The Orlan Complex: Tracking the Supply Chains of Russia’s Most Successful UAV

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Main Image Credit Drawing of the Orlan UAV.


This investigation shows that Moscow's well-known UAV relies on complex supply chains that reach far beyond Russia's borders.

Executive Summary

A joint investigation between RUSI, Reuters and iStories has found that Russian companies closely associated with the St Petersburg-based Special Technology Centre Limited Liability Company (STC LLC or STC) – the Russian military-affiliated manufacturer of the Orlan-10 UAV1 – have drastically increased imports of critical Western-manufactured components since the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine began.

These imports will likely enable the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation (AFRF) to maintain and expand production of the country’s most successful UAV – a platform that sits at the heart of the country’s warfighting capabilities and enables the AFRF to rain accurate fire down on Ukrainian formations.2

Financial records, customs data, court records, Russian company filings and a range of other open sources indicate that many of these Western-manufactured imports are likely being procured by a St Petersburg-based company named SMT-iLogic3 on behalf of STC,4 which was first sanctioned by the US government in December 2016 for supporting Russia’s interference in the 2016 US Presidential election.5

These components, which are critical both to Russia’s plans to expand UAV production and its ongoing operations in Ukraine, are being shipped to Russia by a variety of distributors based in the United States, Europe, China, South Korea and Hong Kong.6

In many cases, these exporters appear to be operated by Russian nationals or expatriates based abroad with limited public profiles. In one such case, a US company owned by an individual with Russian and American citizenship named Igor Kazhdan shipped large volumes of export-controlled components to SMT-iLogic and another company named Device Consulting, also based in St Petersburg, in violation of US export controls.7

Some of SMT-iLogic’s largest suppliers since the start of Russia’s invasion have been a range of Hong Kong companies,8 some with a history of evading sanctions and providing military equipment to the Chinese government.9

Networks such as those profiled in this report are core to Russia’s ability to procure advanced microelectronics for its weapons programs. As the United States and its allies seek to restrict Russia’s ability to access the world’s most advanced technologies, trade restrictions such as export controls and sanctions are emerging as core tools available to policymakers.

This report highlights methodologies that can be used by state and non-state actors alike in combating Russian sanctions evasion networks. Approaches demonstrated in this report, including the use of open-source information, integration of modern data analysis methods, and the use of commercial technologies, can successfully identify sanctions evasion networks in detail and at scale. If governments wish to slow shipments to critical Russian military programmes such as the Orlan-10, they should:

  • Increase their ability to amass, analyse, and action open-source information through investments in data storage, processing, and visualization. Artificial intelligence will be a core part of several capabilities that can materially improve export control and sanctions enforcement, such as the creation of graph databases showing historical trading relationships, entity resolution, text extraction, machine translation, and geolocation.
     
  • Increase use of commercial analytics and data providers. As demonstrated in this report, commercial tools available today can allow for the identification of export control and sanctions evasion networks at scale.
     
  • Curate the data environment to ensure that actionable information flows to enforcement authorities to the maximum degree allowed by law. Enforcement authorities should work with Congress to pass laws that expand visibility into trade, corporate and risk data that would provide actionable intelligence on sanctions evasion networks, while safeguarding privacy and civil liberties.
     
  • Adopt systems that allow for data-driven interoperability with allies, including by adopting information architectures that allow for easy and secure sharing of information. The US is just one node in a global trading web used by sanctions and export control evaders – successful enforcement necessarily depends on joint action. The US can bring to bear open-source information and federated data architectures to share information with partners, even where sharing classified information is undesirable.
     
  • Partner with, and make greater use of, non-state analytical organisations with expertise in identifying illicit activity using open-source information. As this report demonstrates, non-state analytical actors possess significant expertise in identifying sanctions and export control evasion. The US and its allies should engage robustly with these organisations to share leads, investigative techniques, tools and data.

 

Fundamentally, improving this capability this will entail investments in the government’s ability to amass, analyse, and action large quantities of publicly-available and commercial information. This will allow the government to more quickly and comprehensively identify and address gaps in its enforcement of sanctions and export controls, allowing it to:

  • Rapidly sanction entities and individuals involved in the illicit supply chain of components to the AFRF.
     
  • Identify and prosecute individuals knowingly evading sanctions and export controls to ship components to the AFRF or those acting on their behalf.
     
  • Strengthen the monitoring of components and microelectronics moving to Russia and the identity of end-users to which they are being shipped.
     
  • Improve guidance and expand capacity-building operations for private sector companies and financial institutions engaged in exporting or financing these component flows.

Sources for the Executive Summary

1. Специальный технологический центр [Special Technology Centre], ‘Вооружение и военная техника’ [‘Weapons and military technology’], <https://www.stc-spb.ru/activities/vooruzhenie-i-voennaya-tekhnika/>, accessed 6 December 2022; Über Zalizyaken Ukroppen, ‘‘‘Orlan” Drones – The Sea Eagles of St. Petersburg’, <https://informnapalm.org/en/orlan-drones-the-sea-eagles-of-st-petersburg/>, accessed 7 November 2022; Avia-Pro, ‘Orlan-50. Specifications. A photo.’, <https://avia-pro.net/blog/orlan-50-tehnicheskie-harakteristiki-foto>, accessed 7 November 2022.

2. Author fieldwork in Ukraine.

3. ‘SMT-iLogic’ is the registered name of the company. The authors were unable to ascertain if ‘SMT’ is an acronym for anything.

4. Stephen Grey, Maurice Tammam and Maria Zholobova, ‘The global supply chain feeding Russia’s killer drones’, Reuters, 15 December 2022.

5. White House Office of the Press Secretary, ‘FACT SHEET: Actions in Response to Russian Malicious Cyber Activity and Harassment’, 29 December 2016, <https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2016/12/29/fact-sheet-actions-response-russian-malicious-cyber-activity-and>, accessed 11 November 2022; International Trade Compliance Blog, ‘US Sanctions Russian Intelligence and Security Services in Response to Alleged Election-Related Hacking’, 30 December 2016, <https://www.internationaltradecomplianceupdate.com/2016/12/30/us-sanctions-russian-intelligence-and-security-services-in-response-to-alleged-election-related-hacking/>, accessed 11 November 2022.

6. Trade data supplied by third-party commercial provider.

7. United States of America v. Igor Kazhdan, also known as ‘Alex Stanton’, ‘Criminal Complaint’, United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida, 0:22-mj-06066-PMH, 29 March 2022, see Pacer.gov, <https://pacer.login.uscourts.gov/>.

8. Trade data supplied by third-party commercial provider.

9. James Byrne, Gary Somerville, Joe Byrne, Jack Watling, Nick Reynolds and Jane Baker, ‘Silicon Lifeline: Western Microelectronics at the Heart of Russia’s War Machine’, RUSI Special Report, 8 August 2022.


WRITTEN BY

James Byrne

Director, OSIA

Open-Source Intelligence and Analysis (OSIA)

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Dr Jack Watling

Senior Research Fellow, Land Warfare

Military Sciences

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Professor Justin Bronk

Senior Research Fellow, Airpower & Technology

Military Sciences

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Gary Somerville

Research Fellow

Open-Source Intelligence and Analysis (OSIA)

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Joe Byrne

Research Fellow

Open-Source Intelligence and Analysis (OSIA)

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Jack Crawford

Research Analyst, OSIA

Open-Source Intelligence and Analysis (OSIA)

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Jane Baker

Independent Consultant

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