Open source tracking of the production, deployment, and downing of five Russian Forpost UAVs in the Donbas
Recently, independent Ukrainian blogger Askai707 found new photographs of a crashed Forpost unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV, or drone) in the village of Novopetrivs’ke in the Donetsk Oblast, from August 2014. Not only was the wreckage identified as a Forpost UAV, assembled in Russia for the Russian Armed Forces, but the exact serial numbers could be read from visible labels, allowing digital forensics researchers to identify five Forpost UAVs that have been lost in Ukraine since 2014: 905, 915, 916, 923, and 920 (Askai had a typo in the original tweet, misidentifying 920 as 960).
Обломки ещё одного российского БПЛА "Форпост" у села Новопетровское (47.844290, 38.816038) Донецкой области. Август 2014-го года. pic.twitter.com/2pruQpAV5I
— Askai (@askai707) December 28, 2016
БПЛА с борт. номером 960 – это, вероятно, как минимум 5-я потеря российских Форпост/Searcher: 905, 915, 916, 923. pic.twitter.com/JDITHmDEUy
— Askai (@askai707) December 28, 2016
Why are the losses of these Forpost UAVs notable, and where did these reconnaissance drones come from? We will examine the open source materials surrounding these UAVs, how they were manufactured in Russia, and the photographic and video evidence surrounding their wreckage in Ukraine.
Development of the Forpost
In 2015, independent Russian newspaper Vedomosti made international headlines when it reported that the Russian Ministry of Defense had recently purchased ten IAI Searcher II reconnaissance drones, manufactured by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI). This was not the first contract between IAI and Russia. A $53 million deal in 2009 turned into a $400 million contract in 2010 that allowed the production of the Forpost UAV, an exclusively Russian licensed copy of the Searcher II. Twelve of these Searcher II UAVs were delivered by IAI in 2011, and later assembled as Forpost UAVs.
The Forpost can be seen flying in the below video at the Kubinka airbase near Moscow:
These UAVs were assembled in Yekaterinburg at the Ural Works of Civil Aviation (UZGA, part of Oboronprom), as documented in a series of photographs by Russian military analyst Denis Fedutinov.
On many of the images taken by Fedutinov, the three-digit numbers on the Forpost UAVs, most of which start with nine, are visible.
Index of Downed Forposts
Many of these Russian military Forpost UAVs have been seen in eastern Ukraine. It is unclear whether they were operated by Russian soldiers or separatists, but as mentioned by Askai, five of these Forposts have been shot down there.
Forpost 923 was downed by Ukrainian Dnipro-1 Battalion soldiers in May 2015 near Pesky. This same UAV was photographed by Denis Fedutinov in 2013 in Yekaterinburg. In 2015, Christian Borys filmed the downed UAV, along with interviews with Ukrainian officials and soldiers, for Bellingcat.
A comparison between the downed UAV in Ukraine in 2015 and the UAV being assembled in Yekaterinburg in 2013 make it clear that they are indeed one and the same.
The manufacturing number 923, which is the same as the tail number of 923, was also found on the downed Forpost’s label.
Last week, Askai shared photographs that he discovered showing Forpost 920 downed at 47.844290, 38.816038 from August 2014. Additionally, manufacturing labels on the downed UAV show that it was initially developed by Israel Aerospace Industries. Askai found the photographs, which were posted on August 28, 2014, on the Russian-language social network Odnoklassniki.
Little information is available regarding the downing of Forpost 915, which reportedly took place in October 2016. On October 22, photographs were posted on the Vkontakte page “National information portal ‘Tisk’” showing a downed Forpost UAV with the number 915 on both its wing and manufacturing labels. The downing allegedly took place in the zone of the so-called “Anti-Terrorist Operation” (ATO), but no exact location is publicly known.
Along with photographs of the downed 920, Askai also shared photographs of fragments of Forpost 905, with matching numbers on the wing and manufacturing label. Askai told DFRLab that he found this photograph on the Facebook page of Tatyana Franchuk, who shared photographs in October 2014 from volunteers searching the battleground south of Ilovaysk (likely this field). The photographs were originally taken by Pavel Netyusov, per Tyzhden.ua.
In December 2012, NewsRU published a story about tests of Forpost UAVs at the Kubinka air base near Moscow in sub-freezing temperatures. Included in the story was a photograph of a Forpost with the number 905.
Last week, Askai shared a single photograph of the manufacturing label of Forpost 916.
Askai told DFRLab that he found this photograph of 916 on the website LostArmour.info in late October 2016, but is not certain about the original source. He shared additional photographs with us of 916 after it was downed, which were originally uploaded to LostArmour, which most often takes its information (sometimes unsourced) from social networks:
— Military Advisor (@miladvisor) July 18, 2016
With Russia’s use of the Forpost UAV in both Ukraine and Syria, the U.S. has reportedly halted the 2015 agreement between Israel and Russia, per FlightGlobal.
From this open source survey, it is clear that Russia has lost at least five Forpost UAVs in Ukraine, each costing roughly $6 million per Christian Borys. Downings of Forpost UAVs have been consistent throughout the war, from August 2014 (920), to after the Battle of Ilovaysk (905), to near Avdiivka in in May 2015 (923), and now apparently another downing in an unknown location in October 2016 (915). While the number of Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers is seemingly endless, there were only about a dozen Forpost UAVs in the Russian armory (now seven— at most), allowing internet sleuths to track the whereabouts and histories of each drone from production, to deployment, to eventual wreckage on the battlefield.
For more information on the use of UAVs in the Donbas, see the following reports and articles:
— UAS in Ukraine, by Carl Fischerström (Swedish Defense Materiel Administration)
— Emerging Unmanned Threats, by Larry Friese, with N.R. Jenzen-Jones & Michael Smallwood (ARES)
— Rebel Drones: UAV Overmatch in the Ukrainian Conflict, by James Harvey (U.S. Army Foreign Military Studies Office)
— Volunteers are creating a drone revolution for Ukraine’s army, by Olena Makarenko (Euromaidan Press)
— Ukraine Hates Its New Donated American Drones, by Kyle Mizokami (Popular Mechanics)
— Ukraine Scrambles for UAVs, but Russian Drones Own the Skies, by Adam Rawnsley (War is Boring)
— Ukraine’s DIY Drone War: Self-taught soldiers facing up to Russian-back war machine, by Nicholas Lazaredes (ABC Australia)
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