As SOFREP has discussed in the past, Russia’s limited defense budget has forced them to adopt a unique strategy when it comes to new weapons development. Instead of looking to compete with the military might of the United States directly in every category, they have opted to invest heavily into specific programs that seem as if they could yield the best bang for their buck (or ruble, as the case may be). One of the places this methodology has left them lagging behind their peers, however, is in drone technology.
However, a recent announcement made through the Kremlin’s state-owned TASS news agency suggests that Russia’s long-simmering combat drone program may finally be ready to take to the skies later this year — and like all claims made by the Kremlin, it’s best to take their announcement with a grain of salt.
According to the report, Russia’s Okhotnik (which translates to “Hunter”) will fly for the first time by the end of this year, marking a significant milestone in the program that began back in 2011. Its official designation is the URBK, or Udarno-Razvedyvatelnyi Bespilotnyi Kompleks, which translates to “Strike-Reconnaissance Unmanned Complex.” The unmanned combat aircraft is being developed by Sukhoi, the same aviation firm responsible for many of Russia’s fighter jets, including their forthcoming fifth-generation fighter, the Su-57.
Originally touted as a “sixth generation” platform, the Hunter drone seems to offer considerably less than the Kremlin hoped when it made that claim. Weighing in at a massive 20 tons, that makes this drone about as heavy as many fighter platforms, which is unusual in the drone market because the aircraft requires no pilot or systems intended to interact with or support personnel. Early claims also suggested the that Hunter would be equipped with two jet engines, though it now appears to only carry one, with a subsonic top speed of a claimed 621 miles per hour.
Russia claims the heavyweight combat drone will be covered in radar absorbent material, bolstering its stealthy flying wing design and making it uniquely suited for operating in the high-risk environments of modern contested airspace. The image above, sourced from the Russian aviation centered message board paralay.iboards.ru, is believed to be the drone in question. Based on the picture and Russia’s claims of stealth, it’s likely that the aircraft will fly with weapons carried via internal weapons bays, not unlike most fifth-generation fighters. External weapon payloads can increase an aircraft’s chances of being detected by enemy radar.
According to unnamed Russian officials quoted by TASS, the unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) was purpose-built for “destroying enemy air defense systems, communications, command and control posts in situations when the use of aircraft is associated with considerable risks for crews.” In other words, Russia hopes to use the Hunter as a part of the first wave of combat aircraft to enter into enemy airspace, using precision munitions to destroy an enemy’s means of engaging with manned aircraft that would soon follow.
Unlike many of Russia’s claims regarding new aircraft or weapons systems, most of what they’ve said about the Hunter recently seems relatively feasible. A subsonic combat drone with limited stealth capabilities is not outside the realm of reason by any stretch, and the slow development of the platform is in keeping with budgetary limitations experienced by the Russian defense apparatus in recent years, particularly since new sanctions were levied following Russia’s military annexation of Crimea in 2014.
The tactical value of the drone will really boil down to production. It will offer no new capabilities as compared to the advanced Su-57 fighter, but the costs associated with their 5th generation aircraft have forced them to limit their order of the new jet to just 12. If the drone proves more cost-efficient to produce, Russia could purchase more of them, offering a stealthy platform that could engage enemy air defenses as a significantly reduced cost. In effect, it may not be a new capability this “Hunter” drone has to offer, but it may be cost-effective enough to put into use in a broader range of situations.
Featured image courtesy of paralay.iboards.ru