Russia’s Stealthy Strike UAV. Deadlier Than Expected

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…from SouthFront

Introduction

While overall the Russian Armed Forces display remarkable effectiveness and demonstrated a wide range of modern weapons, a number of gaps in Russia’s arsenal are also evident. Arguably the largest one is the absence of attack UAVs of any kind, comparable to either the propeller-driven Predators and Reapers intended for operations in a benign air defense environment, or heavier platforms intended for high-threat environments comparable to the US X-47B UCAS or France’s Neuron. It is therefore no surprise that there was an upsurge in reports of UAVs of various classes under development in Russia, up to and including the S-70 Okhotnik-B, under development by OKB Sukhoi, whose first flight is planned for 2019.

Design

Okhotnik closely follows the blended-fuselage flying wing configuration used by the other heavy strike UAV’s mentioned above.  Like the X-47B, It is powered by a single turbofan engine with an intake on top of the fuselage, and its design most likely includes an internal ordnance bay for a variety of guided and unguided munitions. Most published estimates of Okhotnik’s capabilities suggest take-off weight in the vicinity of 20 metric tons and a top speed of around 1000km/hr. Like the X-47B, the combination of relatively small size and stealth would allow the Okhotnik to carry out airstrikes against heavily defended targets and survive even advanced air defenses. While a heavy, stealthy strike UAV is not exactly expendable, it is certainly more likely to be risked than a manned combat aircraft that costs several times more than the UAV. Heavy strike UAVs are therefore seen as a complement to scarcer and more expensive manned aircraft in situations where heavy air defenses are present.

Capabilities

Nevertheless, one probably should not expect the Okhotnik to be a carbon-copy of the Neuron or the X-47B, and for all the similarities there are also differences. The X-47B design emphasizes stealth including in the infrared spectrum, with an evident effort to reduce the heat of its turbofan exhaust, with the UAV being capable of sustaining only high subsonic speeds. By contrast, while the Okhotnik is officially described as having the top speed of only 920km/hour, its design is dominated by the powerful AL-41F afterburning turbofan which proved too large for installation on the Su-57, suggesting the Okhotnik might actually be capable of supersonic speeds and even of sustaining supersonic cruise without the need for afterburner, an important characteristic of 5th generation combat aircraft. In addition, on-board sensors aboard the X-47B are fairly limited, while the photos of the Okhotnik clearly show a nose radome, suggesting an on-board radar.

Given that the Okhotnik is being developed by the same design bureau that produced the Su-57, with that aircraft’s technologies being incorporated into its design in order for the two machines to be able to operate as a team, it stands to reason the fully developed Okhotnik will be capable of supersonic cruise—a necessary capability if it is to operate as part of the same mission package as the Su-57—and of air-to-air engagements.  Unlike the F-35 which is primarily an attack aircraft with a secondary air-to-air capability, the Su-57’s main mission is air combat, both within and beyond visual range. By the same token, while US combat UAVs of the last couple of decades have been designed exclusively for ground strike missions while under the control of a land-based operator from a remote location, Russia’s defense priorities are sufficiently different from the US and NATO to warrant different expectations for the Okhotnik. Given the need to fend off attacks by vastly larger numbers of F-22 and F-35s, the outnumbered Su-57 force would benefit from stealthy, supercruising Okhotniks with air-to-air sensors and weapons that could be vectored against the adversary’s stealth aircraft while the Su-57s themselves remain out of the range of enemy weapons.

Conclusion

The recently published information on Russian military procurement plans plainly indicate the very high priority being afforded to maintaining the ability to wage air and air defense operations against a technologically sophisticated adversary. This emphasis is a reasonable response to the US plans to rapidly ramp-up F-35 deliveries both to its own military and to its allies. But even with that emphasis, the cost of 5th generation fighters is such that Russia cannot possibly hope to match US and NATO in terms of numbers, and probably cannot afford the development of a small 5th-generation fighter that could be produced in larger numbers than the Su-57. But if a “hi–lo” mix of platforms comparable to the Su-27—MiG-29 or F-15—F-16 or even F-22—F-35 is to be maintained by the Russian Aerospace Forces, the “lo” part of the mix could well be filled by an unmanned platform.

About Southfront
South Front: Analysis & Intelligence (SF) is a public analytical project maintained by an independent team of experts from four corners of the earth. SF focuses on international relations and crises working through a number of media platforms. They provide military operations analysis and other important data where crisis points affect tensions between countries and nations. They dig out truth barely covered by states concerned and their mainstream media. SF does not receive any funding from corporations or governments. They are supported by reader donations. *All posts on behalf of South Front are made by Gordon Duff
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1 COMMENT

  1. It appears that a piece of the puzzle may have been missed here regarding anti-air defence operations by NATO, Russia, and China in this era of (or rather the return to) the nuclear anti-aircraft missile.

    I read a very interesting article or comment on Southfront a few weeks ago on this very subject (and another comment also on Southfront just a few days ago on the same thing) which if nothing else, filled in a few gaps in my limited knowledge regarding these drones and how the US, Russia, and also China, have returned to an old Cold War tactic / deterant when faced with overwhelming enemy numbers.

    Going from memory, as I can’t find the original comments to link to, all of these drones are at a basic level advanced air-defence system killers (with a twist).

    The Soutfront commenter mentioned that manned aircraft would not feature in a first wave attacks against advanced air defence systems, nor would sub-sonic cruise missiles, due to ‘various factors’, including – get this – the launch of nuclear anti-aircraft missiles to defeat massive / swarm attacks. The commenter showed that this was a now almost forgotten tactic originally devised by the old Soviet Union.

    Very interestingly, the commenter provided considerable evidence that some apparently conventional air-defence systems such as the Russian S300 system, have a ‘dual capability’, ie they can launch nuclear warheads as well as conventional warheads.

    The land attack capability of the S300 is almost common knowledge, but the nuclear airburst capability (a feature set shared with the US Patriot system and also the Chinese system deployed on its new islands) seems to have been missed by many.

    The commenter went on to explain, and backed it all up with links and copied sections from places such as the US and UK Defence departments, BAE systems, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist, and several others I can’t remember, that NATO, China, and Russia reverted back to the Cold War tactic of using nuclear anti-aircraft missiles for air defence area denial as far back as 2008 (earlier in parts of Europe).

    This tactic makes sense to both NATO and Russia (and now China) as any conventional system will be overwhelmed by a co-ordinated large scale cruise missile attack (see below!), massive and repeated waves of fighter bomber attacks, or heavy drone swarm attacks.

    The commenter made a revelation (true or not it is still fascinating!) that at least one nuclear anti-aircraft missile was used by the Russians in Syria on or around 14 April 2018 to defeat / shoot down / disrupt an otherwise overwhelming (for any convention system) attack consisting of hundreds of US, British, and French missiles fired into Syria at multiple targets.

    The use of nuclear anti-aircraft missiles by Russia in Syria change the course of World history by showing how a tiny Russian force with just a few S300 and S400 systems, with Soviet era style nuclear airburst missiles, could seffectively neutralise a massive series of defence depleating attacks launched by the US, the UK, and the French.

    The extent of the failure of this attack (or the success of the Russian defence, you choose) can be judged by reading between the lines of the approved and censored Wikipedia account (which also suggests there may have been an EMP component to the blasts as several disrupted but unexploded US and French missiles were recovered):
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2018_missile_strikes_against_Syria

    The commenter went on to state that the US makes no real secret that they too have this ability, and the dual capability (nuclear and conventional) of the US Patriot system as deployed in Europe is reasonably well known.

    Indeed, as far back as 2008 a Russian General (Anatoly Nogovitsyn?) said that any new US Patriot Systems in Europe could come under Russian nuclear attack. That was a strong comment to make regarding ‘just’ a simple defensive system, but not of course about a ystem which is much more than that.

    The dual capability of the Patriot system (and how its nuclear airburst capability is intended to nutralise or at least contain Russian airpower – including cruise missiles – has apparently prompted the rapid move towards hypersonics and heavy drones by Russia (and of couse the similar moves towards hypersonics by the US due to the S300/S400).

    The commenter stated that the return of the cold war nuclear anti-aircraft missile has resulted in the need for heavy drones by all sides as first strike anti-air defence weapons platforms. Very manoeuvrable nuclear armed jet fighters would follow up any drone attack, perhaps even coordinate it, but not proceed it.

    Also relevant, the commenter mentioned that the British company BAE systems had already developed a new heavy drone with AI which was designed to partner with, or swarm with, an unmanned (!) British Built F35 (designation ‘Lightning’) – or a heavily modified US built F35 also designated ‘Lightning’. The F35 was apparently designed from the outset to act as an AI hub and have a pilotless option.

    According to the commenter it is well known that the British plan to put on their new (currently aircraft-less) Aircraft Carrier, the HMS Queen Elizabeth, a heavy drone squadron with the new Lightning versions of the F35. The aircraft carriers capability to co-ordinate both drones and fighter aircraft was briefly tested and proven during the Aircraft Carriers encounter with the US carrier the USS George W Bush. I cant remember the details of these tests but they may be worth looking up:

    https://www.businessinsider.com/hms-queen-elizabeth-uss-george-hw-bush-scotland-photos-2017-8?r=US&IR=T#the-uss-george-hw-bush-was-taking-part-in-saxon-warrior-a-multiday-joint-exercise-led-by-the-royal-navy-3

    Meanwhile, the RAF Tornado which is being phased out of service at the end of the year following 40 years of active service, will be used a technological mule for the new drone software and other and AI technology.

    So it seems that heavy drones, unmanned fighter jets with AI, and nuclear anti-aircraft missiles are the future.

    This subject area is well outside of my area of expertise and I am quoting someone else from memory, so feel free to disagree with it, call BS on it, or even dismiss this comment entirely – I won’t be offended – but I thought it worth leaving a comment anyway, just in case there was something in it. I am also unable to post links to the original Southfront comments as I cant find them – or maybe they have been pulled?

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