An unnoticed scoop: Russia creates a flying radar drone for long-range targets

An unnoticed scoop: Russia creates a flying radar drone for long-range targets
An unnoticed scoop: Russia creates a flying radar drone for long-range targets
13 October 2021, 19:08ArmyPhoto: АО «Кронштадт»
Sometimes it happens that news, the significance of which simply cannot be overestimated, does not cause much excitement in the media, and the audience takes it calmly. And now something similar has happened: the company-developer of Russian UAVs has sounded a real scoop, but there is no excitement about this.

Victor Kuzovkov

But in terms of its significance, the information disclosed by Nikolai Dolzhenkov, general designer of Kronstadt, is approximately on a par with the creation of hypersonic missiles or nuclear submarine doomsday drones. But let's go in order...

On October 10, on the air of the Zvezda TV channel, the aforementioned speaker announced that a long-range radar patrol drone had been created in Russia. According to him, this is "an analogue of the A-50 and promising aircraft in this direction." For a better understanding, let's say that the A-50 (and its modification A-50U) is currently the main Russian aircraft for long-range radar detection and control, created on the basis of the Il-76 heavy-lift transport aircraft. The main task of this aircraft (as well as its foreign counterparts) is the detection of air targets at a long distance, the guidance of air interceptors at them, the general coordination of air defense forces and means in a certain area of combat contact. To put it simply, it is a flying radar, which at the same time performs the functions of a flying command post.

The A-50, created around the beginning of the 80s of the last century, is already pretty outdated at the moment. Alas, the situation is not saved even by periodic modernization of the aircraft and on-board equipment, although they allow maintaining the combat readiness of this aircraft at, let's say, a tolerable level. No, if it were not for the appearance of stealth aircraft and a whole range of cruise missiles in a potential enemy, it would still serve. But, alas, the capabilities of the machine are almost exhausted, and the military decided to create a new AWACS A-100 "Premier" aircraft. According to available data (very scarce, it must be admitted), the new flying radar of the Russian Aerospace Forces will be able to detect and simultaneously track up to 300 targets at a distance of up to 650 kilometers. The aircraft will be equipped with the latest radar system based on an active phased array, will be able to more confidently track low-flying targets such as cruise missiles, carry out target designation for missiles fired by interceptor aircraft and ground anti-aircraft missile systems, as well as relay signals from other aircraft, drones, ground control points etc.

All this, of course, is wonderful. But there is one big drawback - the price. For example, the cost of the A-50U aircraft is estimated at $ 330 million. A piece. And despite the fact that the need for such aircraft is enormous in our country, building an air fleet of several dozen AWACS aircraft seems to be an almost impossible task. This is partly confirmed by the example of the already outdated A-50 and A-50U - for the entire time, since the beginning of the 80s, only 31 such aircraft have been built. There is no particular doubt that the new version, the A-100 Premier, will turn out to be even more expensive, at least at first.

At the same time, the experience of recent local conflicts shows that AWACS aircraft are an indispensable tool both for ensuring reliable air defense and for coordinating the efforts of the Air Force when destroying enemy air defense systems, including enemy fighter aircraft. And this, without exaggeration, is the guarantee of victory in modern war. Therefore, whether we like it or not, we will have to invest in modern AWACS aircraft...

For people who are very far from the military theme, we will explain one point. The fact is that a radar suitable for guiding anti-aircraft missiles is practically unable to look beyond the horizon. And the only reliable way to detect low-flying enemy aircraft and missiles hiding under the radio horizon is just to move the air defense missile system radar antenna to the highest possible height. Modern ground-based air defense systems use special telescopic masts for this, giving a gain of several tens of meters in height and, accordingly, several tens of kilometers (in some cases) in the detection range of air targets. But even this is not enough for the air defense system to be guaranteed to win the duel against the attack aircraft - the aircraft is by no means defenseless, it has weapons capable of hitting the air defense system at a distance of more than a hundred kilometers, and every kilometer of target detection range can literally be fatal.

This problem can be radically solved by moving the radar to the highest possible height. And flying radar is the best possible solution so far. An airplane flying at an altitude of about 10 kilometers pushes the horizon hundreds of kilometers away, and it becomes simply impossible to hide from it at low altitude. However, another problem arises - a target with a small effective scattering area can be lost in the signals reflected by the ground. But this is solved with the help of more advanced electronics, therefore, it does not fundamentally refute our thesis about the superiority of a flying radar over a ground one.

For Russia, the situation is aggravated by the fact that the vast territories of the Russian North are practically not developed. Alas, when attacking through the North Pole and Siberia, a potential enemy has excellent chances to fly unnoticed to Novosibirsk or Omsk, hitting at least critical infrastructure (for example, Transsib), even these (or other) cities of our country. Now the protection of these territories from the air is carried out mainly by the MiG-31 interceptor. And this, of course, is better than nothing...

And yet, let's be frank - the capabilities of even the most modern fighter-interceptor in this case are clearly not enough. With its own combat radius of 700 kilometers and a relatively short flight duration, there is simply no need to talk about a continuous coverage of the vast northern territories of the Russian Federation. Therefore, in the event of a sufficiently massive attack on Russia with the help of cruise missiles, we can very likely predict the loss of hundreds of enterprises and critical infrastructure facilities, including bridges across Siberian rivers. And this, without exaggeration, is just the dismemberment of the country. Add to this the high cost of operating the MiG-31, its low suitability for air combat with modern fighters in other theaters of military operations, and it will become clear that it would be very, very desirable for us to radically change the country's air defense system, especially in terms of protecting its northern frontiers.

And it is from this perspective that the news about the creation of an unmanned aerial vehicle for long-range radar detection looks very, very promising. But first, let's define what aircraft designers offer the army.

Although the name of the UAV was not pronounced in Nikolai Dolzhenkov's interview, we can say with almost complete certainty that it is about the Helios RLD project, or simply Helios. Information about this development has been leaking in the media for several years, and there is still some information about the new drone.

"Helios" is an unmanned aerial vehicle of a traditional design, with a canopy of large aspect ratio, with one pushing (located at the back) engine. With a length of approximately 12.5 meters, the wingspan is over 30 meters. The practical ceiling of the "Helios" is 11,000 meters, it is capable of spending more than 30 hours in a row in the air, and its payload is approximately 1,000 kilograms.

Under the fuselage of the drone is a large longitudinal a flat radio-transparent fairing in which a two-sided radar antenna is located. According to the information announced by Dolzhenkov a year ago, a fragment of the newest radar, developed for the A-100 "Premier" AWACS aircraft, will be used as a radar on the new UAV. There is another fairing in the frontal part of the glider, but there, presumably, communications equipment, navigation, target designation and so on will be placed.

Yes, we can immediately note that the two-way radar has certain disadvantages in comparison with all-round radar. But it also has enough advantages - it is much simpler, which is very important when installed on a drone, it can be even more powerful and effective in range, albeit in a smaller field of view. And besides, with a high degree of probability, it can be assumed that such a scheme will be significantly cheaper. And this is extremely important in our case ...

In addition, you need to understand that the energy capabilities of the drone are far from those of the same Il-76. This is very important, since the power of the radar directly depends on the power of the on-board power supply system. It is clear that this will in a certain way affect the detection range of air targets. And yet, let's assume that it will be enough to complete the main tasks assigned to the drone. Yes, according to this parameter, the new drone will surely be inferior to the newest A-100, but after all, it will cost, most likely, not even several times, but dozens of times less.

Actually, it is precisely due to the lower price, and, consequently, more mass production, and a much longer patrol time, it will be possible to provide a continuous radar field in threatened sections of the airspace. Yes, each "Helios" will be inferior to the "Premier", and quite significantly. But in sum, they will provide the same coverage for significantly less money. In addition, the need for the MiG-31 interceptor will practically disappear - a good, even unique, but still very specific and expensive machine. In the presence of dozens of flying radars with the functions of intercepting and destroying air targets, more versatile and less expensive aircraft of the Su-30 type will be able to cope. And this will gradually lead to a greater unification of the fleet of fighters, which means a decrease in the cost of servicing our combat aviation.

In sum, this should lead to a real revolution in the Russian aerospace forces: we will be able to exercise greater and better control over the airspace of the country for less money and only with those aircraft that can perform equally well in any theater of military operations - even in the Arctic, even in Europe.

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