Moscow Unveils Further Advances in Drone Technology

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 139

An Su-57 (front) and an S-70 Okhotnik UAV fly in formation as part of a test flight (Source: Russian Ministry of Defense)

Russia’s Armed Forces and defense industry are making considerable advances in the design and introduction of modern unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology. While there is growing interest in diversifying both the roles and types of UAVs in service within the Russian military, the biggest advances seem to lie in developing heavy-strike drones and in improved variants of existing drones to aid reconnaissance and targeting. This is evident in progress toward introducing the heavy-strike, reconnaissance, unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) S-70 Okhotnik (“Hunter”), which was first publicly seen in early 2019 and underwent its first test flight in August. A further sign of development headway by the Russian arms industry includes the latest iteration of the Orlan series of drone, the Orlan-30 (RIA Novosti, September 27; see EDM, February 20).

On September 27, the S-70 Okhotnik made a test flight alongside Russia’s fifth-generation fighter, the Su-57. The heavy strike drone is being designed specifically to work in tandem with the Su-57; namely, the Okhotnik’s radar expands the radar field for the advanced fighter, allowing the manned aircraft to attack enemy targets without entering a hostile air-defense zone. The pilot can also guide the drone from the Su-57. The Okhotnik is reportedly a stealth drone, developed by the Sukhoi Design Bureau. It weighs 25 tons, with a combat load of 2.8–8 tons. At low altitude, this drone reportedly flies at 1,400 kilometers per hour; there is no information on its flight speeds at high altitude. It is equipped with target equipment for optical-electronic, radio-engineering and other types of reconnaissance assets (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, September 27).

According to the Moscow-based Russian military expert Anton Lavrov, the Okhotnik’s great advantage is its “ability to carry a heavy combat load and any aviation ammunition for thousands of kilometers.” Consequently, these “unmanned aerial vehicles can be used to build up the strike capabilities of manned aircraft” and carry out “target designation for each other.” Lavrov notes that such platforms would be useful “for actions in dangerous conditions, where it is undesirable to send a person,” for example, “opening the developed air-defense system of the enemy before deploying manned aircraft or reconnaissance and striking well-protected targets. A group of several drones in constant contact with a fighter can effectively control much more air and water space than a single aircraft” (, October 1).

Russian military specialists assert that the Okhotnik may enter service as early as 2022, with detachments first formed in Russia’s Western and Southern military districts (MD). In addition to its reconnaissance function, the Okhotnik will be capable of attacking a range of targets with a variety of aviation weapons, including cruise missiles. One of its most unusual characteristics is the lack of under-wing carriage for its ordinance, meaning that all weapons are carried onboard the UCAV. In addition to the optical-electronic systems on board, complex radio-intelligence systems will be deployed. This was apparently confirmed by video footage of the Okhotnik’s test flights. On the fuselage of the UAV, characteristic protrusions are visible in which the antennas of radio-intelligence stations are most likely to be located. It will also have a radar for fixing and locating ground- and air-based targets. The project to develop such a heavy “shock drone” began in the early 2000s, but it was suspended in 2008 and resumed in 2013, with apparent marked progress since 2016. The Russian defense industry leadership believes this combat drone may be analogous to the United States’ future RQ-180 (VPK, October 1).

Similarly, the Orlan series of UAVs has benefited from renewed R&D to develop the Orlan-30. The Russian defense ministry recently announced that the Orlan-30 will enter service in 2020, stressing that it had been tested and refined in Syria and during the recent strategic military exercise Tsentr 2019 (see EDM, September 18). It is equipped with an advanced (in comparison with its predecessor, the Orlan-10) optical-electronic system as well as a special guidance system. It weighs around 30 kilograms (twice that of the Orlan-10), is catapult launched, and has a flight range of up to 300 kilometers at a cruising speed of 150 kilometers/hour. The Orlan-30’s flight duration exceeds five hours. It is tasked with conducting reconnaissance of targets and transmitting their exact coordinates for firing corrected artillery shells. Therefore, the Orlan-30 will work closely with heavy artillery such as the 240-millimeter Tyulpan mortar and adjust the fires of self-propelled artillery installations, including the Akatsiya and Msta (armed with 152-millimeter shells), as well as D-30s and other towed guns. The range of such ammunition is 20 kilometers (TASS, October 2). In early August, the Russian defense ministry posted a video clip of the drone being used to aid the destruction of a terrorist target in Syria, a pickup truck concealed under a bridge, in coordination with artillery; it is widely suspected this involved a test of the Orlan-30 (Izvestia, October 2).

The Orlan-30 is additionally designed to increase the effectiveness of target designation for other aviation assets. The UAV conducts reconnaissance of targets and provides their coordinates using GLONASS and GPS, and it provides laser illumination of targets for artillery as well as airborne high-precision weapons.

An entire line of UAVs for the Armed Forces is now being completed. The military is preparing to procure heavier drones. At present, drones weighing up to 5 tons and Okhotnik UCAVs weighing up to 25 tons are being tested on a “flying wing” scheme, using stealth technologies (Izvestia, October 2).

These drone developments, tried and tested during operations in Syria and further refined in strategic exercises, fit into the pattern of Russia’s adoption of “command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance” (C4ISR) capabilities. This marks a concerted effort by the General Staff to address an age-old deficiency in the Russian military to integrate targeting and firepower. The enhanced ISR offered by these systems will provide greater high-precision accuracy. And the integration of the Su-57 fighter with the heavy and costly S-70 Okhotnik further denotes an advance toward high-precision weaponry and greater potential for Russian forces to overcome enemy air defenses.