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Russia trains joint fighter jet, drone operation

The Russian Defense Ministry for the first time demonstrated  the footage of joint actions of Su-57 fighter jet and Okhotnik S-70 drone.
The operational link between manned and unmanned craft is a prospective and inevitable development guideline. Russian and foreign experts believe the sixth generation of fighter jets will be fully unmanned or optionally piloted, the Izvestia daily writes.

Russia trains joint fighter jet drone operation Su-57 fighter jet and Okhotnik UAV  (Picture source: Russian MoD)

The Russian military pay specific attention to joint manned and unmanned operation which is confirmed by the first test flights of Okhotnik. The drone took off for the first time less than two months ago.

So far, only the United States conducted similar experiments. Since 2016, AH-64E helicopter gunships have been capable of controlling two reconnaissance drones - Army Shadow and Grey Eagle. The helicopters can receive real-time videos from them and control the drones directly. The operator can thus monitor the situation at a major distance and keep the target in sight while he is advancing to the strike area.

The Americans admit the main problem of such engagement is a growing load on helicopter crew. Therefore, there have been no reports about a broad real combat engagement of the technology which is called Manned-Unmanned Teaming (MUM-T). However, tests are ongoing.

The control of a heavy and high-speed drone from a one-seater cockpit is a more complicated task. Naturally, it is impossible to engage in combat and simultaneously control both the jet and the drone without artificial intellect and a high automation. The drone has to independently fulfil most routine missions, including takeoff, jet escort and landing. It will need human assistance in difficult situations for the computer, like target selection and decisions to open fire.

Today, the biggest drones with the longest range are controlled through satellite channels. Their range is limited only by fuel stocks and they can operate across the whole planet. There are no doubts that Okhotnik will be controlled through a satellite, but it is also to have direct communications with other aerial vehicles of the Russian Aerospace Forces.

In contrast to other slow-speed drones, Okhotnik is designed to fight technologically equal or slightly inferior adversary. It is not accidental that the latest Russian jet was selected to operate with it. The possibility to exchange information with Su-57 adds tactical flexibility. The interaction is simplified by the use of some components of the fifth-generation jet in the drone, mostly avionics. Several options of their interaction can be suggested. They can complement each other in arms and electronic equipment.

Drones are good for operation in dangerous conditions where a manned fighter jet is undesirable. They include breakthrough of adversary air defense before the manned aircraft enters it or reconnaissance and destruction of highly protected targets which is a risky mission even for a stealth fighter jet. Several drones in constant contact with the fighter jet can effectively control more air and water space than a solo jet. Such a possibility was tested in the first joint flight.

A major advantage of Okhotnik is the ability to carry major payload and various munitions to thousands of kilometers. Drones can be used to increase the attack strength of fighter jets. They can also provide guidance to each other.

The payload of a fighter jet can be limited by missiles for air combat and defense of the drone. Even the latest drones, like US RQ-4 Global Hawk, are good targets for fighter jets. Their protection by modern jets will increase the survivability of expensive attack drones.

The initial missions of a jet-drone pair will be reconnaissance and strikes. In future, the drones, be it S-70 or other vehicle, will assist in air combat.

Naturally, the fighter jet-drone pair is unlikely to be accepted into service in the near future. Okhotnik trials have just begun and will take several years. Batch procurement of Su-57 is only beginning. The design of interaction algorithms and drone software takes as much time as the creation of electronic onboard equipment. However, the beginning of the trials is inspiring. It confirms that Russia has seriously advanced in military robotics. It is not the Soviet legacy, but an independent modern design, the Izvestia said.

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