Russia recently tested its S-70 Okhotnik-B heavy attack drone in an air-to-air combat simulation at the Ashuluk training grounds, an exercise that aimed to assess its compatibility with the Su-57 stealth fighter in an unmanned wingman role.
The Okhotnik, which means “Hunter” in Russian, is in the same class of drones as the Dassault nEUROn and Boeing Loyal Wingman that can act as force multipliers augmenting the capabilities of manned aircraft, especially 5th generation stealth fighters. These drones can substantially extend the sensor and weapon ranges of manned fighters, allowing the latter greater area coverage and kills per mission.
The series of tests put the Okhotnik in the form of a fighter-interceptor with simulated air-to-air missiles, which allowed for assessments of the coupling of the drone’s avionics with missile guidance systems and lead Su-57 fighters, according to Russian media reports. Previously, the Okhotnik had been tested for its flight qualities and on-board systems’ operations, the reports said.
The Okhotnik, which features a flying wing design made with materials that reduce its radar visibility, is slated to be the first heavy strike drone in service with the Russian Aerospace Forces. The drone’s development began in 2011 and the weapon first emerged in public view in social media images in January 2019.
Russia is believed to lag the West in strategic drones such as the US MQ-9 Reaper, which is optimized for long-range precision strikes. According to that analysis, Moscow has not yet mastered key strategic drone technologies, such as optics, electronic systems for light aircraft and composite materials.
However, some analysts believe that Russia is well ahead of the West in tactical drones that spot for artillery, as seen in the ongoing war in Ukraine and frozen conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
In Ukraine, Russian-backed separatist drones include commercial quadcopters and military models such as the Forpost, Granat series, Orlan-10, Tachyon and Zastava. These drones operate in an integrated manner with artillery, infantry, special forces and electronic warfare, and are integrated in a novel Russian concept known as the semi-autonomous battalion tactical group (BTG).
This aims to expedite information flows to the formation to which it reports, and functions as a reconnaissance-strike model that tightly couples drones to strike assets, hastening the speed at which overwhelming firepower is available to support tactical commanders.
In Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia has operated tactical drones from its military bases in the area. While there may not be a sophisticated drone war between Russia and Georgia, they are being used as expendable assets to monitor Administrative Boundary Lines (ABLs), pushing boundaries and potentially contributing to potential escalation.
Russia’s drone capabilities and reconnaissance-strike model were vividly demonstrated in July 2014 at Zelenopillya. Three large Ukrainian Army formations stationed there were destroyed by Russian tube and rocket artillery firing over the Russian side of the Russia-Ukraine border. Prior to the attack, Ukrainian soldiers reported drones spying on their camp and shot down one Orlan-10 drone.
Shortly after downing the Russian drone, the Ukrainians lost all communications due to electronic warfare and cyberattacks. In a single fire mission, Russian artillery destroyed two battalions’ worth of vehicles and equipment with 37 Ukrainian soldiers killed.
These capabilities were again shown during the 2015 Battle of Debaltseve, where drones integrated with special forces, partisan groups, artillery and armored formations to overwhelm Ukrainian defenders after prolonged heavy fighting.
As in Zelenopillya, the ominous buzzing of drones overhead preceded fierce rocket and artillery strikes on Ukrainian positions.
The Battle of Debaltseve showed the sophistication of Russia’s efforts to integrate drones, special forces and partisan forces to conduct deep, operational reconnaissance in a BTG for local and tactical reconnaissance.
Given the successes of Russia’s tactical drones in Ukraine, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Moscow’s drone development program is best assessed in the context of its own strategic environment and doctrine.
While Russia may be indeed lag the West in developing strategic drones, its strategic environment and ongoing conflicts present different requirements for the development of its own drone technology, which to date favors tactical over strategic drones.
Russia’s Okhotnik drone faces the same financial challenges that prevent Moscow from mass-adopting its own advanced weapons, such as the T-14 Armata tank and Su-57 stealth fighter.
As Western sanctions continue to hobble Russia’s economy, Moscow appears, for now, to lack the finances to mass adopt its Okhotnik drone and conduct more extensive research on strategic drone technology.