Russia is developing its first long-range drone aircraft capable of conducting ground attack missions, but lags behind other militaries in building unmanned aerial combat vehicles, according to U.S. officials.
The new drone is being developed in secret and was first revealed in online images earlier this year.
U.S. officials familiar with intelligence reports said the drone is being called the Altius-M and work is being done at the Sokol Design Bureau in Tatarstan, a Russian republic.
Recent analysis of images of the propeller-driven aircraft indicates the drone will be a medium or high-altitude strike aircraft, based on its long wingspan and V-shaped tail, the officials said.
The aircraft appears similar to the U.S. MQ-9 Reaper missile-firing UAV.
The aircraft was disclosed in photographs during a February visit to Tatarstan by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu.
Photographs showed Shoygu standing next to a model of the new combat drone. The images later were removed from the Internet after publication, an indication the program remains one of Russia’s secret military programs.
The five-ton aircraft is scheduled for deployment by 2016 and the late development, compared to drone programs of other nations, highlights what U.S. officials see as a deficiency in Russian military efforts to develop both armed and reconnaissance drones.
Drone have emerged in recent years as a key element of what is known in U.S. defense parlance as the revolution in military affairs—using high-technology weapons and tactics for strategic advantage.
Disclosure of the new Russian unmanned combat aerial vehicle followed reports last month that Iran had supplied Russia with a copy of a U.S. drone obtained by Iran in 2012.
The U.S.-built ScanEagle drone was purchased by agents of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps from an Afghan smuggler who stole it from a freight convoy, according to contractors in Afghanistan.
Iran also claims it downed a classified RQ-170 radar-evading stealth drone.
Officials said Russian drone capabilities lag behind those of others states as a result of the Russian military’s continued focus on manned, combat aircraft.
However, in recent years the Russians launched development of military drones.
Drone deficiencies were highlighted for Moscow’s forces during the 2008 war against the Republic of Georgia. During the conflict, most of its fleet of Soviet-era unmanned aircraft were unable to provide needed reconnaissance for Russian military forces, the officials said.
Currently, the majority of the Russian military’s drone forces include hand- or catapult-launched systems.
Russian drones displayed on state-run media have included reconnaissance drones conducting counterterrorism in Dagestan, during the 2012 APEC summit in Vladivostok and during counterterrorism exercises.
During the recent large-scale Zapad-2013 military exercises in Europe that drew protests from several Eastern European government who said the joint war games with Belarus were saber-rattling by Moscow, UAVs were shown providing video images of the battlefield. The drones were used for targeting data and helped guide live-fire strikes by aircraft and artillery during the exercises.
One current Russian military drone is a bat-winged Eleron-3 that has a range of just 15 miles.
The large-scale, short-notice nuclear and strategic forces exercises conducted by the Russians Oct. 30 involved a few small reconnaissance drones.
Russia abandoned development of its first unmanned combat aerial vehicle program last summer. The Russian aircraft manufacturer Mikoyan, maker of MiG jets, canceled a drone called Skat after six years of problems with its development.
However, Russia’s defense plan for 2020 calls for developing drones for the armed forces. A key indicator of advances in the program was the creation of a Russian government unmanned aerial vehicle center and regional branches. The Russian armed forces general staff also created a UAV directorate.
Currently, the sole modern drone in the Russian arsenal is an aircraft called Forpost that is a licensed version of the Israeli Searcher drone.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was asked in June about the use of U.S. drones to attack terrorists in Pakistan.
"A long time ago China invented gunpowder. No one could curb its dissemination. Later nuclear weapons appeared, and they also started to proliferate," Putin said. "As for modern means of warfare, they are being improved and will continue to be improved. I doubt all this can be banned."
Putin said he favored international controls on drones to limit collateral damage from strikes.
In contrast to Russia, the United States, China and Israel have robust drone programs, including both armed and unarmed systems.
China unveiled its armed UAV in November 2012 called the Wing Loong, built by the Aviation Industry Corporation of China, according to a forthcoming report by the congressional U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. The report said China is seeking to export the drone to six nations in Asia and Africa.
Like the Altius-M mockup, the Wing Loong closely resembles Reaper.
U.S. Predator and Reaper drones have been leading the fight against international terrorism for the past decade. The attack aircraft are used widely by the U.S. military. The CIA in Pakistan and the Middle Easts also has been engaged in large-scale covert drone strikes on terrorists.
Today, terrorist leaders in Pakistan’s ungoverned Federally Administered Tribal Areas and the southern end of the Arabia peninsula who have become terrorized by the use of armed drone strikes.
The sound of small propeller driven aircraft overhead is now causing terrorist leaders to cringe in fear, U.S. officials have said.
According to a report in Slate on the Russian drone, in addition to Sokol, a company in Russia called Tranzas is building a new UAV. The Tranzas drone is a small aircraft called Inokhodyets, or Wanderer, the news outlet reported Feb. 20 on its blog Future Tense.