Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) might soon boast of Generation 5 jet-combat drone team if one considers the speed at which the S-70B ‘Okhotnik’ Unmanned Aerial Combat Vehicle (UCAV) and the Su-57 ‘Felon’ are progressing.
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While the Su-57 was reported to have been used in combat in Ukraine with a new two-seat variant announced to control the UCAV, designers have frozen the final production variant of the ‘Okhotnik’ and used it in simulated and live weapons firings.
In December 2020, Russin media RIA Novosti said that Okhotnik conducted simulated tests with infrared (IR) and radar-seeker air-to-air missiles to test the UCAV’s fire-control systems at the 185th Combat Application and Training Center at Ashuluk.
It also later reported a guided missiles test on May 28, and Janes Defense claimed was likely using a Kh-59MK2 standoff cruise missile. The 14 feet long missile with a satellite-guided range of 310 miles can also be fired from the Su-57.
A test video released by Russia’s Ministry of Defense (MoD) later confirmed it.
The Kh-59MK2 is guided by an inertial navigation system corrected by the Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS) and Global Positioning System (GPS) during the cruise phase and an electro-optical digital scene matching area correlator system in the terminal phase.
The missile is reported to have a circular error probable of 3-5 meters.
The RIA Novosti report quoted a source claiming a “series of guided missile firings to have been carried out as a part of the flight tests (along with) several types of air-to-surface missiles used (against) ground targets.”
The source added that the drone can “hit small-sized camouflaged targets with missiles at different times of the day in any weather conditions.” The Okhotnik is a 14-meter (46-foot) long, weighs 20-ton aircraft, and has a top speed of 1,000 kmph.
It is not the only similarity between the plane and the drone. The same NPO Saturn AL-31F engine also powers both, currently Russia’s most advanced. Interestingly, the AL-31F was also the engine of choice for China’s J-20 ‘Mighty Dragon’ Gen. 5 stealth jet until its homegrown WS-15 was readied and entered serial production.
The S-70B is presumably the final production variant after the weapons test, expected to begin serial production by 2023, according to Sergei Chemezov, head of the Rostec Corporation.
It will begin reaching the Russian Aerospace Forces units by mid-2024. It has also been given a major design correction where its circular engine exhaust has replaced a flat-shaped nozzle.
The circular exhaust of the prototype that flew on August 3, 2019, was criticized for compromising stealth and protruding beyond the boundaries of the airframe.
The final version of the Okhotnik rolled out from the Novosibirsk Aviation Plant in December 2021, with the new flat exhaust fitting more perfectly with the “contours” of the engine and the airframe.
Wingmen & Network Centricity Capability
But two developments in June related to the Su-57 indicated the speed with which Russia wants to have a ‘wingman’ capability. A June 9 RIA Novosti report claimed four Su-57s to have been used in what appears to have been a Suppression of Enemy Air Defense (SEAD) operation in Ukraine.
The quartet was “linked to a single information network to destroy air defense systems through automatic communication systems, data transmission, navigation and identification in real-time,” a source quoted in the report. The “low radar visibility of the Su-57 was also confirmed.”
Andrey Yelchaninov, Deputy Chairman of the Board of the Russian Military-Industrial Commission, later said in a separate interview that the planes and drones could interact “not only with each other but also in various types of combat formations.”
Therefore, a serious network-centric and data-linking capability are on the cards, along with the ones planned on the American Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) and India’s CATS concept.
TASS, on June 27, reported that a two-seat variant of the Su-57 is to be developed to control a swarm of Okhotnik combat drones “in network-centric interactions to strike aerial and ground targets.”
The Su-57 and the S-70B Okhotnik have internal weapons bays, qualifying them broadly into the Gen 5 low observability category. Russian aerospace design and operation doctrine long discarded pure stealth after learning from the cost-prohibitive experience with the F-35 and F-22.
The scale to which Russia envisages the Okhotnik’s role can be gauged from Russia’s Deputy Minister of Defense Alexei Krivoruchko’s revelation that it will fly from the under-construction amphibious assault ship Project 23900 ‘Mitrofan Moskalenko.’
The Moskalenko itself will become the flagship of the Black Sea fleet, from where the S-70B will provide targeting data for the Zircon (Tsirkon) hypersonic anti-ship missile while performing other strike missions. The Moskalenko is being constructed at the Zaliv shipyard in Kerch, where its keel was laid in July 2020.