Russian state news media TASS reported Wednesday that “the crew of a Russian Tu-95MS strategic bomber practiced in-flight guidance of an unmanned aerial vehicle from the cockpit” in a recent test.
The type of drone involved was not specified, but TASS mentioned that their defense source would neither confirm nor deny that it was the ultra-modern S-70 Okhotnik (“Hunter”) stealth strike drone.
The Tu-95 “Bear” is an amazing piece of Cold War technology. Dating back to 1952, it is the only in-service strategic bomber in the world that is older than the U.S. Air Force’s B-52, and certainly the only one with propellers. It has survived in service for some 70 years – long enough to be flown by the great-grandchildren of the original pilots because it can manage a respectable 440 mph cruise for 9,000-mile missions. Bears are routinely used for maritime patrols and spying missions off Alaska. (It’s also extremely loud, so loud that pilots intercepting it sometimes hear the roar of the Tu-95s engines above their own jets).
The TASS piece goes on to mention two particular roles that drones accompanying a Tu-95 might carry out – distracting the defenses and carrying out reconnaissance to locate, identify and track targets for the Tu-95.
It is not easy to make sense of exactly what is going on here. It would be a mistake to assume that the Russians are simply copying their U.S. counterparts who are further along with maturing drone warfare technology. For example, DARPA is now at an advanced stage with its Gremlins project for swarms of air-launched drones to act as decoys, locate and jam air defenses ahead of manned aircraft, and the Air Force has developed drones as ‘offboard sensors’ for AC-130 gunships.
However, given Russia’s lack of air-launched drone capability, and the range of the Tu-95, which is its defining characteristic, then the type of drone that would be used is narrowed down. Samuel Bendett, an analyst with CNA and an adjunct senior fellow for CNAS specializing in Russian technology, sees it being a field of two.
“We are limited in the type of drone that could have been tested in this arrangement — hence all roads leading to either Okhotnik or Altius,” says Bendett.
Okhotnik is a stealth drone, able to carry out strike missions as well as carrying air-to-air missiles. In an exercise last year, one was controlled from a Su-57 manned fighter; its range if given as over 3,000 miles.
The Altius will have an even longer range, being the Russian equivalent of the U.S. MQ-4 Global Hawk, but will not be in service for some years. It is unlikely to play a tactical role.
Hence the focus on the Okhotnik. Bendett suggests that by teaming the Tu-95 with Okhotnik, the capability of both might be improved. The stealthy drone can slip past defenses and locate them, allowing the Tu-95 to destroy them (and other targets) with long-range cruise missiles while staying out of the danger zone. The drone’s air-to-air capability might also keep enemy fighter away from the Tu-95. This would combine both roles mentioned in the TASS piece and compensate for both the Okhotnik’s lack of bombload and the Tu-95’s lack of survivability against modern defenses.
It makes an interesting contrast to the role of the U.S. Navy’s MQ-25 Stingray. Originally envisioned as a stealth attack drone to go ahead of the manned wave, it has now been relegated to duty as an aerial tanker. So while the Russians are putting robots in the front line and keeping their scarce manned assets back, the U.S. is keeping its drones away from the action and sending expensive manned aircraft instead.
However, this is only one interpretation. The recent flight may have more to do with showing that the Okhotnik is compatible with a wide range of other aircraft.
“This may have more to do with testing Okhotnik’s manned-unmanned teaming technology and concepts of operations, so that it flies not just with a Su-57, but other key strategic Russian aircraft as well,” says Bendett.
This is not as simple as you might think, earlier this month. The USAF suffered an unfortunate glitch with communications gear on a demonstration flight intended to show how drones and manned planes could work together.
Of course we have only the word of an unnamed official that all went well with the Tu-95 test. But Russia does seem to be committed to unmanned systems and has accelerated their deployment. The ancient Tu-95 may yet get a second life, not as a strategic bomber but as the flying control station for squadrons of stealthy attack drones.