Russia Jumps Into Purpose-Built Drone-Hunting Drone Weapons Space

Russia has displayed what it claims is a new counter-drone interceptor, a single-use drone with an explosive warhead that’s expressly designed to bring down the kinds of Ukrainian uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs) that have taken a steady toll on Russian troops and equipment on the battlefield. The claimed development parallels similar capabilities elsewhere in the world, where, at least in some circumstances, a drone is increasingly viewed as the best defense against another drone.

As we have made the case for many years, sometimes the best way to down a drone is indeed with another drone. 

The Vogan-9SP counter-drone interceptor was developed by Russia’s Red Line company, seemingly a new entrant in the field. The firm unveiled the system at a conference in St. Petersburg yesterday concerned with detecting and countering drones, Russia’s state-owned TASS agency reports.

According to a company spokesman, the engagement process starts with a hostile drone being detected by radar, after which it is targeted using a laser designator. The pusher-propeller-driven Vogan-9SP takes off from a ground launcher angled at 45 degrees at the command of its operator. The quadcopter can accelerate to about 124 mph and once close to the target it apparently continues the engagement at least semi-autonomously.

The precise final guidance method is unclear, but this suggests that the target drone doesn’t have to be ‘lased’ by the laser designator in the terminal phase. Optically locking onto the target on its own is well within capabilities that exist today even for lower-end drones. Using the laser designator to get it to the point where it can achieve a lock is an interesting hybrid concept we really haven’t seen before in the counter-drone effector space, although using laser designation of drones all the way to an effector’s detonation is now a well-established capability.

A winder view of the Vogan-9SP counter-drone interceptor. The drone has a quadcopter configuration, with not all of the propellers fitted here. Russian state media

Nevertheless, the Vogan-9SP is claimed to retain a ‘man in the loop,’ with a video camera transmitting a picture of the engagement to the operator on the ground. The same operator is also said to be responsible for triggering the explosive warhead in the nose of the drone. While this would seem to run counter to the description of an autonomous end-phase to the engagement, it may be the case that two guidance options are available, manual and semi-autonomous.

For the time being, we cannot be completely sure if the Vogan-9SP is a genuine piece of hardware, albeit one in development, or vaporware of the kind that has cropped up in Russia in the past. However, the basic premise behind the system is an increasingly familiar one and there is clearly a massive requirement for such a counter-drone device in the Russian military. It could even be argued that developing such a system would be an extreme priority.

“Its objective is to precisely intercept ‘kamikaze’ drones that fly [in Ukraine] with hostile intentions,” the Red Line spokesman told TASS.

Ukrainian FPV drones lay waste to a column of Russian vehicles in the Donetsk region recently:

The same spokesman said that the counter-drone interceptor is currently undergoing tests, and the company is also working on an improved version. This will have a quadcopter configuration and is planned to be able to reach a speed of over 150 mph.

The proliferation of lower-end drones used for surveillance and targeting as well as attacks in theaters around the world is currently driving the development of this new class of counter-drone interceptors. These are just part of a growing arsenal focused on trying to tackle the threat of lower-end aerial drones, but, until now, systems of this kind had appeared to be somewhat neglected in Russia.

On multiple occasions, we have seen video evidence of small drones being used as kamikaze interceptors, slamming into hostile drones to bring them down. Indeed, this has now become so prevalent as to be formalized as part of the drone war doctrines on both sides of the conflict.

Existing air defense systems of various kinds have also been employed against smaller drones by both sides in the war, especially shoulder-launched and other short-range air defense systems (SHORADS). But systems like these are needed for higher-end threats, primarily crewed aircraft as well as cruise missiles and larger drones, while the missiles they fire are very expensive and are in limited supply. They are also currently unable to provide coverage against smaller drones wherever this is needed.

According to numerous accounts, Russia has enjoyed considerable success in using electronic warfare systems against Ukrainian drones, especially the more numerous and less resilient first-person view (FPV) types. These jammers range from vehicle-mounted equipment to individual rifle-style anti-drone guns.

However, even with electronic warfare systems, there is still a great need for kinetic counter-drone measures, especially to deal with Ukrainian drones that have not been brought down by jamming or other measures and pose an immediate threat to soldiers and equipment.

Filling the gaps, therefore, has been left to machine guns and anti-aircraft artillery systems, as well as soldiers armed with small arms, or even, in more desperate situations, with sticks and stones.

While it’s unclear exactly how the Vogan-9SP is intended to be fielded, once in production, it would appear to offer a very useful additional layer to the anti-drone ‘umbrella’ that Russia is fielding in an effort to keep abreast of the Ukrainian drone threat. In particular, the ability to loiter would make the new system especially useful, maintaining coverage over a particular area of vulnerability, or even troops or vehicles on the move for an extended period and engaging threats as they appear.

Russia’s new counter-drone interceptor also parallels developments in Ukraine, and elsewhere.

In April this year, it was reported that Ukraine was working to develop a counter-drone interceptor, in a project announced by Mykhailo Fedorov, the country’s minister of digital transformation.

On his Telegram channel, Fedorov asked for assistance from engineers to develop drones of this kind as a cheaper option than using surface-to-air missiles to target Russian UAVs. Fedorov said the new drone would need to fly at up to 100 mph and reach a height of up to 5,000 feet.

As of June, Ukrainian drones developed under this program had begun bringing down Russian reconnaissance UAVs, confirmed by a video posted by Ukraine’s Border Guards showing the interception of a Russian Zala drone by an FPV-type interceptor drone.

Videos of additional drone-versus-drone encounters, involving Ukrainian types acting as interceptors, have appeared since then and this seems to be one area of the conflict in which Russia is trying to enhance its abilities, hence the appearance now of the Vogan-9SP.

Outside of the war in Ukraine, there has also been a flurry of interest in counter-drone interceptors in the United States for years, driven by lessons from this conflict but also in the Middle East and the projected threats that would likely be encountered in a future conflict with China in the Pacific.

The U.S. Army plans to significantly expand its inventory of Coyote counter-drone interceptors over the coming years, buying thousands more of the drones as well as associated launchers and radars — as you can read more about here. Unlike the Vogan-9SP, Raytheon’s Coyote counter-drone loitering interceptor comes in a jet-powered configuration as well as a propeller-driven one, and is offered with an explosive warhead or an optional unspecified “non-kinetic” payload.

In terms of fielding, the U.S. Army issues its Coyotes in two-round launchers on 4×4 mine-resistant vehicles, which are also fitted with radar, electro-optical sensors, and a 30mm cannon, while palletized systems with four-round launchers are used to defend static targets. Russia may well opt for a similar approach with its Vogan-9SP, although since the launcher has not been unveiled, we don’t yet know how suitable this will be for different platforms and what kind of capacity it has.

The cost of a single Coyote interceptor is also worth considering, reportedly around $100,000, which is relatively low cost compared to traditional surface-to-air missiles. The same factor has been noted by Ukraine in its drive to develop counter-drone interceptors and Russia’s will Vogan-9SP be driven, at least in part, by the same thinking.

Even with its relative cost efficiency, an interceptor like the Coyote is still notably more expensive than many types of lower-tier drones, especially of the kinds that might be expected to appear in larger numbers. With that in mind, U.S. defense contractor Anduril has developed the Interceptor quadcopter for counter-drone missions. More sophisticated — and expensive — is the jet-powered Roadrunner-M, also from Anduril, which has the advantage of being readily reusable if it does not prosecute a target in the course of a single sortie. The reusability of Vogan-9SP isn’t clear at this stage.

The Coyote, Interceptor, and Roadrunner also represent just some of the counter-drone capabilities different branches of the U.S. military have been working to develop and field in recent years. The use of drones as loitering interceptors is likely to drastically expand in the coming years and could have major application value in the maritime space.

It remains to be seen whether Russia manages to progress the development of the Vogan-9SP and get this potentially very useful weapon onto the battlefield in Ukraine. Hampered by sanctions, the capacity of the Russian defense industry to produce high-technology weapons has been repeatedly questioned since Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Even if it remains aspirational, the appearance of the Vogan-9SP points again to the very real threat that drones, especially lower-end designs and weaponized commercial types, pose on and off traditional battlefields — not just in Ukraine. With these threats only expected to grow in the coming years, counter-drone interceptors in this category are fast becoming a growth segment.

Contact the author: