Ukraine Downs Russian Drone Near Donetsk
Yet another “Orlan” drone downed in the Donbas
On April 29, the Ukrainian Security Services (SBU) shared three photographs of an Orlan unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), which was reportedly shot down on April 28 near the Ukrainian-controlled city of Volnovakha in the Donetsk Oblast.
Clearly, it is quite difficult to verify the SBU’s claim that this was an Orlan drone from the available images. In one of the photographs, a label can be seen. If we flip the image 180 degrees, the label becomes clear — 55xi, with a stylized “3W” before it.
This refers to a drone engine produced by the German company 3W, which makes engines and spare parts for drones and model planes. The engine is either a 55xi or 55xi CS, as both could use the same engine sticker seen above. This information is corroborated by another photograph published by the SBU, showing what appears to be the 3W 55xi CS engine.
Just from the materials provided by the SBU, we cannot definitively identify the drone model, as the engine type is not a unique feature for the Orlan. This German-made engine is freely available to purchase online and is used in multiple drones, including hobby aircraft. However, if it was indeed an Orlan, it would be far from its first appearance in eastern Ukraine.
Previous Orlan Downings
About half a dozen Orlan — specifically the Orlan-10 — drones have been downed and recovered in eastern Ukraine after being used by Russia-backed separatist forces. These drones are manufactured in Russia for the Russian Armed Forces, and have been used either by the Russian Armed Forces or the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) in Syria, per reports in 2015. The Orlan-10 has never been part of Ukraine’s arsenal and is not commercially available; therefore, any models sighted in the Ukrainian conflict zone can only have come from Russia.
The first downing claimed to be an Orlan took place in May 2014, after which the SBU shared photographs of the downed drone. The SBU did not reveal the location of the downing, instead indicating it was “in the area of the anti-terrorist operation.”
In one picture, the Orlan engine is seemingly the same as the one recovered in the recent downing — a 3W 55xi CS.
The second Orlan downing took place in July 2014 near Zelenopilya. A photograph of an Orlan-10 drone was shared by Ukrainian Ministry of Defense official Vladislav Seleznev.
This drone has the serial number 10212 depicted in a black/dark gray circle — a common detail with Orlan-10 drones, as seen in photographs and videos of them being manufactured and tested in Russia.
The next Orlan-10 downing took place in July 2014 by the Ukrainian 79th Separate Airborne Assault Brigade near the Russian border. The same black mark with five digits is visible on the drone’s fuselage.
Yet another Orlan-10 downing took place in July 2014 near Amvrosiivka, as seen in photographs shared on the Facebook page of the Ukrainian ATO Press Center.
Like with the other Orlan-10 drones downed in July, this drone had a five-digital serial number that started with 102 (10237).
In early August 2014, a Ukrainian Air Defense military unit downed an Orlan-10 with a Strela-10 anti-aircraft missile complex. This information was shared on the Facebook page of the Ukrainian ATO Press Center.
While this drone is in much worse shape than previous ones, we can still find the tell-tale serial number, this time reading 10215.
In April 2016, the SBU shared a video on its YouTube channel showing Ukrainian soldiers recovering an Orlan-10 drone downed near Avdiivka. The serial number for this drone is 10264, seen on both the wings and fuselage.
In November 2016, an Orlan-10 was recovered near Melekyne in the Donetsk Oblast. According to the ATO Press Center, the drone was launched from the Rostov Oblast in Russia and monitored positions near Mariupol before it was downed. Again, we find a five-digital serial number in a black/dark gray circle— 10332.
Russia’s Eye in the Sky
In 2015, Russian officials proclaimed that the Orlan-10 drone would be Russia’s “eye in the sky to watch over NATO.” However, this drone has become one of the most frequent sights in the skies over the Donbas since the spring of 2014, and one of the most blatant examples of Russia’s involvement in the ongoing conflict.
While the photographs published by the SBU of the drone downed in Volnovakha do not conclusively identify it as an Orlan-10, there is little reason to doubt this assessment, as it uses the same engine type seen in previous Russian Orlan-10 drones recovered in the Donbas. We expect that this is not the last time we will see the Orlan-10 in the Donbas, as Russia’s use of the system has been an open secret since May 2014. Russia’s use of these drones is a clear and continued violation of the Minsk accords, though Russia does not attempt to hide the activity, with the drones hiding in plain sight in the skies over eastern Ukraine.