Last July, a single grainy image of Russia’s long-anticipated Okhotnik (Hunter) unmanned combat aerial vehicle hit the web, prompting a flurry of headlines speculating about the 20-ton drone’s potential as a low-observability platform that could offer the Russian military greater deep-penetration capabilities with their legacy bombers.
To give an arguably overly simplistic explanation of why Russia desperately needs a stealth combat platform, the Hunter UCAV would be used to enter contested airspace and engage anti-air assets (among other targets) to clear a path for the rest of Russia’s non-stealth aircraft. The United States leverages this same strategy when battle planning for war against nations with formidable air defenses. However, the U.S. relies on stealth bombers and fighters like the B-2 Spirit and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to take down enemy defenses and create a more permissible environment for other aircraft. With Russia’s “stealth” Su-57 all but dead in the water, the nation is once again without a reliable means of force projection inside contested air space.
Enter 20 tons’ worth of unmanned aerial vehicle: the Hunter. With a design that’s more than mildly reminiscent of Northrop Grumman’s technology demonstrator X-47B or Lockheed Martin’s RQ-170 Sentinel, this stealthy-looking drone might be just what Russia needs to stand and swing in regions ripe with anti-air assets, but then…maybe not.
Let’s be honest: This UCAV looks pretty impressive. With a wingspan that positively dwarfs the tractor towing it around, and what looks very much like a full-size jet fighter engine (potentially even providing this UCAV with an afterburner), it would be easy to consider the possibility that Russia may finally have a platform that warrants real concern rather than derision. A closer inspection of these photos, however, suggests that the Hunter UCAV may be just another half-hearted attempt at staying relevant in the era of ever-advancing defense technology.
Based on the sheer size of the platform and the appearance of the engine, this UCAV may not offer much more in the way of fuel efficiency than might be found in a high-quality, middle-weight, fourth-generation fighter. Its expansive wingspan and reduced weight—thanks to the omission of all the stuff you need for an onboard pilot—will grant it a bit more time in the air, but all told, this UCAV may not be capable of spending a lot of time loitering above combat zones like American platforms such as the MQ-9 Reaper. But then, loitering isn’t the only measure of a UCAV’s success.
Stealth is where the Hunter is really supposed to make its money, but stealth also seems to be where this platform is lacking the most. This image, taken from behind the UCAV, shows its jet nozzle sticking out of the back of the platform in a manner that would undoubtedly prompt a return on radar screens.
As for detecting the Hunter with thermals, the jet nozzle would once again compromise the platform, as its external nozzles offer direct line-of-sight detection like a fourth-generation fighter. As Tyler Rogoway at the War Zone points out, even the X-47B, which was fielded without the exhaust a production asset would have utilized, offered superior exhaust shrouding.
Of course, this may not be the final production model of the Hunter, and additional body work could help mitigate the rear nozzle’s effect on the platform’s radar signature, but if the Su-57’s questionable stealth is any indicator, Russia may settle for simply suggesting they have another stealthy platform rather than putting forth the money to actually make one.