The Russian military is flying two prototype stealthy S-70 “hunter” drones expected to become operational by 2024, a significant and potentially concerning development for the Pentagon.
The Okhotnik is not only stealthy but reported to be an armed strike drone as well, according to numerous reports including one from as far back as 2018 in Russia Beyond quoting Russian experts discussing the drone.
“The Okhotnik’s arsenal includes air-to-surface missiles and an array of bombs (glide and operator-controlled) that will not be suspended from the wings, but hidden inside the body to reduce visibility on enemy radar,” Professor Vadim Kozyulin of the Russian Academy of Military Sciences told Russia Beyond.
As discussed in the Russia Beyond essay, the Okhotnik appears to present significant threats as it is reported to operate with an internal weapons bay, stealth coatings and a B-2-esque blended wing-body horizontal, stealthy configuration. The ability to keep weapons inside the aircraft without hanging them underneath on pylons, means the drone can attack while operating in stealth mode. There may also be some small “hard points” on the drone to enable a beast-mode kind of heavier attack. The absence of protruding structures, shapes and sharp angles from underneath weapons means ground based air-defense radar will have much less to “bounce” its signal or “ping” off of to generate a rendering to ground sensors.
Real questions about the drone also may pertain to the level of technological sophistication when it comes to its additional stealth characteristics, meaning what kind of thermal management or heat-reduction does the drone have?
How effective are the stealth coatings? Perhaps most of all, is there an internally buried engine which may ensure the air temperature surrounding the drone is roughly equivalent to the drone itself to essentially “blind” thermal sensors. How is the exhaust managed?
An equally pressing question introduced by the Russia Beyond essay is the development of AI-capabilities for the drone, something which would of course exponentially increase its ability to process sensor data, targeting information and the ability to network with both other unmanned and manned systems.
Russia’s TASS news agency has already written several stories about how their military is essentially “copying” the successful US Air Force networking of the F-35, F-22 and Valkyrie drone with manned-unmanned teaming between the Okhotnik and Russia’s 5th-generation Su-57. This raises key questions about the extent to which Russia can accomplish a successful ability to replicate the US Air Force’s “loyal wingman” concept and operate a manned fighter jet in close coordination with an unmanned, stealthy drone.
This reduces latency, streamlines attack possibilities and potentially networks attack detail across much broader and more threatening formations. The operational functionality of the integrated AI-data analysis and the extent to which manned-unmanned teaming networks are “hardened” are also pressing questions when it comes to the extent of the threat posed by the Russian drone.
However, Russia has not yet produced many Su-57s and there may be some question as to whether it has the industrial capacity to build impactful numbers of the new drone. While of course even a small number would likely present a credible threat, Russia may not have an ability to “scale” the existence of this drone in a rapid fashion.
Finally, while the US military is known to operate stealthy drones such as the Sentinel, there is no indication that the US operates an “armed” stealthy drone, a circumstance which might place the US at a deficit.
Kris Osborn is the Military Affairs Editor of 19 FortyFive and President of Warrior Maven – Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.