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The Drone Index: UZGA AO Forpost

April 8, 2022
Via Wikimedia Commons.

As Russia’s military continues to prosecute a war on Ukraine its “information operations” remain hard at work shaping how the ongoing hostilities are perceived. These are done in a variety of ways and among the more innocuous is releasing edited footage from surveillance drones as proof that Ukrainian losses are piling up. Fresh video clips, often running less than minute, are uploaded every other day on encrypted P2P apps and spread virally by anonymous accounts. The army in particular are very enthusiastic about their most capable drone–the Forpost-R.

Since late 2021 the Forpost, which was originally the Israeli-made Searcher Mk II, has become the latest proof of the army having its own combat drones able to launch ordnance. The need for them is all the more urgent as Russia’s adversaries are acquiring the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 and using these to destroy large quantities of Russian-supplied arms and equipment in smaller localized wars. In the weeks prior the invasion of Ukraine on February 24 even Russia’s defense ministry kept pushing the idea that its “Forpost-R” and Orion-E drones carry missiles under their wings.

The truth is less exciting. On March 21 a large shopping mall in the outskirts of Kyiv was almost demolished by an Iskander-M ballistic missile. It turned out the footage before and after the attack was targeting data collected by a Forpost UAV transmitted to an SRBM unit in neighboring Belarus. This is in keeping with the model’s original role as an artillery spotter and an indictment of Ukrainian air defenses around their capital. (The Ukrainian military employ the same tactics albeit with commercial quadcopters.) While the attack on the Retroville mall was highly destructive, measuring the Forpost’s effectiveness at precision strikes with small bombs is up for debate.

Russia’s acquisition of the Forpost and its ongoing assembly at a state-owned enterprise known as UZGA, AO goes back a full decade. In a bygone age where it enjoyed unrestricted access to NATO technology promised, Russia’s armed forces chose the IAI Searcher Mk II’s. The Searcher-series of twin-boom UAVs were once the biggest selling twin-boom UAVs for export during the late 1990s and 2000s. After its all too brief war against the Republic of Georgia in 2008 the Russian defense ministry planned the institutional reforms that were supposed to make the armed forces’ branches world-class.

So from 2008 and 2014 the Russians found a willing partner able to supply it with medium altitude drones until Russia’s own aerospace industry caught up with a worthy alternative. The Searcher Mk II had solid performance characteristics boasting a flight radius of 500 kilometers and a mission endurance reaching 20 hours. By current standards, however, the Searcher Mk II lags behind other MALE drones as its maximum altitude varies between 15,000 feet and 20,000 feet. But these fit the army’s requirements at the time and even as Moscow and Tel Aviv found themselves at odds over the Syrian Civil War a production line for the Searcher Mk II was set up by UZGA, AO in 2012. The ironies continued to burn as Russian-backed “separatists” fought a war in Eastern Ukraine and had the full backing of the army–this included various drones to help direct artillery fire. Meanwhile, Israel’s leading small arms manufacturer found a huge market in Ukraine for its licensed rifles and machine guns.

Regardless of how long Russia’s vendetta against Ukraine will last the Forpost/Forpost-R is set to enjoy long years in service. An entire generation of Russian-made drones have since emerged but, owing to supply chain issues, these may take additional years before coming online. (Local manufacturers such as Kalashnikov Concern, Kronshtadt Group, and Zala Aero are all involved with UAV assembly.) Finding alternative multifuel propeller engines are essential for Russia’s medium and high altitude drone models to thrive. The Forpost is an exception but reality is a lot messier.

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