Russia is talking about giving its stealthy ‘Hunter’ drone an air-to-air combat mission as a long-range interceptor

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    Russia is talking about giving its stealthy 'Hunter' drone an air-to-air combat mission as a long-range interceptor
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    a fighter jet sitting on top of a sandy beach: A Sukhoi S-70 Okhotnik heavy unmanned combat aerial vehicle after the first joint flight with a Sukhoi Su-57 jet fighter. Photo by TASS\TASS via Getty Images
    • The Russian Ministry of Defense has proposed expanding the role of the stealthy new Okhotnik (Hunter) drone to include long-range intercept missions, Russian state media reported.
    • The Okhotnik could be tasked with targeting not only approaching fighter and bomber aircraft, but also the tankers and airborne early warning planes that support them.
    • An aircraft industry source told the state-run TASS that the drone will rely on artificial intelligence to achieve a certain degree of warfighting autonomy.
    • Like Russia, the US military is pursuing several lines of effort to field AI-driven autonomous aircraft for manned-unmanned teaming in combat operations.

    Russia is considering giving the stealthy Okhotnik (Hunter) combat drone an air-to-air combat mission as a long-range interceptor, Russian state media reported this week.

    The Russian defense ministry has proposed a concept of operations that would see the drone deployed forward with long-range weaponry to "attack air targets before they approach the air defense zone," an aircraft industry source told the TASS news agency.

    While development of the flying-wing Okhotnik unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) began years earlier, it was not until January of last year that the world saw the first pictures of the drone.

    The drone, a Sukhoi Design Bureau project, took flight for the first time in August 2019, and then in September of last year, it flew alongside a Su-57, Russia's most advanced fighter aircraft.

    "As originally designed, it was supposed to be an air defense penetrator," Samuel Bendett, an adviser with CNA and an adjunct senior fellow with the Center for a New American Security think tank who studies Russian military autonomy and AI, told Insider.

    "Then, they announced that it would function in a manned-unmanned teaming formation with the stealthy Su-57 manned aircraft and the Su-35, also an advanced Russian manned aircraft," he said. "And, now they are saying that it's going to get an interceptor role."

    As a forward operating system, the Okhotnik could be tasked with targeting not only approaching fighter and bomber aircraft, but also rear-echelon assets such as tankers and airborne early warning planes that support them. It could even dogfight with enemy manned aircraft, as well as engage unmanned systems.

    In addition to intercepting adversary assets, it could also be used to draw fire, force an enemy to reveal itself, or cause an adversary to expend higher-value, sophisticated munitions on a drone that could be needed for later fights.

    Russia characterizes the Okhotnik as a stealthy unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) with a reduced radar signature, which gives the aircraft the ability to slip past defenses or approach enemy assets with less chance of being detected.

    The design of the prototypes that have been used in recent tests do not appear to provide the desired all-aspect low observability. However, that may not be the case with the final design.

    Last August, Sukhoi unveiled a stealthier design at an event outside Moscow, indicating that Russia intends to further refine the aircraft to achieve the intended stealth capabilities.

    As for how it might operate, TASS reports that Okhotnik's actions in battle will be coordinated by both ground stations and manned fighter aircraft.

    Bendett told Insider he suspects the Okhotnik drone "will have a similar role to Skyborg," a US Air Force project aimed at developing low-cost, attritable AI-driven autonomous UCAVs to fly alongside manned fighters.

    TASS' source told the outlet that the AI-driven platform will be "fully autonomous" and have the ability to "independently search for certain types of targets, report on them, and attack."

    "Full autonomy is, I think, more of a conceptual statement," Bendett said. "It's a statement that kind of provides a goal for the domestic defense sector to work towards and kind of puts everybody else on notice that this is what the Russians are working on."

    He said that across the Russian defense establishment, researchers and developers are looking at "unmanned systems eventually having full autonomy and fighting alongside humans, selecting the targets and making the evaluations for a human operator to then make the final decision."

    As for that final decision on whether or not to engage, Russia is currently keeping the human in the loop, but, "we are starting to see the debate shift a little bit into that gray area where AI-enabled decision-making systems in various weapons are going to be given a greater and greater role in combat to the point where the human role is diminished," Bendett said.

    It is not clear to what degree the Okhotnik combat drone is presently autonomous, assuming it is at all.

    The US military is currently pursuing projects to advance research for unmanned warfare with AI at the stick.

    Last week, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) put an AI algorithm up against a well-trained US Air Force F-16 pilot in a "simulated within-visual-range air combat" situation, or dogfight.

    The AI achieved a flawless victory, one that a former US Navy TOPGUN instructor said was a "significant step toward one day providing an unmanned aircraft that can perform dogfighting" but not evidence "that we're there now."

    The Air Force has said that it plans to pit an AI-driven autonomous aircraft against a human pilot in some type of aerial engagement as early as next year, more work is required to get AI ready for real world combat.

    "The United States is ahead of the competition in trying to understand what AI's role is in aerial combat," Bendett said, adding that Russia will likely need to put its unmanned systems through similar tests before platforms like the Okhotnik can carry out missions as intended.

    The Russian defense ministry has called for deliveries of the Okhotnik combat drone to begin in 2024.


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