Russia’s Okhotnik Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle Tests Air-To-Air Missiles: Report

The flying-wing drone has apparently begun tests carrying air-to-air missile surrogates for a planned “fighter-interceptor role.”

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Russia’s Okhotnik unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) has reportedly been flight-tested with air-to-air missiles for the first time. While details remain limited, if true, this could be a significant development for the flying-wing "strike drone," which Russia hopes to have in service as early as 2024.

The recent series of weapons trials apparently saw the unmanned aircraft used in a “fighter-interceptor role” and were reported by Russia’s state-run media outlet RIA Novosti. The outlet said that the tests had taken place over the Ashuluk training range in southwestern Russia.

“From the airstrip of the military airfield of the Russian Aerospace Forces’ Combat Training and Combat Application Center at the Ashuluk training range, the Okhotnik performed several flights with functional simulators of guided air-to-air missiles,” a source within Russia's “military-industrial complex,” told RIA Novosti. “In the combat version [of the drone], such missiles are designed to destroy other aircraft.”

The use of the Ashuluk range for these reported missile trials is not a surprise. Located around 80 miles north of Astrakhan in Russia's southwestern region, this complex is operated by the 185th Combat Training and Combat Application Center, the only Russian unit of its kind, which is tasked with operational and tactics training for fighters and air defense units. The training is intended to closely approximate combat conditions, including “enemy” (aggressor) aircraft, air defense, and electronic warfare elements.

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An Okhotnik UCAV during earlier testing. The jet-powered, 20-ton drone has previously been flying from Akhtubinsk. 

The Okhotnik was said to have been outfitted with simulated air-to-air missiles (AAMs): inert weapons with both infrared and radar-homing seeker heads but without engines and warheads. This indicates that the tests did not involve any live missile launches. The report also doesn't say if any live or simulated aerial targets were used in the testing and, if so, how the appropriate targeting information was obtained by the Okhotnik.

The RIA Novosti piece doesn’t specify what types of missiles were involved in the reported tests, either. It did mention that they included infrared and radar-homing types, which could point to the drone having carried both short-range and medium-to-long-range AAMs. With the Okhotnik still in the early phase of its evaluation, any missile armament likely comprised types that are already in the inventory or at least at an advanced stage of development.

Russia’s primary close-combat AAMs at present are the R-73 and R-74M family and the country is also working on the K-74M2 dogfighting missile, which is intended for deployment from the internal “quick launch” weapons bays of the Su-57 Felon fighter jet. The K-74M2, which features a lock-on after launch (LOAL) mode, beginning its flight under inertial control before achieving an in-flight lock-on, would be a suitable candidate for internal carriage by the Okhotnik.

Anton Novodereshkin/TASS

A display of AAMs from the Vympel company comprising, from bottom to top: a gray launch rail, an R-77, an R-74M, and an apparent new design tailored for internal carriage.

In terms of medium-range AAMs, Russia is currently focused on the R-77 and improved R-77-1, while a more capable K-77M is also under test. The K-77M is another weapon optimized for internal carriage aboard the Su-57 and, perhaps, the Okhotnik, too. You can read more about the K-77M and other new long-range Russian AAM programs here.

RIA Novosti's report also notes that previous Okhotnik test flights had focused exclusively on its flight qualities and the functionality of the flying-wing drone’s primary onboard systems.

The drone itself is being developed under the Udarno-Razvedyvatelnyi Bespilotnyi Kompleks (URBK), or Strike-Reconnaissance Unmanned Complex, program with Sukhoi as the project lead. After breaking cover during initial ground trials in January 2019, the Okhotnik — meaning Hunter in Russian — was first flown in August of that year at Akhtubinsk in the Astrakhan region.

RIA Novosti's story added that the missile trials “will make it possible to assess the coupling of the drone’s avionics with missile guidance systems and the lead Su-57 aircraft.” This adds weight to reports that the plan is to utilize the Okhotnik, at least partially, as a loyal wingman-type complement to the manned Su-57. It’s also possible that the drone might help overcome certain deficiencies in the Su-57 design, which you can read more about here.

In a previous indication of plans to use the Okhotnik in a manned-unmanned teaming scenario, a video emerged in September 2019 showing an Okhotnik flying together with a Su-57.

The Russian Defense Ministry has previously claimed the Okhotnik will “broaden the [Su-57’s] radar coverage and provide target acquisition for employing air-launched weapons.” If true, this suggests that the drone could be used to cue longer-range weapons against air and ground targets on behalf of the Su-57. It would also imply that it would be equipped with sensors allowing it to detect, track, and engage aerial targets. With this in mind, it could also be possible for the drone to attack aerial targets with its own weapons, although the degree of autonomy that would be involved in such a process is unclear. 

However, the emerging ability of the Okhotnik to carry missiles itself would lend it to a future role as a “weapons carrier” for the Su-57, increasing the fighter’s available arsenal and potentially keeping the manned fighter further away from hostile fighters and other threats. 

Russian Ministry of Defense Capture

Video stills showing a Su-57 launching a short-range AAM, possibly from one of its two small wing-root weapons bays. A “loyal wingman” Okhotnik armed with AAMs could serve to increase the missiles available to a Su-57.

It’s also unclear whether the air-to-air missiles used in the latest trials were carried externally or within the Okhotnik’s internal weapons bays. While external carriage of weapons would further diminish the Okhotnik’s low-observable characteristics, which have already been called into question, at least in its current form, this may be less of an issue if its role is to simply boost the number of missiles available to an accompanying Su-57 for certain missions.

On the other hand, internal carriage of offensive weapons would appear to be a prerequisite for the strike role, for which the Okhotnik was previously earmarked. Signature reduction, including through internal weapons carriage, would be needed to reduce its chances of detection and make it more potent in the offensive counter-air and destruction of enemy air defenses roles. A future version of this UCAV is supposed to feature major signature reduction upgrades, a model of which you can see in this previous piece of ours. The RIA Novosti report did not make any mention of air-to-ground weapons trials for the drone at this time.

Russian Ministry of Defense Capture

The first Okhotnik prototype prepares to take off for a test sortie.

Previously, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov had said the Okhotnik would begin tests in an armed configuration between 2023 and 2024, which suggests that the development program may have now been accelerated.

Arming a drone with an infrared-guided air-to-air weapon may be a significant move in Russia, but is not without precedent. In the United States, similar development stretch back to 2003, including the arming of the now-retired MQ-1 Predator with Stingers and, more recently, tests of MQ-9 Reapers armed with AIM-9X Sidewinders

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An MQ-9 carrying an AIM-9X Sidewinder air-to-air missile.

While the slow-flying MQ-1 and MQ-9 are in a different class to the Okhotnik, which is expected to be able to fly at speeds of around 540 knots, the U.S. Air Force at least is also working toward fielding loyal wingman-type drones that will be able to carry air-to-ground, if not air-to-air weapons. This is in addition to what are almost certainly classified test and developmental UCAV programs, the potential existence and implications of which you can read all about here. Just recently, in the unclassified realm, the stealth UCAV concept seems to also be highly favored to replace the Air Force’s MQ-9s in the years to come.

While it remains to be seen what types of missiles the Okhotnik will eventually carry, and how the drone will be deployed in an air-to-air role, it seems certain that the program is currently enjoying a high priority as the Russian Aerospace Forces increasingly embrace unmanned technologies.

Contact the author: thomas@thedrive.com