Russia might have reached the point where it will throw new weapons systems at the fight in Ukraine, even though those systems are not ready.
Russia has been holding back its vaunted S-70 Okhotnik-B (Hunter) stealth unmanned aerial vehicle while it tests various capabilities. Earlier this year, the heavy combat S-70 ran tests with air-to-surface missiles.
While there are no solid reports of the drone being used in Ukraine, it is getting closer to serial production.
S-70: Hastening Drone Development
The S-70 Okhotnik-B is believed to have test-launched Kh-38M and Kh-59MK2 ground attack missiles over the summer. Russian state-run media said the munitions were fired at small camouflaged targets on the surface, and the tests showed the drone’s accuracy.
The S-70 also dropped at least one unguided bomb in an earlier evaluation flight.
Initial operational capability for the S-70 Okhotnik-B is not slated to happen until the mid-2020s, but the war may hasten its development, assuming parts shortages don’t become an issue. Other prototypes might emerge in the next one or two years, with serial production in 2023. Russia could perform a combat test over Ukraine with its prototypes, but it might not want to risk their destruction.
The Okhotnik-B took its maiden flight in 2019 and is made by the Russian Aircraft Corporation. It weighs 20 tons and is 46 feet long with a wingspan of 62 feet. The Okhotnik-B can reach speeds of 621 mph and is thought to be a featured loyal wingman partner for Russia’s Su-57 Felon stealth fighter.
Up to four of the Hunter drones could fly ahead of a Su-57 formation and fire their weapons, while the Felon fighter stays back to quarterback the unmanned operations.
The Hunter drone could also serve in a reconnaissance mode and supply targeting information to Russian missiles such as the Tsirkon hypersonic missile.
The unmanned craft uses the same engine as the Su-57 – the AL-41F1 – giving it a range of over 3,700 miles. The drone has a stealthier flat jet nozzle to reduce radar signature, and its flying wing design features internal weapons bays that have a payload of 4,409 pounds.
The Hunter could be delayed by microprocessor shortages afflicting Russia because of Western sanctions. The drone is expected to feature some level of artificial intelligence, allowing it to operate autonomously. A lack of computer chips, then, could keep the S-70 Okhotnik-B in test mode for the coming months.
Whenever it is ready, the S-70 Okhotnik-B could be deployed by the Mitrofan Moskalenko, a 44,000-ton helicopter carrier and amphibious assault ship. The Moskalenko would be able to carry four Okhotnik-Bs. This may be the best option for the navy since its only aircraft carrier, the troubled Admiral Kuznetsov, is in dry dock.
It is always difficult to gauge Russia’s defense industry. Can it deliver the S-70 Okhotnik-B in time for service in Ukraine? To make this happen, Moscow must procure spare parts and microchips, which are usually in short supply.
The S-70 Okhotnik-B gives Russia new capabilities in combat, especially as a loyal wingman that can engage in ground strike, recon mode, or as a spotter for advanced missiles.
Russia is likely to bring this drone to fruition as soon as it can.
Expert Biography: Serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Dr. Brent M. Eastwood is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and Foreign Policy/ International Relations.