How Long Will Russia Lead the US in UAV Technology?
By Dr. Robert Gordon
Program Director, Reverse Logistics Management at American Public University
Manned aircraft and missions have been the mainstay of the United States since the inception of the Air Force. But there has been a rise in unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology, despite resistance from military leaders.
In fact, the U.S. Air Force initially rejected the wildly successful Predator unmanned drone program. It took quite a bit of convincing to get the U.S. government to move forward with unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology.
Increasing Expertise of Russian UAV Technology
On the other hand, Russia has worked on UAV technology since the 1980s. Many people may not remember the Russian space shuttle program since it was short-lived and never reached the level of productivity that the U.S. space shuttle program did. What many people may have forgotten was that Russian engineers built the Russian space shuttle to operate as an unmanned vehicle.
Over the years, Russian UAV technology has continually improved. By 1988, the Russians perfected remote vehicle operations for the most complex aerial technology available at the time.
Elon Musk Duplicates Russian Achievements with Unmanned Shuttle
Although unmanned rockets have been common for decades, the Russian space shuttle (Buran) could take off like a rocket, operate as an orbiter and land like a plane on earth. These advanced technologies were installed into a single machine that had to operate flawlessly.
In 2016, South African-Canadian businessman and engineer Elon Musk and his U.S. company SpaceX created an unmanned shuttle called the Falcon 9. The success of Musk’s Falcon 9 was the first time the U.S. inched ahead of Russia. That success, however, was not the work of the U.S. Air Force or NASA.
Creating a sophisticated UAV decades before anyone else shows how far Russian UAV technology had advanced. When Moscow abandoned its space shuttle aspirations in favor of UAV development, it was due more to budget cuts and politics than to the lack of technological innovation.
Russia Dominates the Field of Manned and Unmanned Missions
But Russia never entirely abandoned its rocket program. Moscow continues to dominate the field in manned and unmanned missions.
Although budget constraints keep Russia from developing drones on the same scale as the U.S., Russia has a strong track record of innovation and deep knowledge of unmanned aerial vehicles. The lack of funds will compel Moscow to develop even cheaper and more effective drones, adapt its existing unmanned rocket technologies and outpace U.S. UAV programs.
Russia Developing Lethal Attack Drones
Russia has field-tested several different attack drones in the war in Syria. The knowledge from these field tests is being used to develop even larger and more lethal drones.
For nations, drone technology offers a greater potential for cheaper and more effective aerial support. The F-35 costs around $100 million per plane and the typical Reaper drone costs one-fifth that amount .
Through additional innovation, Russia could reduce the cost of a military drone to $1 million dollars. At this price, Russia could operate a swarm of 100 drones against a single F-35 or five Reaper drones with lethal results.
UAVs may change the way modern wars are fought. The U.S. Navy is already working on boats that could fire autonomous drones to swarm an opponent and effectively neutralize a threat.
To remain competitive on the battlefield, Russia is likely to use UAVs capable of swarming and destroying an enemy. Because the Russian military lacks the funding to spend on programs like the F-35, it must compete through different, more innovative means such as UAV technology.
About the Author
Dr. Robert Gordon has 25 years of professional experience in supply chain and human resources. Robert has earned a Doctorate of Management and Organizational Leadership, an MBA and a B.A. in History. He has authored over 100 published articles, including five books covering a variety of business topics.