Another day, another arrow in President Putin’s quiver.
Or so it seems.
According to sources, Russia is now developing a two-seat Su-57 fighter for tandem flight with the Okhotnik combat drone, TheDefensePost reported.
The latest version of the fifth-generation stealth fighter is being reportedly designed to control four Okhotniks simultaneously, Russian state media outlet TASS reported, citing a source.
“To control the newest Okhotnik drones, a double command version of the Su-57 will be created. It is assumed that the fighter, which is already being developed, will carry about four Okhotniks with it,” the agency quoted the unnamed source as saying.
The Okhotnik, or S-70 unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV), is being developed under the Udarno-Razvedyvatelnyi Bespilotnyi Kompleks (URBK), or Strike-Reconnaissance Unmanned Complex, program with Sukhoi as the project lead.
The two aircraft flew together in their maiden test flight in September 2019, just a month after the drone’s debut flight.
The drone is slated for deployment in 2024, a date which some analysts think is highly ambitious, if not improbable.
In its debut flight, the Okhotnik flew for over 20 minutes under an operator’s control. In its tandem flight with the Su-57, the aircraft flew in automated mode at an altitude of around 1,600 meters for over 30 minutes, TASS reported.
“These planes and drones can interact not only with each other but also in various types of combat formations,” Andrey Yelchaninov, deputy chairman of the Board of the Russian Military-Industrial Commission, said in an interview with Rossiyskaya Gazeta.
According to press reports, Okhotnik — which is capable of 1,000 km/h and features stealth technology — has demonstrated a range of capabilities.
In December, it flew with simulated air-to-air missiles for the first time. A month later, the 20-ton heavy drone successfully dropped a half-ton unguided aerial bomb, TheDefensePost reported.
The Okhotnik, meaning “Hunter” in Russian, is also outfitted with equipment for electro-optical, radar, and other types of recon technology.
The Russian defense ministry said the S-70 will “broaden the fighter’s radar coverage and provide target acquisition for employing air-launched weapons.”
This suggests that Russia intends to use the Okhotnik to cue very long-range weapons against air and ground targets on behalf of the Su-57, keeping the manned fighter further away from enemy air defenses and hostile fighters, The War Zone reported.
However, press reports suggest that the marriage between the Su-57 and the S-70 may not be as simple as they suggest. In fact, the fighter jet dubbed “Felon” by NATO, has not even seen a stitch of combat.
National Interest reported that the Russian air force deployed Su-57 stealth fighters to Syria a second time since first deploying them to the war-torn country in February 2018.
But that doesn’t mean the twin-engine Su-57 is any closer to being ready for mass production, to say nothing of its readiness for full-scale warfare.
The Su-57’s first deployment to Syria apparently did not involve any actual combat. It’s possible the 2019 deployment didn’t, either.
Russian warplanes (a-50 radar plane, four Su-25 attack planes and four Su-35s fighters) arrived in Syria following weeks of intensive airstrikes by Russian planes targeting areas controlled by anti-regime rebels in Idlib and East Ghouta.
In deploying Su-57s, the Kremlin was “outright gambling with precious prototypes and their pilots’ lives,” according to Tom Cooper, an aviation expert and author. The Su-57 was then, and remains, a prototype fighter.
The Russian air force possesses just a dozen or so of the type, which flew for the first time in 2010 but has suffered from a dearth of funding and the collapse of a deal with India.
As of early 2018, the Su-57 possessed “inadequate and incomplete sensors, incomplete fire-control systems and self-protection suites, no operational integrated avionics and … unreliable engines,” Cooper noted.
The plane had conducted hardly any weapons-separation testing and lacked any other operational weapons beside its 30mm internal cannon.
Worse, the aircraft were “flown by pilots who lack any kind of doctrine or tactics for the type and who cannot really depend upon the planes’ avionics and other systems,” according to Cooper.
Shortly following the 2018 deployment, the Kremlin suspended production of the Su-57 after the 28th copy, effectively canceling the program.
Russian president Vladimir Putin dramatically revived the program in mid-2019, announcing a plan to buy an additional 48 copies.
While the Su-57 has potential, it remains to be seen if it can also conduct tandem flight with a drone, let alone be trusted in a combat scenario.
This could be an example of Putin hard-headed-ness, which is doomed to fail.
Sources: TheDefensePost, The National Interest, The War Zone