Key point: Russia has long-wanted this kind of a powerful stealth drone.
The Russian air force’s first stealth fighter has flown in close formation with its first armed, stealth drone, possibly indicating that the two types might fly and fight together in the future.
The Okhotnik unmanned aerial vehicle made its first joint flight with an Su-57 manned fighter, the Russian defense ministry announced on Sept. 27, 2019.
The ministry released a video of the flight, which reportedly took place over a military test base and lasted 30 minutes.
“During the flight, the UAV interacted with the Su-57 to test extending the fighter's radar and target designation range for long-range air-launched weapons outside enemy air-defense coverage,” Jane’s reported, citing the Kremlin.
The test flight implies that the Russian air force intends to operate the Okhotnik and the Su-57 in mixed formations. “This seems to be the global trend,” commented Samuel Bendett, an independent expert on the Russian military.
Bendett is a researcher for the Center for Naval Analyses and the American Foreign Policy Council.
He pointed to the U.S. military’s own program to develop a “wingman” drone that possesses the ranger, performance and weapons-capability to fly into combat with manned fighters. China, Japan and Australia also are developing wingman drones.
“At the same time, Ohotnik may be a long-range air-defense penetrator, in which case it would need to fly ‘solo’ in an automated mode, in order not to utilize Russian manned assets,” Bendett told The National Interest.
There’s no reason Okhotnik could not perform both roles. The XQ-58 that the U.S. Air Force is developing for the Americans’ own wingman-drone program can be controlled by a pilot in a nearby manned aircraft or by an operator at a facility on the ground.