US Media Dubs Russia’s Okhotnik Drone ‘Beast’ That Could Pose ‘Big Problem for NATO’
16:36 GMT 23.10.2021 (Updated: 17:13 GMT 23.10.2021)
© Photo : YouTube / ZvezdaScreengrab of a report on the Okhotnik drone by Zvezda, the official channel of the Russian Defence Ministry.
© Photo : YouTube / Zvezda
The S-70 Okhotnik ("Hunter") is a Russian flying wing drone developed by Sukhoi and the MiG Corporation. The unmanned aerial vehicle is designed to carry out a variety of missions, including serving as a wingman to Russia’s Sukhoi Su-57 fifth-gen stealth fighter. The drone and fighter are thought to share some of the same systems.
The Okhotnik drone is a “beast” of a project that could become a “big problem for NATO” once its production begins, independent US-based defence news outlet 19fortyfive says.
Suggesting that the heavy UAV is shaping up to be “one of the most advanced drones in the world,” if its stated specifications are correct, the outlet lists off its advanced features, including its flying wing shape and low silhouette, baked in AI capabilities expected to allow it to fly without a full-time link to a human operator.
The 20-tonne drone has an estimated range of some 3,700 miles (nearly 6,000 km), and a cruising speed of up to 600 miles (965 km) per hour. The drone is expected to be able to carry up to 4,400 pounds (2,000 kg) of munitions – ranging from cruise missiles and precision bombs to anti-air missiles. The aircraft has a wingspan of 19 metres, and is 14 metres long from nose to tail. Its composite material construction is designed to reduce radar signature.
19fortyfive points out that in addition to its intended use as a deep strike, reconnaissance/surveillance or airborne early warning aircraft, it’s expected to be deployed as a loyal wingman alongside Russia’s Su-57 fighter, with up to four of the drones operating alongside a single Su-57.
“The ‘ever-loyal wingman’ concept is intriguing. It is doubtful that the Russians would be able to control four of the drones with the actions of a single fighter pilot. But this introduces a new wrinkle in air combat for the Russians. The Okhotnik is a beast if its specifications are accurate, and if it can complete all of its testing successfully in the coming years,” the outlet suggests.
19fortyfive is not entirely convinced on the drone’s stealth characteristics, nor those of the Su-57, suggesting that developers may have “over-stated the radar evasion aptitudes” of the jet. It stresses however that “the Russians…should be given credit if they can fully integrate the Okhotnik with the Su-57.”
The Okhonik is still in development, and its introduction into the aerospace forces is expected to begin no earlier than 2024.
The drone carried out its first test flight in August 2019, with a flight testing alongside a fighter jet taking place shortly thereafter. In January 2021, the Okhotnik successfully dropped a half-tonne unguided aerial bomb onto a ground target at the Ashuluk test range in Astrakhan region, southern Russia.
In February, a source in the Russian military industry told Sputnik that the Novosibirsk Chkalov aviation plant would build three additional prototypes, with the new UAVs to include minor changes based on the operational testing of first prototype, including tinkering with onboard radio-electronic equipment and changes to airframe structural elements. The third and fourth prototypes are expected to correspond to the production version of the drone, and to be tested between 2022-2023.
Earlier this year, Evgeny Frolov, a test pilot taking part in the drone’s trials, told Sputnik that when operating alongside the Su-57, the drones will be able to take targeting instructions from the fighter itself, rather than its pilot, with the craft eventually expected to be able to fly in fully automatic mode without the use of a ground-based operator.
Russian military aircraft specialists have indicated that Okhotniks may one day become a full-fledged replacement for all sorts of combat aircraft, allowing the aerospace forces to carry out potentially dangerous missions without endangering pilots’ lives – such as missions to break through dense air defences.
In July, Russia’s defence ministry urged industry to speed up the testing and delivery of the Okhotnik.
The US and China are known to be working on their own drone-based loyal wingman programmes. In 2019, the Pentagon revealed that both Lockheed Martin and Boeing were looking to incorporate drone ‘sidekicks’ alongside their F-35 and F-15EX fighters under the "Skyborg" programme. China’s drone wingman programme is known as the LJ-1. Few details have emerged about the project since the drone was first shown in at a Russian air show in 2019.
The Okhotnik is one of a number of drone designs either being developed or already serving in Russia’s arsenal. Other systems include the Sokol Altius long-endurance reconnaissance, strike and electronic attack drone for use by the Air Force and Navy, a drone-hunting UAV known as the Volk-18, and the Inohodets attack drone – which has seen combat testing against jihadist militants in Syria.