) drones brought down undamaged, often with the recovery parachute deployed. This is strongly suggestive that they were downed by jamming rather than missiles or gunfire.
The number of drones lost will not be troubling Russian commanders – yet.
“I think there are enough of them for the next several months,” says Bendett. “If not, the forces may be utilizing quadcopters like DJI for short-range ISR [Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance].”
However, such commercial alternatives lack the range and endurance of the Orlan-10, and will be even more vulnerable to jammers.
Bendett notes that Russia does have various other military drones, like the Eleron-3, and fewer of these are being lost. That may indicate they are more jam-resistant … or there may just be less of them about.
The losses are likely to mean plans to turn the Orlan-10s into miniature tactical bombers are shelved. More importantly, Russia’s ability to find targets for long-range artillery will be reduced. And in the next phase of the war, that might be very important.