In January, NEWSREP covered leaked images of Russia’s “stealth” combat drone, the Su-70 Okhotnik-B, in an effort to assess the validity of Russia’s claims regarding the platform. At the time, it seemed clear that the aircraft likely had the power required to carry some serious firepower (thanks to what appears to be a fourth generation, afterburning jet engine). However, the source of the Okhotnik’s power (Okhotnik translates to Hunter) is likely also why the platform lacks any usable level of stealth, regardless of Russian claims.
Despite a number of common misconceptions, stealth is not only a matter of evading radar detection. In fact, stealth platforms like America’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and B-2 Spirit rely on a number of compounding design ques, technologies, and even operational strategies to delay detection and prevent weapons from locking on to the aircraft. Both the F-22 and F-35 are often even visible to lower frequency radar bands like those often employed by civilian air traffic controllers, but these lower frequencies are almost entirely incapable of capturing a weapon’s grade lock. In other words, when China claims that they can see F-22’s flying in their airspace, they’re likely right — they just couldn’t do anything about it.
Other elements that play an integral role in an aircraft’s stealthiness include masking the infrared signature produced by the aircraft’s engine exhaust. The F-117 Nighthawk, America’s first stealth platform and the first stealth aircraft ever to see combat, may have been the first to incorporate carefully designed exhaust slits meant to dissipate heat while the aircraft is in flight. The F-117’s F404 engines also notably lacked afterburners (which would have almost certainly compromised the airplanes sneakiness) and as result, it actually had a lower top speed than a B-52 bomber.
These two essential elements of a stealth design are of import regarding Russia’s Hunter because it doesn’t seem to address either the radar return created by the exhaust outlet from it’s engine, or the issue of infrared detection from the same source. When covering this aircraft earlier in the year, we assumed that Russian engineers intended to fit a shroud over the jet nozzle sticking out the back of the aircraft, but in this new footage released earlier this week, the drone can be seen taking flight for the first time — with a big, hot, radar loving jet nozzle un-shrouded and protruding proudly from its tail.
This first flight lasted about 20 minutes, with the drone flying to an altitude of around 600 meters according to Russian media. While the video doesn’t offer any indication of where the flight took place, satellite images show the Hunter parked alongside some other notable Russian aircraft at the State Flight-Test Center in Russia’s Astrakhan region, including the controversial fifth-generation Su-57 that was just recently brought back from the dead, so to speak, with new plans to get production moving.
the size of the Russian prototype UAV Okhotnik-B is surprisingly big – contrasting the compact size of the Su-57, UAV tend to be bigger as loiter time is an important consideration and being a stealth UAV, carrying some weapons internally as well is required, it wont come cheap. pic.twitter.com/eQe9V0N1Vb
— Tom Weiss (@LockOnFiles) May 22, 2019
As the tweet above indicates, the benefit of using armed combat drones is often their ability to loiter for extended periods of time, though after taking a good look at this drone, it seems unlikely that it would offer any advantage over most of Russia’s capable fourth generation fighters. Because of the size of this drone and its use of an afterburning engine, it would need massive fuel stores in order to pull off lengthy flights. Put simply, if it’s the same general size of large fourth generation fighter, and has the same engine as a large fourth generation fighter, it likely has the same fuel range as a large fourth generation fighter.
It would seem, then, that this new drone is like so many other high profile Russian defense endeavors: more important as a means to garner attention than as an actual tool of warfare. Russia has long worked to position themselves as the weapons provider of choice for nations on Uncle Sam’s naughty list, and an important part of that endeavor and maintaining the perception that Russia can keep pace with the advanced weapons systems being produced by Western nations like the United States.