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S-70 Okhotnik UCAV Debuts on the Russia–Ukraine Battlefield

Lt Col Akshat Upadhyay is Research Fellow, Strategic Technologies Centre at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • July 31, 2023

    The Russian S-70 Okhotnik (Hunter) unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) was reportedly used on the Ukrainian battlefield on 27 June 2023, where it struck Ukrainian military facilities in the regions of Sumy and Kremenchuk.1 This is an important development in the war since it showcases Russian capability to move beyond tactical and ad-hoc equipped drones like Orlan-10, Lastochka, Forpost-R and Orion,2 commercial Chinese quadcopters (DJI and Air series)3 and the Shahed and Mohajer series loitering munitions (LMs) imported from Iran,4 to staking a major technological claim in the form of a UCAV. In the short term, Russia will still depend on Iranian expertise in LMs given that a manufacturing plant has been set up inside Russia.5 The successful strikes by the S-70, with the option of manned–unmanned teaming (MUM-T) with the Su-57 fighter jet, provide the country with a deployable option, still under development by other powers like the US and the UK.

    The Okhotnik project has been in the making since 20116 and has been envisaged as a “loyal wingman” for the Su-57.7 A loyal wingman is a UCAV which, using onboard AI, can collaborate with manned fighters and is seen as being significantly low-cost than its manned counterpart.8 This expands the tasking and deployment options for the pair (at the very least one UCAV and one manned fighter are being considered but the numbers of UCAV can increase depending on the cognitive load on the pilot). The project is being jointly developed by Sukhoi and Mikoyan as a sixth-generation heavy UCAV.9 A sixth generation air vehicle has parameters like onboard data fusion and artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities, advanced stealth airframes, advanced variable cycle engines and integration of directed energy weapons (DEW).10 Two prototypes have been developed so far, the first one with a circular exhaust and the latter with a more square-shaped one to increase stealth.11 Two more are under development and these are supposedly similar to the ones which will finally undergo serial production.12

    The design of the S-70 is that of a ‘flying wing’, similar to that of the F-117 Nighthawk, the RQ-170 and the Shahed-136.13 Okhotnik’s first autonomous flight testing, which included a flight time of around 30 minutes, alongside an Su-57, was conducted on 27 September 2019.14 The Su-57 has been used as a flying laboratory for testing the Hunter’s avionics. Unguided bombs were tested in 2021,15 followed by the test-firing of Kh59 Mk2 precision guided munition (PGM) in May 2022.16 The current version of Su-57 is a single-seat fighter but a twin-seater variant has been flight-tested with the Hunter where the co-pilot will be exclusively responsible for controlling and monitoring the UCAV, with the pilot performing his/her basic functions.

    Certain other developments in this project merit attention. When operationally ready, each Su-57 will command up to four S-70s.17 Already, four Su-57s have been used to conduct suppression of enemy air defences (SEAD) in Ukraine on 9 June 2022.18 The interesting part was that all four were “linked to a single information network to destroy air defense systems through automatic communication systems, data transmission, navigation and identification in real-time”.19 The Okhotnik has also been trialed with the Mig-29.20 In a standalone mode, it may also be deployed on the still-in-development Project 23900 Ivan Rogonov helicopter carriers, each of which has a capacity to accommodate 4 S-70s.21 Russian analysts have also dubbed the S-70 the world’s first “outer space” drone.22

    Manned–Unmanned Teaming (MUM-T)

    The Okhotnik’s strikes in Ukraine can act as proof of concept for the MUM-T concept, under development in a number of countries including India. MUM-T has been defined differently by different armed forces across the world. While the US Army Aviation Centre (USAACE) defines MUM-T as “synchronized employment of soldier, manned and unmanned air and ground vehicles, robotics, and sensors to achieve enhanced situational understanding, greater lethality, and improved survivability”,23 the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO)’s standardisation agreement (STANAG) calibrates five levels of interoperability (LOI) between manned and unmanned platforms,24 with the first being indirect receipt of UAV-related data, going up to level five which relates to the control and monitoring of the UAV along with launch and recovery functions.25

    In India, the Combat Air Teaming System (CATS) is meant as an umbrella term for a combination of manned and unmanned assets which can reduce human casualties, perform air-to-air and air-to-ground strikes from a standoff distance and also act as atmospheric satellites for high altitude surveillance.26 The initial prototypes are being tested on the Jaguar aircraft and will later be fitted on the Tejas light combat aircraft (LCA) acting as the “mothership”.27

    Similar projects are being developed in the US (collaborative combat aircraft or CCA)28 , Australia (air teaming system or ATS)29 and the UK (Project Tempest).30 Within the US, a number of parallel programs are in progress. The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) is field testing the Skyborg program with the Kratos’ X-58 Valkyrie.31 The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is moving ahead with the air combat evolution (ACE) program,32 and in a simulation featuring a US Air Force (USAF) pilot competing with an AI pilot under the AlphaDogFight program, had shown that AI could beat human pilots in number of fighter manoeuvres and targeting actions.33 There were obviously some caveats and one could say that the dice was loaded in favour of the AI. However, even granting those advantages to the AI, the performance has been nothing short of impressive and heralds the future of air combat.

    MUM-T, when implemented during conventional combat scenarios, offers the advantage of combining the strengths of manned and unmanned aircrafts, while complementing each other’s shortfalls. The UCAV can be sent ahead in a dense air defence (AD) environment to scout for targets, perform SEAD and force the adversary to reveal its surface to air missile (SAM) sites. This data, most of which is computed within the UCAV using edge processing, can be sent back to the manned fighter, already at standoff range, and used for conducting air and ground attacks. The UCAV, when equipped with either air-to-air or air-to-ground (AAM/AGM) missiles can also act as a ‘flying magazine’ for the manned fighter, increasing the inventory and range of the aircraft.

    With the number of unmanned platforms under the pilot’s control increasing and the unmanned platforms themselves carrying LMs, similar to what is envisaged in the CATS program, the pilot now has the opportunity to conduct what this writer calls “simultaneous multi-roles” (SMRs) where the capabilities of the manned fighter will increase manifold. At the same instant, the pilot can engage air targets, perform precision bombing against pin-point high value targets and saturate the battlefield with LMs and conventional unguided bombs.

    Air combat is likely to undergo a major change with the entry of UAVs of all shapes and sizes. Countries which can proactively take advantage of this phase of air combat evolution are likely to have a greater edge over their adversaries. As the Okhotnik trials and later operational use shows, the combination of the human mind and computational strength of microchips, integrated into a single system, has the potential to impose on the adversary a major decision dilemma regarding the system to be countered and can act as a combined arms offensive in the air.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.