Russia revealed plans this week to speed development of its S-70 Okhotnik (Hunter) stealth attack drone, with deliveries now scheduled for 2024 rather than 2025 as originally planned. This stands in contrast to the U.S., where plans for similar drones are moving ahead slowly and cautiously.
The new plan was disclosed after Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Yuri Slyusar, CEO of developers United Aircraft Corporation on 3 August. The Okhotnik is being developed by UAC subsidiary Sukhoi, and first flew in August last year. It is a substantial aircraft: according to Russian news agency Interfax, it can carry over 13,000 pounds of bombs and has a range of over 3,000 miles. As well as bombs and surface-to-air missiles, the drone can carry air-to-air missiles and reconnaissance gear.
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According to Slyusar the Okhotnik has ‘unprecedented capabilities’ in terms of range and variety of weapons.
The flying-wing shape indicates a high degree of stealth. Unlike the U.S. Air Force’s current workhorse MQ-9 Reaper, Okhotnik is designed for full-blown conflicts, rather than counter-insurgency operations against opponents with no air defenses. In this regard it bears a distinct resemblance to Northrop Grumman’s X-47B strike drone project. However, it appears to be following a quite different development path.
The X-47 was initially part of a DARPA project, the Joint Unmanned Combat Air System, which was taken over by a joint US Navy and Air Force office in 2005. The Air Force pulled out, and the Navy selected Northrop Grumman to develop a jet-powered, carrier-based strike drone. The X-47B first flew in 2011. By 2015 though, the Navy was having second thoughts, and was not convinced the X-47 was suitable for its the renamed Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance Strike (UCLASS).
Since then things have gone downhill. The UCLASS requirement was steadily downgraded, from a strike drone to a reconnaissance drone with some strike capability and an additional role as a flying fuel tanker, then to a flying fuel tanker. Now known as Carrier Based Aerial Refueling System (CBARS), it has effectively been demoted from Top Gun contender to pumping gas. And the role will be taken by the non-stealthy Boeing MQ-25 Stingray rather than the stealthy X-47B. ((The designation was originally RAQ-25, signifying reconnaissance and attack roles, now replaced with the generic M for a ‘multi-mission’ aircraft)).
This suggests that even with a long head start, the U.S. may finish behind Russia. And while the Okhotnik will be a heavily armed stealthy strike drone, tackling defenses ahead of the manned aircraft, it is not even clear if the Stingray will fly attack missions.
The U.S. Navy argues that the Stingray will allow them to learn how to manage manned and unmanned aircraft flying together than refine their concept of operations before moving to a more advanced drone. Russia seems intent on going ahead with a combat drone to fly alongside its new Su-57 combat aircraft as soon as possible.
This eagerness to field as rapidly as possible mirrors the situation on the ground, where Russia sent Uran-9 armed robots into action in Syria in 2019. The U.S. has declined to use its own SWORDS/Talon robots in combat even though they were deployed to the Iraq theater in 2007. The Uran-9 reportedly performed very badly in Syria – but the developers now claim to have identified and corrected all the problems that cropped up. Go fast, make mistakes, and learn from them seems to be the approach.
As the U.S. Air Force proceeds cautiously with a long-term plan testing of smaller ‘loyal wingman’ combat drones, Russia seems keen to push ahead with fielding the Okhotnik and learn lessons along the way.
“It’s important to remember that the current Okhotnik version is a test-bed and a demonstrator, with the final version being different from the one currently in testing,” says Samuel Bendett, adviser to the think tank CNA’s Russia program, who specializes in Russian unmanned military systems. “Major characteristics like carrying capacity, engines, electronics and other quals will probably be revised before the final version gores into production.”
This approach may end up back at the drawing board after a costly disaster. Or, after some mistakes along the way, Russia may get a combat-proven stealth drone on the international market before rivals have finished testing theirs. Putin, it seems, is not afraid of a gamble when the potential gains are big enough.
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