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Ever since the F-22 Raptor ushered in a new generation of combat aircraft, when it entered frontline service in 2005, Russia (and China) have been working hard to catch up and field fifth-generation combat aircraft of their own. China’s J-20A Mighty Dragon is now in service, while Russia’s troubled Su-57 programme recently received an apparent reprieve from irrelevance in the shape of a surprise order for 76 production aircraft. However, while individually impressive in some areas, a small Russian Su-57 fleet is hardly a match for the latest NATO capabilities in the shape of mature F-22s and increasing numbers of F-35s operating alongside legacy fleets equipped with modern missiles and radars. In effect, Russia has failed to keep up in terms of manned fighter technology. However, another much lower profile American success in 2005 took the form of cooperative mock combat trials conducted with two innovative stealthy unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) prototypes known as X-45As.
Unlike the F-22 and F-35, which have become the most visible symbols of US dominance in the air domain, UCAV demonstrators such as the X-45s, X-47B and British Taranis have so far failed to lead to any publicly admitted combat capabilities. The Joint Unmanned Combat Air System, or J-UCAS programme collapsed when the US Air Force pulled out in 2006 and the subsequent US Navy Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) was denuded into the unarmed tanker and ISR-focussed MQ-25 with no low-observability requirements specified. The British Taranis and Franco-Swedish nEUROn UCAV demonstrator programmes initially led to a Future Combat Air System (FCAS) working group, but this has withered under the political disruption of Brexit and the launch of competing future fighter programmes. As a result, there is currently no openly acknowledged UCAV programme either in development or service in NATO. Some have speculated that the US has covert UCAV capabilities and there are discussions ongoing in both the British Team Tempest and Franco-German-led FCAS future combat air programmes about including UCAV elements in those system of systems. Nonetheless, given that there are major advantages inherent in UCAVs for high-intensity warfighting scenarios compared to manned aircraft in terms of mass, cost, endurance and risk to operators, the absence of current UCAVs is decidedly strange.
Part of the objection in the West is that to be credible in a high-intensity combat situation which would almost inevitably include heavy jamming and communications denial, a UCAV must have the ability to detect, classify, prioritise and engage targets with lethal weapons without real-time human yes/no oversight. Those targets would hardly be ambiguous – civilians seldom operate ground or air-based fire control radars, nor do they fire SAMs or air-to-air missiles. However, UCAVs require a level of temporal distance from real-time human control over lethal weapons employment which raises significant ethical, moral and potentially legal questions, which the governments of NATO member states have so far proven unwilling to tackle, at least in public. Nonetheless, the technology is already mature enough to enable the development and use of such weapons systems – adversaries unconstrained by such ethical, moral or legal scrutiny are not waiting for the West to get over its own scruples. China has at least three known UCAV development programmes – Sharp Sword, Dark Sword and CH-7 – and the People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s pursuit of this class of weapon has been known for years. Meanwhile, until recently, Russia’s only effort to develop a UCAV was the almost certainly non-airworthy mock-up from Mikoyan known as SKAT. Russia’s more traditional military equipment preferences, along with budget constraints and difficulties in substituting domestic micro-electronics for lost imports due to Western sanctions post-2014, are likely to have contributed to the lack of a comparable demonstrator to the X-47B, Taranis or Sharp Sword. With the first flight of the S-70 Okhotnik-B, this has clearly now changed.
The S-70 has many visible shortcomings in terms of stealth properties compared to Western demonstrators, most notably the extremely non-stealthy and unshrouded engine installation and protrusions across the airframe. Some of the latter are likely to be purely for instrumentation purposes during testing and will not feature on any production version, but nonetheless it is clear from the S-70, just as the Su-57 before it, that Russia lags significantly behind China and the US in stealth airframe design. It is, however, a leading developer of counter-stealth radars such as the Nebo M series, and information campaigns through Russia media outlets have regularly attempted to question the value of Western stealth advantages.
The flight of the S-70 and apparent Russian determination to field such a strike and ISR UCAV, either as a standalone capability or as a ‘loyal wingman’ to accompany Su-57s and other manned aircraft, therefore, shows several things. First, that despite significant economic limitations and an economy which is hardly well suited to producing the complex electronic systems on which a UCAV is dependent, Russia feels that it cannot afford not to develop this capability. Second, it shows that Russia sees enduring potential value in tailless blended wing-body type stealth aircraft despite its own decades of research into fielding counter-stealth radar systems. Third, it is yet more proof that Western public reluctance to develop UCAV systems is not deterring competing powers.
It is no longer tenable for Western air forces to treat lethal and survivable UCAVs as an optional and politically inconvenient potential ingredient in future air force capability plans. Instead, it is time to recognise that these systems will have a role in any future high intensity state-on-state conflict. Therefore, the only question is whether NATO Allies will leverage their advantages in airframe design, micro-electronics and software development to out-compete adversaries in the UCAV race, or simply wait and hope their air forces can deter, and, if necessary, defeat them in combat without the advantages inherent in such weapons systems.
Justin Bronk is the Research Fellow for Airpower and Technology at RUSI
BANNER IMAGE: Screenshot from footage released by Russian Ministry of Defense of Okhotnik-B first flight (https://youtu.be/boUaHTI6JxE)