Top Priority: Estonia will focus on improving its reconnaissance capability and plans to purchase Global Hawks as part of a joint procurement by a group of NATO members. (Northrop Grumman)
WARSAW — Some Eastern European countries aim to boost their UAV fleets following Russian intervention in Crimea, local analysts say, as Moscow also increases its UAV capabilities.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu has announced an ambitious 320 billion ruble (US $8.9 billion) drone program designed to boost the country’s UAV fleet by 2020. The focus will be on aerial strike and reconnaissance capabilities.
The program has political backing at the highest level. Last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin called drones a vital area of development in modern aviation.
Poland Accelerates Acquisitions
Russia’s military procurement plans and its intervention in Ukraine helped spur the Polish Defense Ministry to accelerate its drone procurement program, reported local news agency PAP. Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said on March 5 that the Ukrainian crisis will force the government to reassess the priorities of its plan to modernize the armed forces by 2022 under a 130 billion zloty ($42.7 billion) program.
“We have to be prepared for long-term instability across Poland’s eastern border. This is why we will be developing a range of means to strengthen our fast-response capacity in critical situations,” Tusk said.
This year, Poland was one of the first countries to officially recognize the Ukrainian government formed by Arseniy Yatsenuk in opposition to ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych.
Following Tusk’s announcement, senior Defense Ministry officials said in late April that Poland would acquire its first new UAVs in 2016. The armed forces aim to acquire several hundred drones in multiple variants under a 3 billion zloty program.
“The acceleration in the launch of the medium-altitude, long-endurance drone procurement procedure is one of the elements which were changed in the technical modernization program of the Polish military,” said Czeslaw Mroczek, the deputy defense minister responsible for acquisitions of arms and military equipment.
Under the plan, the first batch of medium-altitude, long-endurance drones will consist of 12 UAVs designed for reconnaissance missions, but also fitted with strike capabilities. Originally, the Defense Ministry planned to use the new UAVs to replace Poland’s outdated Sukhoi Su-22 fighter jets in a ground attack role, but the project has reportedly been scrapped.
Mroczek said the armed forces have already drafted the tactical-technical specifications for the drones.
“The Ukrainian crisis is shifting defense priorities of many countries in the region,” said Marek Jablonowski, a political scientist at the University of Warsaw. “Many of them reduced their defense expenditures … over the past years. But with security concerns growing in the region, this trend is likely to be reversed.”
Speaking April 29, Mroczek said the ministry will launch the procurement in several weeks, and securing the participation of local companies in UAV production will be one of the program’s cornerstones, according to the deputy minister.
Poland’s Navy also is developing an unmanned fleet. In November, the service acquired two Gavia autonomous underwater vehicles from Iceland’s Teledyne Gavia. These will mainly perform minesweeping missions in the Baltic Sea, according to the Defense Ministry’s Armament Directorate.
Estonia Eyes Global Hawks
Among the three Baltic states, which have been highly critical of Russia’s intervention in Crimea, Estonia has intensified efforts to create a military drone fleet since the Ukrainian crisis broke out.
Local analysts said the Estonian armed forces view upgrading their reconnaissance capability as a top military priority. The military aims to buy RQ-4 Global Hawk UAVs from Northrop Grumman as part of a joint procurement by a group of NATO nations, local broadcaster ERR reported. These countries include Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Norway, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.
Estonia has earmarked €6 million (US $8.3 million) for its share of the acquisition, reportedly set for 2015 or 2016.