Russia may have started operating its S-70 Okhotnik heavy-strike stealth drone against Ukraine. Based on photographs of the drone flying in the Ukrainian skies published by Ukrainian telegram channels, Turkish media first reported the use of the drone in the Sumy region.
The drone is speculated to have struck military facilities of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) in the Sumy region.”
On the afternoon of June 27, the Ukrainian media reported explosions in Sumy and Kremenchuk, Poltava region.
A photograph, purportedly of the drone flying over Ukraine, posted on Mash Telegram Channel conforms to the shape and size of the Okhotnik (Hunter).
At least two Okhotnik drones are known to be undergoing flight testing.
In June 2022, Janes reported, quoting RIA Novosti, that the S-70B Okhotnik had conducted its first test launch of precision-guided munitions (PGMs) against ground targets on May 28, 2022. The drone had launched air-to-surface missiles developed for the manned Sukhoi Su-57
Janes reported that the missile was likely the Kh-59Mk2 standoff cruise missile, a development of the Kh-59-series heavy tactical missile that entered service in the early 1980s.
Kh-59Mk2 range and payload estimates vary widely, but it’s likely to be able to reach targets at least 150 miles away while carrying a 500lb warhead. The modular nature of the design may allow for multiple configurations, such as larger fuel sections, to be swapped for smaller warhead sections.
Izvestia reported in February 2020 that the Grom (Thunder) 9-A-7759 glide bomb had been integrated with the Okhotnik. The drone can carry four Groms in its internal bomb bay.
The Russian Ministry of Defense (RuMoD) has not commented on the report.
As per open source information, two Russia Okhotnik prototypes are undergoing flight testing, and two more are under construction/flight testing.
The first prototype, which features a non-stealthy circular exhaust, flew for the first time on August 3, 2019.
In February 2021, a source from the Russian military-industrial complex told RIA Novosti that the Novosibirsk Aviation Plant Chkalov (NAZ) is building three more prototypes of the heavy drone S-70 Okhotnik.
“NAZ is building three more prototypes of the S-70 UAV – the second, third, and fourth. According to the plan, they should be consistently linked to flight tests in 2022-2023,” said the source.
The second prototype incorporated tweaks to the aerodynamic design and electronics based on the operational experience with the first Okhotnik.
“The third and fourth drones “will match the production version of the Okhotnik,” the source said.
In March 2021, it was reported that construction of the second prototype of the S-70 Okhotnik was underway. Besides improved electronics and software, the drone would have a shaped nozzle for improved rear aspect stealth.
On December 14, 2021, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexei Krivoruchko reportedly told Russia-24 TV channel that a serial contract for the supply of the S-70 “Okhotnik” would be concluded within six months. A special control center is being created for the newest Hunter drone.
Flight testing of the second prototype began in July 2022 summer.
Russia may have operationally deployed two Okhotnik drones. Also, it’s conceivable that the two additional prototypes, under construction in 2021, are either available to Russian forces or will be available shortly. It is even possible that they have been operationally deployed already.
The Su-57, S-70 Combination
Russian officials have consistently reiterated that Okhotniks can operate under the control of a Su-57 fighter jet pilot.
“These planes and drones can interact not only with each other but also in various types of combat formations,” said Andrey Yelchaninov, the first deputy chairman of the Board of the Russian Military-Industrial Commission, in April 2021. “Within a very short timeframe, there will be a possibility to control several Okhotnik drones from the Su-57 cockpit.”
The manned Su-57 stealth fighter and the S-70 heavy stealth drone are different but have complementary aerodynamic designs.
The Su-57 was designed and developed to address the threat posed to Russia by the US F-22 Raptor and F-35 stealth fighters with excellent stealth characteristics. They were developed to penetrate heavily contested adversary airspace without detection.
Unlike the US fighters, the Su-57 lacks the radio frequency stealth required to penetrate heavily contested airspace. The Su-57 is stealthy but not as stealthy as the US stealth fighters. However, using a combination of stealth and a capable sensor suite, the Su-57 can detect and engage the two US stealth fighters.
In contrast to the Su-57, the Okhotnik has excellent stealth characteristics – RF low observable shaping and IR signature suppression – matching those of the F-22 and F-35. Weighing between 20 to 25 tons, the Okhotnik can also carry a decent weapon load.
It can penetrate contested airspace undetected and destroy critical enemy targets. However, it cannot defend itself if ambushed by manned enemy fighters. Operating together, the Su-57 and the Okhotnik would be capable and versatile in the attack role.
Planned Operational Use & Deployment
What would make the Okhotnik very challenging for the Ukrainians is that Western radar and air defense (AD) systems are not as well honed for dealing with stealthy targets as are Russian radar and AD systems.
The British Storm Shadow is a stealthy, fast-flying cruise missile much smaller than a fighter aircraft. Russian radars can detect it despite its very low radar signature, and Russian AD systems can engage it. They mostly get past Russian AD systems by using terrain masking and clever routing.
The Okhotnik can penetrate heavily contested adversary airspace and either attack a target by itself or relay targeting information to a supporting Su-57 fighter or a missile battery.
Operating under the control of a Su-57 fighter, an Okhotnik could be far more effective than cruise missiles in attacking targets deep behind an adversary’s front line.
Based on past reports, Russia’s Ministry of Defense planned to create a detachment of Okhotniks in the western and southern military districts by 2024.
Extrapolating development timelines, Russia may have operationally deployed the Okhotnik drone in Ukraine. Indeed, it would be logical for Russia to do so to obtain feedback and accumulate operational experience.
The drone in the published photograph features a circular exhaust, which would mean it’s the first prototype. The use of the first prototype would also be logical. Having been under flight testing since 2019, the prototype has likely served the purpose that it was developed for.
Also, losing the first prototype wouldn’t compromise trade secrets or set back the development program to the same extent as losing the second prototype for reasons discussed earlier.
The first prototype is unlikely to operate as a Su-57 loyal wingman. The communication suite, computer hardware, and software required for loyal wingman operations would most likely have been installed and tested on the second prototype.
If the Okhotnik proves itself capable of penetrating Ukrainian airspace undetected, Russia could fast-track serial production of the drone.
Russia’s competent military industrial base could eventually turn the tide against Ukraine, which relies heavily on free Western weapons supply.
- Vijainder K Thakur is a retired IAF Jaguar pilot. He is also an author, software architect, entrepreneur, and military analyst. VIEWS PERSONAL
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