Russia may have started using its S-70 Okhotnik heavy attack stealth drone against Ukraine. Based on photographs of the drone flying in the Ukrainian skies published by various Kyiv channels, Turkish media have also reported that Russia may be making use of the drone in the Sumy region.
It is speculated that the drone has hit military installations of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) in the Sumy region.”
On the afternoon of June 29, the Ukrainian media reported explosions in Sumy and Kremenchuk in the Poltava region.
A photograph, purportedly of the drone that was flying over Ukraine, posted on the Mash Telegram channel conforms to the shape and size of the Okhotnik (Hunter).
At least two Okhotnik drones are known to be undergoing flight tests.
In June 2022, Janes reported, citing RIA Novosti, that the S-70B Okhotnik had launched its first precision-guided munitions (PGM) test against ground targets on May 28, 2022. The drone had launched air-to-air missiles developed for the Sukhoi Su-57 manned.
Janes reported that the missile was likely the Kh-59Mk2 cruise missile, an evolution of the Kh-59 series heavy tactical missile that entered service in the early 1980s.
Estimates of the range and payload of the Kh-59Mk2 vary widely, but it can likely hit targets at least 240 kilometers away and carry a 500-pound warhead. The modular nature of the design can allow for multiple configurations, such as larger fuel sections, which can be swapped out for smaller warhead sections.
Izvestia reported in February 2020 that the Grom (Thunder) gliding bomb 9-A-7759 had been integrated into 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.
According to information from open sources, two Russian prototypes of the Okhotnik are undergoing flight tests, and two others are in the construction/flight test phase.
The first prototype, which features a non-stealthy circular exhaust, first flew on August 3, 2019.
In February 2021, a source in the Russian military-industrial complex told RIA Novosti that the Novosibirsk Chkalov Aviation Factory (NAZ) is building three more prototypes of the S-70 Okhotnik heavy drone.
“NAZ is building three more prototypes of the S-70 UAV: the second, the third and the fourth. According to the plan, in 2022-2023, they should undergo flight tests,” the source said.
The second prototype incorporated adjustments to the aerodynamic design and electronics based on 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, construction of the second prototype of the S-70 Okhotnik was reported to be underway. In addition to improved electronics and software, the drone would have a profiled nozzle for improved rear-end stealth.
On December 14, 2021, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexei Krivoruchko told the Russia-24 television channel that a serial contract for the supply of the S-70 “Okhotnik” would be signed within six months. A special control center is being created for the new Hunter drone. Flight tests of the second prototype began in the summer of July 2022.
Russia may have operationally deployed two “Okhotnik” drones. In addition, it is conceivable that the two additional prototypes, under construction in 2021, will be available to Russian forces or will be soon. They may even have already been operationally deployed.
The combination Su-57, S-70
Russian authorities have consistently reiterated that Okhotniks can operate under the control of a Su-57 fighter pilot.
“These planes and drones can interact not only with each other but also in various types of combat formations,” Andrey Yelchaninov, the first deputy chairman of the Russian Military-Industrial Commission Board, said in April 2021. In a very short time, there will be the possibility of controlling several Okhotnik drones from the cockpit of the Su-57.”
The Su-57, with excellent stealth characteristics, was designed and developed to counter the threat posed to Russia by the US F-22 Raptor and F-35 stealth fighters. They were developed to penetrate heavily contested adversary airspace without detection.
Unlike American fighters, the Su-57 lacks the radio frequency stealth necessary to penetrate hotly contested airspace. The Su-57 is stealthy but not as stealthy as American stealth fighters. However, by combining stealth and a capable sensor suite, the Su-57 can detect and engage the two American stealth fighters.
Unlike the Su-57, the Okhotnik has excellent stealth characteristics (low observable RF confirmation and IR signature suppression), comparable to those of the F-22 and F-35. Weighing between 20 and 25 tons, the Okhotnik can also carry a decent load of weapons.
It can enter contested airspace undetected and destroy critical enemy targets. However, it cannot defend itself if ambushed by manned enemy fighters. The Su-57 and Okhotnik would be capable and versatile in the attack role.
Intended operational use and deployment
What would make the Okhotnik a major challenge for the Ukrainians is that Western radar and air defense systems are not as sophisticated in dealing with stealthy targets as Russian radar and air defense systems.
The British Storm Shadow is a stealthy, fast-flying cruise missile much smaller than a fighter jet. Russian radars can detect it despite its very low radar signature, and Russian AD systems can attack it. In most cases, they evade Russian anti-aircraft systems through terrain masking and clever aiming.
The Okhotnik can penetrate heavily contested adversary airspace and engage a target itself or relay targeting information to a supporting Su-57 fighter or missile battery.
Operating under the control of a Su-57 fighter, an Okhotnik could be much more effective than cruise missiles in attacking targets far behind the adversary’s front line.
According to previous reports, the Russian Defense Ministry planned to create a detachment of Okhotniks in the Western and Southern Military Districts by 2024.
Extrapolating development timelines, Russia could have operationally deployed the Okhotnik drone in Ukraine. In fact, it would be logical for Russia to do so to get feedback and accumulate operational experience.
The drone in the published photograph has a circular exhaust, which means that it is the first prototype. The use of the first prototype would also be logical. Having been in flight testing since 2019, the prototype likely served its intended purpose.
Furthermore, losing the first prototype would not compromise trade secrets or delay the development schedule to the same extent as losing the second prototype for the reasons discussed above.
The first prototype is unlikely to function as a faithful co-pilot for the Su-57. Most likely, the communications suite, computing hardware, and software required for loyal co-pilot operations have been installed and tested on the second prototype.
If the Okhotnik proves capable of penetrating Ukrainian airspace undetected, Russia could speed up the serial production of the drone.
Russia’s competent military-industrial base could turn the tables against Ukraine, which is heavily dependent on free supplies of weapons from the West.
Vijainder K Thakur