Drone Wars: Gremlins Versus the Kremlin

The Kalashnikov Group is producing a small weaponized unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) called KUB-BLA that explodes on impact like an unmanned miniature kamikaze aircraft. The news was released at the IDEX 2019 trade show in Abu Dhabi. The UAV is propeller-driven and designed to destroy remote ground targets. It isn’t as small as commercial drones that you might see in a local park. It’s about four feet in length, and users can set coordinates for the strike manually or via the drone’s guidance system. It then crashes into its target exploding a six-pound warhead on impact. 

The KUB-LA has “hidden launch” capabilities, a range of about 40 miles, and is supposedly difficult to detect (noiseless by propeller) and shoot down by traditional means. The Kremlin may or may not have ordered the drone into production, but details are unclear. Israel has had a similar drone called the Harpy, which is launched by truck, on the market for about 25 years. Like the KUB-LA, it is propeller-based, but it is much larger and carries a 70-pound warhead versus a 6-pound one.

The Harpy also engages in electronic warfare by detecting and suppressing hostile radar sites and surface-to-air-missiles (SAM) for hours while it loiters above enemy territory. Israel is a world-leader in the production and manufacture of military drones and each Harpy is manufactured and sold for USD 70,000, but the Russian KUB-LA is likely low-cost in comparison, which is another factor that makes it dangerous. 

Hypothetically, a nation-state or terrorist organization could buy a swarm of KUB-BLAs and attempt to overwhelm an enemy’s defenses, attacking their position silently from many angles above. 

Of course, the U.S. Air Force is engineering its own drone that could target enemy radar sites. It’s called the Low Cost Attritable Aircraft (LCAA), and is being built by San Diego-based drone manufacturers Kratos for the U.S. Airforce. The contract is for USD 41 million, and Kratos expects each drone to cost USD 3 million, which is a far cry from less than USD 70,000. The point of the KUB-BLA is to be expendable, low-cost, stealthy and high-impact. The U.S. Air Force has a list of features for engineers at Kratos to produce, which include radar-absorbing paint, narrow air intake and a much higher-caliber payload. 

The KUB-BLA may have been used in Syria by Russian forces, where ISIS had launched some commercial-style drones with IEDs attached to them. In January of last year, Syrian opposition forces sent 13 small drones with explosive payloads to attack two Russian bases in western Syria. So the inspiration for a cheap, effective “suicide drone” could have come from the Russian military’s experiences fighting ISIS and the US-back Syrian rebels.

Of course, Russia is hard at work building larger stealth drones like the Okhotnik-B drone. Images appeared on a Russian aviation site in January of this year, showing a tractor towing the larger aircraft along an airfield in southern Russia.

Unfortunately, Trilogy Systems ended in disaster. Trying to create the first commercial wafer-scale integration was such a disaster also led to another first: the phrase “to crater”, which was used by the press to describe the monumental failure of the company. (Image courtesy of Nexus.)

A picture of the Okhotnik-B, which means ‘”hunter” in Russian. This drone is designed to deliver ordinance in spite of enemy defenses. Though it is much larger than the KUB-BLA from Kalashnikov, it underscores the upswell in weaponized UAV development in Russia. After Russia went into Syria in 2015, the Kremlin refocused resources on filled a gap in their warfighting capabilities on that front: the ability to strike targets with lightning speed after they were identified. This is the primary purpose of most military-grade drones, although electronic warfare attacks like jamming radar are also high on the priority list for drone deployments. (Image courtesy of YouTube.)

The Okhotnik-B drone has a familiar flying wing design that seems to have been taken directly from the U.S. Air Force’s B-2 stealth bomber. After the Kremlin monitored their success in helping Assad’s forces in Syria, they’ve been urgently developing and manufacturing drones with surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, large UAV’s capable of deadly ordinance delivery, and smaller drones like the KUB-LA from Kalashnikov. These drones bolstered Russian effectiveness on the Syrian front, allowing manned aviation and artillery forces to deliver devastating and precise blows to opposition forces. Now, they want a whole spectrum of strike UAVs for a diverse range of combat missions.

Larger drones are more expensive and have better capabilities, but they are easier to detect and more expensive to lose. The prospect of a dozen or more KUB-BLA drones acting as a swarm attacking a military target would be harder to defend against, because they are hard to target and difficult to detect. Militarized swarm drones attacking a single target in concert provides weapons engineers with a lot of options. But U.S. forces already know about the power and versatility of swarm drones.


Later this year, DARPA will be demonstrating an airborne launch and airborne recapture of drone swarms, or unmanned aerial systems (UAS), which is in its final phase of development. Each drone in the swarm is known as a “gremlin”, and they goal is also to demonstrate that they are reusable, cheap and reliable. 

The Gremlins will be launched from a C-130 transport aircraft, perform a mission and then return to proximity for in-air recapture, a similar concept to in-air refueling for aircraft that stay in the air 24/7. After one mission, the C-130 will land, where ground crews can prep them for a different mission with a 24-hour period of time. At Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona, the hard dock and recovery system have already been tested successfully. The separation and captive flight tests proved that DARPA has achieved its goal of recovering four gremlins in 30 minutes.

Weapons engineers used data from preliminary flight tests to understand challenges of risk reduction by modeling data and simulating different scenarios. Each gremlin is expected to be reusable up to 20 times, providing the U.S. Air Force with a cost-effective weapon that reduces payload costs and offsets airframe expenditures while reducing maintenance and mission expenses typical of most platforms.

Though the gremlins are only outfitted to the C-130 aircraft, the system is modular enough to be outfitted to other types of aircraft. The gremlins can be outfitted with sensors that weigh up to 150 pounds, as well as ordinance or other technology for delivery or deployment. DARPA’s gremlins are attractive to potential transition partners because the program doesn’t require any permanent modification to host aircraft.

The DARPA program team is looking at the possibility of demonstrating different sensor packages with potential partners integration partners before the program is completed later this year.