53 million dollars, another 100 million, and ultimately 300 million - the price for Ministry of Defence contracts for the purchase of Israeli drones has caused confusion & even humiliation. Person named Nicholas Dolzhenkov should get rid of them. One of the best modern Russian aircraft designer, he is now leading the development of UAVs, for Russian Army. Once he made his country, leader in the unmanned aircraft technology. It was back in 80s, and the country was called the Soviet Union. Nicholas Dolzhenkov will explain why we have fallen from that apex & are causing huge expenses in purchasing Israeli drones.
This part deals with historical errors made by Soviet Army staff that led to the downfall of Russian domestic UAV industry. This led to the purchase of foreign UAVs. The second part will deal with UAVs development of foreign competitors especially China, & how Russian UAVs compete on a global scale.
In the hands of Nicholas Dolzhenkova are three billion rubles - the budget of the Ministry of Defense to develop two domestic drones. Two tenders for the development of unmanned military conducted late year. And almost all of them involved large design offices of the country - "MiG", "Tupolev" and "Vega". But won those who people least expected - St. Petersburg's company "Transas", which only recently took up the development of UAVs and Kazan-based "Sokol" design bureau. Their tender projects are prepared by Dolzhenkov. "MiG" is so offended that even challenged the outcome of tender in court.
"MiG" are second-time losers - Dolzhenkov says with a friendly malice.
The first time was in the '90s, when he designed military training aircraft Yak-130 which won the competition against its rival MiG-AT. Dolzhenkov now explains why is it that he knows UAVs more than his competitors
Q- What inspired you?
Honestly: I find it hard to imagine how you can become a designer of unmanned vehicles. Probably because you are influenced by your childhood dreams of aviation - it's fighters, bombers...
I like aviation since childhood. In Berezniki, where I was born, I had a reputation of a 'blaster'. I myself collected engines, built rockets and launched them. Believe me, in a provincial town in the Perm region in Soviet times to build a missile itself was not so easy.
I finished the Aviation Institute at the Department of air-air missiles and unmanned vehicles. And my graduate thesis was upon unmanned aerial vehicle. Still, I did not understand the whole significance of the topic. Understanding came later, when after graduation I started working in the Yakovlev - it was in 1980. At that time it was a unique body. Founder of Yakovlev, Alexander Yakovlev has trips to Germany on the eve of World War II brought many things that concerned the aviation culture. Strict discipline and order. Yakovlev compared to other design offices was small but took tasks that others feared. This is what happened with the Soviet unmanned aerial vehicles.
Q- When did UAV development began?
Study subjects began in mid-1981. In the summer of 1982 Israel defeated the Syrian forces in the Bekaa Valley, and it gave a powerful impetus to the development. The Soviet Union supplied the Syrians with air defenses, they were regarded as almost a panacea for enemy aircraft. But the Israelis started using drones which transmitted coordinates to Phantoms & air defense systems were easily and quickly destroyed. These drones have used a completely new technology for its time, capable of transmitting data in real time.
It made such an indelible impression on the Soviet Party who commissioned the development of UAV to Yakovlev. because I knew how to, I immediately took up the project.
Q- There was no fear of failure? Those Israelis are certainly far ahead. Was it hard to keep up?
The most interesting is that the Israeli drones were quite primitive. The Syrians gave us a fallen Scout, we dismantled and were amazed: it was a feeling that the guys went to the normal Radio Shack, bought parts and built the aircraft. There were resistance Tesla, Czechoslovakia electronic boards literally iron soldered - I in my time at school as well soldered diode receivers but with all this primitive it performs its task.
Q- The fact that you have examined Israeli drone, certainly simplified the task of redrawing circuit & slightly improving - and you're done?
If our military did need just a copy such was possible. However, they always want to have all the best. And best is, that could fit almost into pocket, and when it gets out, turns into a full-sized machine and solve all the problems they need, and it is desirable but unnecessary too. Therefore, the terms of reference we established is to make UAV which would fit into airborne combat vehicle - and it has the size less than a tank - withstanding loads in landing, fold-unfold within 15 minutes, and while flying delivers two hours of real-time information to the commander of Airborne Division.
Q- Why military needed such complexity?
Because it was believed that if our army had to perform operations such as large-scale troop landing UAV information is necessary.
And the most amazing thing is that we have performed this task in less than two years - in 1983 the aircraft had already flown. There were two failed start-ups, but on the third trial it flew. It was a set of UAVs, "Bee" and it lived almost to the present day.
Q- But your "Bee" was not the first Soviet UAV. Tupolev did drones back in the 60s...
Yes, the Tupolev was pioneer in the development of robotic aircraft, as they were called, but the class was quite different. Our "Bee" weighed only 130 kg, while the Tupolev aircraft were a lot bigger with greater speed and height altitudes. But the main difference - it did not give a picture in real time. This aircraft was flying on a preset program, pictures were manually retrieved, then film was processed and we obtained intelligence information. If, say, the photographs had been a moving target, it is clear that their photographs were not prioritized & would be skipped. "Bee" was a new-generation device, which aired the picture in real time. and it was more perfect than the Israeli contemporaries.
But this success we achieved, unfortunately, never developed on an industrial scale. If we constantly improved "Bee", made modifications, we would not have fallen behind in this area.
Q- What prevented our success?
I think the military couldn't understood the significance of these technologies. It prioritized other areas of weapon development. I myself, after "Bee" was taken for state tests, withdrew from the project & started with the big planes. Drone emphasis re-emerged in the 90's thanks to the head of Sukhoi design bureau.
The world was already perfecting unmanned technologies & we faced stagnating. Then, Mikhail Pogosyan, head of the Sukhoi Design Bureau, talked and decided that the theme should be pursued proactively. We had developed conceptual models for various unmanned systems.
In fact, we tried to shape out demand for drones. But then, the Ministry of Defence was not ripe enough to finance the creation of prototypes. I said to Pogosyan, that we should at our own expense produce a demonstration model. And if Pogosyan would have listened to me that day we would be leading in this field.
But Pogosyan said at the time: you bring the customer, we will sign a contract and then get to work. In addition, Pogosyan prioritized SuperJet project above all & he did not want to divert funds to the drones. As a result, they remained at the level of conceptual and research paper.
Therefore, when the military finally woke up, serious Russian developments in this sector were none & the Ministry of Defense was forced to buy Israeli UAVs.
Q- What convinced our military using drones in future?
Their successful application in the conflicts in Europe and the world. For instance Predator drones in Yugoslavia revealed whole defense systems of Slobodan Milosevic. The price paid for this information was minimal as the Serbs shot down only few planes. Then our military realized that the shape of future wars or local conflicts is evolving in a different direction. 90% of the outcome of the conflict is solved in the air, including through visual exploration.
But long before the conflict in Yugoslavia, the same "Bee" has been used in Chechnya, and the same Pavel Grachev had to understand the importance of UAVs, to show interest in them ...
Interest, perhaps, been there, but there was no opportunity. You do have main idea but you don't have enough money, to clothe and feed the army, you do not start thinking about how to develop a new UAV. Therefore, the same "Bee" used in Chechnya which by then was obsolete and, moreover, was not designed to work in the mountains. save many lives: it was the only means of visual exploration in that war.
Q- If unmanned project got military interest back in 90's why started developing it now?
Perhaps this was due to the change of minister of defense. But the main impetus, from my point of view, is the arrival of Vladimir Popovkin (the current head of Russian Space Agency). Now the Ministry of Defence got people who understand the importance of this technology and really want to get it.
Q- But these people are buying Israeli technology and not Russian drones.
Yes. What they are buying are essentially grandfathers of Israeli and American systems, because they do not sell vehicles of today and especially tomorrow's generation. But that's okay too. Indeed, Israeli drones are purchased not for the technological breakthrough, but to teach the army how to use this technique.
Any aircraft program is measured by years. Therefore, a new generation of Russian drones, which we are currently developing, will appear not earlier than four to five years. That's what we're working - it's hi-tech, high-tech products, it must be properly used. When the army will get domestic UAVs, they must not look open-mouthed, not knowing what they take, and must be prepared by service manuals, relevant units, specialists. They only learn now using Israeli drones & it is absolutely correct.
In general, I can hardly imagine how a private company, which had never specialized in the aircraft industry let alone drones, managed to win the contests, which worth three billion rubles, and which was attended by almost all leading design offices.
Similar happened before, though not with us. The same firm that created Predator was General Atomics, which before was unknown in the aviation world. It inexplicably won some small competitions of Pentagon and NASA, began making experimental devices for research & finally became involved in development of Predator.
For us winning became possible when the Defense Ministry admitted for competitions private enterprises that produce high-tech product.
The fact that we won the competition is very symbolic. We have, for example, average age group of 30 years. In the old design bureaus average age is well over 50. We believe young people are not afraid to take on tasks that others seem to be intractable.
Nicholas Dolzhenkov. Born in 1956 in the town of Berezniki Perm. He graduated from the Moscow Aviation Institute.
In 1980 he joined the OKB. Yakovlev, in 1998 became the first deputy general director of design bureau.
In 2001-2003 - chief designer of the Sukhoi Design Bureau. In the 2003-2009-m - CEO Yakovlev Design Bureau. Yakovlev.
Honored Constructor of Russia. Chief Designer of UAVs, "Bee." The chief designer of military training aircraft Yak-130, which is considered the first new (and not modernized version of existing models) plane, constructed and launched into production in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Since 2010 he has headed the direction of unmanned aerial vehicles namely "Transas".