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The Drone Index: Zala 421-16E5

November 10, 2015

Russian Zala 421 16E5 UAV

In its bid to reach parity and then surpass NATO in unmanned systems Russia’s armed forces have adopted multiple drone models. A leading supplier to the army is the Zala Aero Group. The company, founded in 2004 and acquired by Kalashnikov Concern in early 2015, builds low altitude micro UAVs for ISR work.

Zala Aero’s latest UAV also happens to be its largest even if its proportions aren’t very intimidating. The Zala 421-16E5 is a propeller driven low altitude glider-shaped model with a modular load. (For comparison, the Zala 421-16E5’s altitude ceiling is just 11,000 feet when larger MALE UAV’s can soar to 20,000 ft). Its name designates it as the fifth variant of the 421-16 series. The 421-16E5 is  recognizable for the shape of its wings–note the downward tips–and the small twin-blade propeller on its tail.

When deployed from a pneumatic launcher, the Zala 421-16E5 scans an area within a 150 kilometer radius with a top speed of 110 km/h. Its mission time is short, however, lasting just several hours and often less. Weighing 65 pounds, once its batteries are low or its task is complete the Zala 421-16E5 can land autonomously via parachute on a strip of level terrain.

The Zala 421-16E5’s payload is a rotating sensor camera attached to its nose. Zala Aero offer nine different gyrostabilized modules for specific roles.

Since Russia doesn’t have a full-fledged medium altitude UAV yet–or even its own armed drones–small handheld craft enjoy widespread use as intelligence gathering assets for ground units.

The Zala 421 16E5 on display at an arms show.

The Zala 421 16E5 on display at an arms show.

It’s unclear how many of the Zala 421-16E5 are in use with Russia’s military and police. Its operation and technology resembles its smaller siblings, which have been spotted in Ukraine and Syria. These sightings revealed the novel role of the Zala’s and other drones as artillery spotters. Once a target has been reconnoitered coordinates are transmitted to a nearby battery of either howitzers or multiple rocket launchers.

Unlike NATO, the Russian army’s continued use of mass artillery is effective and devastating. Reports from Ukraine (and Syria too) reveal there are no sufficient countermeasures to defeat a hail of Russian munitions that are even more precise thanks to micro UAVs like the Zala’s.

The exact numbers of Russian military UAVs are unknown but judging by estimates compiled by think tanks, the bulk comprise at least 500 low altitude models. Medium altitude drones are split between twin-boom craft imported from Israel and less capable locally made models with both totaling just 300.

Additional numbers beyond this current speculative inventory are hard to ascertain. But it’s obvious Russia’s military-industrial complex is developing UAVs that feature large engines, extreme range, and mounts for ordnance. It’s a startling contrast to the almost hollow progress of post-Soviet UAV development.

This oncoming generation of drones isn’t expected to enter service until the 2020s. (Maybe sooner.) In the meantime, the extreme proliferation of Russian-made UAVs can be expected as the technology and the businesses propping it expands.