It comes amid fears that Moscow could use the tactic, used effectively in the invasion of Ukraine, to disrupt Nato communications as a prelude to a ground incursion. Russia does not own large Reaper or Predator drones that fly at 50,000ft but its drone technology is advancing, experts warn. Its latest model, the Kalashnikov KUB “suicide drone”, is designed to be launched covertly and explode when within target range.
Most worrying, though, are Russia’s Orlan–10 UAVs which fly in threes – the first providing reconnaissance and the second carrying electronic warfare systems to jam Nato communications. The third transmits intelligence information to a control centre.
And they present a real threat to the West because Nato does not have the right equipment to shoot them down quickly. More than 100 RAF, Belgian, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Norwegian and Spanish air gunners and protection specialists simulated exercises at the European Air Group headquarters at High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire.
Week-long Exercise Volcanex focused on a hybrid Russian attack in the Baltic involving cyber and disinformation offensives and a drone swarm attack.
Justin Bronk, combat airpower and technology expert with the Royal United Services Institute think tank, said: “Russia has an inherent weakness when it comes to developing drones that could form a swarm. They don’t have a small electronics sector to draw on.
“However, they have a lot of combat experience with medium-sized drones, like the Orlan series.
“These drones routinely carry electronic warfare payloads. Russia could release a cluster of nine Orlan drones to carry out electronic warfare, such as jamming Nato communications. It did this effectively in Syria and Ukraine.
“Denial of communications was a huge factor in Ukraine – as was Russia’s ability for surveillance, which allowed for precise targeting by artillery, which was lethal.”
And Nato’s ability to counter this threat is limited, he added.
“They’re not terribly easy to stop because they’re small. We can fire missiles at them, but our raids aren’t really set up for that. So we’d have to shoot them down one by one with short-range missile systems, which isn’t terribly effective.
“However, it is likely this tactic would be used in conjunction with a deployment of Spetsnaz Special Forces or conventional forces. If this happened, drones would be just one problem we’d be facing.”
In April four Typhoons from RAF Coningsby, Lincolnshire, were sent to Estonia as part of a Baltic air policing mission. Squadron Leader Jamie Norris said: “Crews are on permanent readiness to respond to any potential threat and can be scrambled on a 24/7 basis.”