Russian artillery testing
Russian soldiers fire a 2S12 "Sani" 120 mm heavy mortar system during the "Masters of Artillery Fire" competition at a range outside Saratov, Russia, Aug. 10, 2015. Reuters/Maxim Zmeyev

The Russian military is testing the idea that small drones could someday help guide artillery fire to targets outside a gunner’s line of sight. Russia doesn’t possess the kind of advanced, armed unmanned aerial vehicles the U.S. deploys throughout the Middle East, but appears to be exploring ways smaller drones can improve existing weapons.

The U.S. military newsletter OE Watch announced in the August issue the Kremlin is using unarmed Orlan-10 drones “to facilitate timely and accurate adjustment of” the explosive shells fired from Russian artillery batteries and battalions. The Orlan-10, which has a range of roughly 6.2 miles (10 kilometers), can identify a target on its cameras and send that video back to the artillery battalion. From there, the gunners would essentially aim at the drone as it hovers over the true target.

OE Watch expounded on the findings on page 60 of the current issue:

The integration of UAVs into the Russian artillery spotting system should be of little surprise. The Russian Federation, as the Soviet Union, has put primacy on the artillery, while many Western armies focus upon infantry. Motorized infantry and tanks are still required to capture and hold ground, but the vast majority of damage is doctrinally planned to be done by the artillery. Since artillery systems have ranges well beyond the line of site, [the Russian MSTA-C self-propelled howitzer has range of 29-36 km], they rely on forward observers to find targets and correct fire. The use of UAVs for this purpose is an important capability for an artillery-centric way of fighting.

Russian soldiers are also testing a method that geolocates a target based on where it's situated in relation to the Orlan-10 drone. “Russia trades accuracy for throwing a mother-loving hell of a lot of shells in the general director of the enemy,” Robert Beckhusen, managing editor of War Is Boring, wrote in a post explaining the test.

The U.S., Britain and Israel are the only countries known to have deployed aerial drones capable of firing missiles. But Russia, like China, is one of nearly 100 countries to have unmanned aerial vehicles and use them for a variety of purposes, primarily surveillance and reconnaissance.

“People in Washington like to talk about this as if the supposed American monopoly on drones might end one day,” Peter W. Singer, the futurist author who heads the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at the Brookings Institution, told the Washington Times. “Well, the monopoly ended years ago.”