Russia’s long troubled fifth-generation fighter, the Su-57, was recently brought back from the brink of death with the announcement that the nation intends to actually put the platform into mass production. Until recently, Russia’s token fleet of a dozen or so Su-57s was expected to be the extent of the nation’s fifth-generation fleet. Despite concerns that the Su-57 may not actually be nearly as stealthy as advertised, Russia is moving forward with plans to build 76 more of the fighters, likely as a part of their efforts to secure export contracts with nations like Turkey that are no longer in America’s good graces enough to secure their own F-35s.
But the Su-57 isn’t the only “stealth” platform that doesn’t seem as stealthy as it’s supposed to be that Russia has been touting in the international press as of late; There’s also the Okhotnik-B, or Hunter, unmanned combat drone. Thanks to the addition of a new shroud around it’s seemingly fourth-generation, afterburning fighter jet engine, the Hunter is expected to be stealthier than initial reports anticipated, despite lingering questions about Russia’s ability to produce platforms in quantity while keeping the tolerances between body panels tight enough to limit radar returns. In the big picture, neither the Su-57 nor the Hunter UCAV are expected to be able to match the stealth characteristics of America’s advanced platforms, but this first flight of the two together could indeed spell trouble for American defenses in a future hypothetical conflict.
“As part of the ongoing test program, the Okhotnik drone performed a flight in the automated mode,” the Russian Defense Ministry’s statement said. The S-70 will “broaden the fighter’s radar coverage and to provide target acquisition for employing air-launched weapons,” it continued.
The premise behind using drones as a wingman for advanced, network capable fighters isn’t new. The United States is currently developing a number of possibilities aimed at doing precisely that with the XQ-58A Valkyrie leading the way as a low-cost, semi-stealth drone platform capable of supporting F-35 combat missions in a number of ways. Russia, it seems, is now also looking to utilize low-observable drones in support of their own advanced fighters, and this test flight is the first step toward accomplishing that feat.
However, despite the symbolic importance of this flight, Russia has not confirmed that the two aircraft were actually networked at the time. If they were, it would mean Russia has overcome an important obstacle between them and putting these mixed formations into the fight… but if they weren’t actually networked, this video may be little more than a clever bit of Russian marketing meant to suggest the nation possesses technological capabilities it still lacks.
Even if that is the case, this flight would suggest that Russia is at least moving toward using UCAVs in support of stealth aircraft, which could dramatically increase the capabilities of their fighters regardless of questionable stealth capabilities. These UCAVs can expand the sensor reach of the manned aircraft, engage opponents, and even sacrifice themselves if need me to keep the manned aircraft in the fight, which is exactly why the United States is currently working to develop these capabilities themselves.
Russia, however, has historically been behind the curve when it comes to unmanned aerial vehicles, so it remains to be seen if they even truly have the technological capability to network their platforms effectively enough to make them useful in combat. If they do manage it, however, it could mean a return to the days of Russian aircraft being at the forefront of combat technology, even if the nation’s defense program suffers from a serious lack of funding.