The Russians are coming … and this time, they’re using stealth UCAVs.
Make no mistake, the release of a Russian ministry of defense video of a Sukhoi S-70 Okhotnik (Hunter) unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) undertaking its first true flight had direct intent.
President Vladimir Putin, is knocking on the Pentagon’s door … in true gunslinger, Putin style.
The Okhotnik program has been ongoing since 2012, and its flying-wing configuration first came to public attention when a blurred photo of a prototype appeared on the internet, AINonline reported.
In January 2019, in what appeared to be a staged “leak,” a series of photos appeared of an S-70 being towed around the airfield of the Novosibirsk Aircraft Production Association (NAPO).
But it appears that the official first flight occurred on August 3, lasting for more than 20 minutes and reaching an altitude of 600 meters (1,970 feet) during the course of a number of circuits.
No location has been revealed for the flight in the video, but on May 16 a prototype was at the Valery Chakov State Flight Test Center (GLITs) at Akhtubinsk, where it was presented to President Putin.
At around this time, it was photographed outside at Akhtubinsk by a satellite, and it is possible that the official first flight was conducted from there, the report said.
In this photograph, the UCAV is wearing a striking new camouflage pattern, as also seen in the video. Apart from the camouflage and the addition of two large instrumented air data booms for tests, the aircraft appears to exhibit no major changes between the recent images and those from January.
Okhotnik is a large, 20-ton UCAV, broadly similar in size and weight to the Northrop Grumman X-47B UCAV demonstrator. It has a large internal volume for fuel and weapons, although Russian authorities have described it as an ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) platform, the report said.
There is some evidence to suggest that it is intended to operate as a “loyal wingman” alongside the Sukhoi Su-57 fighter, a development example of which was seen carrying Su-57 and S-70 silhouettes on its fins.
According to The National Interest, the Hunter-B is in the same class as China’s Tian Ying drone, the U.S. Air Force’s RQ-170 surveillance unmanned aerial vehicle and Boeing’s X-45C drone demonstrator.
It likely is subsonic. Its shape could give it stealth qualities from some angles, but its unshielded engine nozzle probably means it easily can be detected from behind.
“The drone is equipped with equipment for optical-electronic, radio engineering and other types of intelligence,” TASS reported.
The likelihood of Hunter-B eventually entering squadron service with the Russian air force is “big,” Tom Cooper, an independent expert on Russian military aviation, told The National Interest.
“The Russian military is running multiple UAV-related projects,” Cooper said. “Thus the emergence of this project is perfectly normal.”
According to Jane’s, the Russian armed forces will commission medium-range UCAVs for the first time in 2019, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu announced during a session of the State Duma’s defence committee on 11 March.
Shoigu noted that, since 2013, the Russian Army has equipped 38 units with more than 2,000 UAVs. The minister said that from 2019, the army would also receive medium-range attack and reconnaissance UAVs.
Russia has considerably lagged behind the West, especially the US and Israel, in UAV technology in general and UCAVs in particular.
None of the UAVs in service with the Russian armed forces have been reported to have a strike capability but various UAVs have been extensively employed for battlefield reconnaissance and fire-control tasks.