Russia's Orlan-10 drones, comprised of parts made in America and its European allies, are key to its artillery strike capacity. Photo: Twitter

As the US prepares to deliver its HIMARS mobile precision rocket system to Ukraine, the latest bid to fortify its forces with advanced war-fighting equipment against Russia’s offensive push, few have noticed how much Russia’s artillery systems rely on US and Western-made electronic parts and components. 

So while Ukraine is receiving highly publicized support from the US and European countries for its artillery systems, Russia is also relying on literally thousands of Western parts to keep its rival systems up, running and firing on Ukrainian positions. In particular, those parts are keeping Russia’s target-identifying Orlan-10 drones aloft.

Ukraine’s Western-supplied artillery is longer range than what Russia is deploying. The US gave Ukraine 108 M777 155mm towed howitzers while Canada and Australia sent smaller numbers.

Recently the M777 has been upgraded with M982 Excalibur artillery shells that are GPS-guided. These longer-range shells – up to 70 kilometers – offer a significant advantage to Ukraine’s forces.

Ukraine is also getting extensive intelligence support from the US, its NATO partners and other countries, enabling it to accurately pick out high-value Russian army targets.

Reports indicate that the HIMARS being sent to Ukraine, initially four sets for training, will be equipped with GMLRS unitary rockets, which also have a range of up to 70 kilometers. These also have a 200-pound unitary warhead (M31) designed to knock out point targets. 

HIMARS can also launch even longer-range rockets but US President Joe Biden has said he does not want to transfer systems that could strike deep into Russian territory. A key advantage of HIMARS compared with the M777 is that it is mobile and can “shoot and scoot.” But so, too, can the Russians.

US Marines conduct a fire mission with a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System at the Northern Training Area in Okinawa, Japan, on June 18, 2020. Photo: US Marine Corps / Corporal Donovan Massieperez

The Russian answer to the artillery systems sent to Ukraine is the MSTA SM-2, which is a mobile 152mm (60-caliber) gun system mounted on a chassis derived from the Russian T-73 main battle tank.

Rounds fired from this gun have a range of 30-40 kilometers, far below that of the artillery shells being supplied to Ukraine. Recently the Russians added a new laser-guided munition called the Krasnopol-D, improving the range slightly to 43 kilometers.

There are two interesting aspects to Russia’s use of artillery compared with Ukraine. Ukraine is using its artillery mostly to try and knock out as much Russian equipment as possible, but not so much as an offensive battle tactic.

Russia, on the other hand, is attempting to use its artillery to create “cauldrons” where maximum firepower is being used to drive Ukrainian forces out of battle strategic locations. 

While a good deal of Russia’s approach resembles a land version of what the US used to call carpet bombing in Vietnam, Russian artillery is also increasingly capable of precision fire. 

Russia’s MSTA guns are now linked to Orlan-10 drones. The drones are able to identify targets and provide coordinates using accurate triangulation and also stand by to assure a target has been destroyed. Some Orlan-10 drones have laser designators.

Significantly, the Orlan-10 would not be flying without US and allied-supplied parts. The Orlan-10 is a home-built Russian drone that is made mostly with parts coming from the US, China, Taiwan, France, Japan, Sweden, Israel and elsewhere. 

Early versions of the drone were fairly easy to jam electronically, but more advanced versions also have thermal cameras that can work during day and night, and have been equipped with more jam-resistant Kometa M-VT GPS chips, manufactured in Russia under an Israeli license.

What’s inside an Orlan-10 drone? A Canon camera and a plastic bottle were found in a downed drone by Ukrainian armed forces. Photos: Supplied

The earlier versions of Orlan-10 drones used commercial Japanese Canon cameras, namely models 750D and 800D. The Russians glued the setting dials on the cameras so they could not easily be changed. The Orlan-10 engine also is Japanese-made.

Some of the other companies involved in supplying parts for Orlan-10 drones include Lynred infrared(France), AxisIPVideo (Sweden), Cirocomm (Taiwan), Ublox (Switzerland), XilinxInc (US), AllianceMemory (US), Sony (Japan) Playstation, Saito (Japan, but engine made in China).

About 80% of the Orlan-10’s parts are sourced outside Russia.

The Orlan-10 is available in many versions and more than 1,000 have been produced. Roughly 50 of these drones – mainly of the earlier type – have been taken down by Ukrainian forces, about half through jamming soft kills.

Russia deploys many different drone types in Ukraine, some for reconnaissance, some for electronic warfare and others in the form of attack drones, including so-called suicide drones. 

Source: Twitter

Russian drone development lags Western and Chinese systems, and Russia lacks the industrial base for critical components, meaning it depends on external supplies for its drones. This holds true also for other Russian weapons that use imported electronics.  

It is surprising that, with all the embargoes on Russia, the high-tech electronic and optical systems Russia needs have not been specifically blocked by sanctions. 

It is important to keep in mind that countries that won’t enforce the US and NATO embargo on Russia, such as India and Turkey, are not likely to pass through high-leverage US electronics for Russia’s war fighting material if it is made clear these components are explicitly embargoed and that acting as a post office to sell banned technology is unacceptable. 

It is remarkable that Washington has neglected this extremely important supply to Russia’s war-fighting machine.

Follow Stephen Bryen on Twitter at @stephenbryen