New Russian Su-57 Stealth Fighter to Control Drones & Fire Hypersonic Weapons
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By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven
(Washington D.C.) The U.S. military has for several years now been working on the concept of a “loyal wingman” wherein a manned jet controls nearby drones from the cockpit without needing to move data through a ground control station. This technology is now maturing quickly with the U.S., particularly with drone programs such as the Valkyrie which has already taken off and flown in tandem with Air Force F-22s and F-35s, according to an Air Force report in December of last year.
“The rocket-launched Valkyrie successfully conducted a semi-autonomous flight alongside the F-22 and F-35 for the first time,” the Air Force report states.
The technical advance is quite significant, as it not only reduces latency in terms of data transmission but naturally massively streamlines command and control, such that 5th gen fighters such as the F-22 or F-35 can control the flight path, mission scope and sensor payload of nearby drones to test enemy defenses, blanket areas with forward surveillance or even fire weapons when directed by humans. Perhaps F-35s could operate a small forward fleet of mini-drones to jam enemy radar, overwhelm sensors or network targeting data back to air and ground nodes.
Now, surprise surprise, the Russian military is working on the same thing. While the Russian military is known to operate drones with an advanced technical sophistication, going as far back as Ukraine in 2014, more recent efforts are taking a sizable leap forward in terms of platform and technology advanced. The Russian Ministry of Defense is now working to network its S-70 Okhotnik-B drone with its emerging Su-57 Felon 5th Gen stealth fighter, according to a Russian publication called Izvestia.
Manned-Unmanned teaming, as it is called, could be identified as fundamental to the wave of the future when it comes to airwar operations, as it introduces new tactical possibilities for attack. Much of the prevailing consensus regarding what is likely to determine outcomes in future wars, especially should they involve great power conflict, could be described in terms of “sensor-to-shooter” timelines. Air-to-air rapid connectivity between drones and armed, supersonic stealth fighter jets, could enable attack aircraft to see, and destroy, enemy targets before they are seen themselves.
Interestingly, the Army was on the forefront of manned-unmanned teaming years ago when Apache attack helicopter crews were engineered with an ability to view live feeds from nearby drones in the cockpit and also control a drone’s sensor payload and flight path. This technology, which deployed to great effect in Afghanistan in recent years, reshaped helicopter attack tactics as Apache pilots were able to find, detect and track enemy targets before even taking off, due to being able to receive incoming drone video feeds.
If true, it could be a first-of-kind event wherein a stealthy 5th-Gen fighter jet fires a hypersonic air-to-ground missile at speeds five times the speed of sound…. Russia’s Su-57 Felon stealth fighter is reported to be carrying prototypes of what’s “claimed” to be a new hypersonic air-to-ground missile.
Quoting unnamed sources, a report in Russia’s state-run RIA Novosti newspaper says the missiles used in Su-57 tests were “functional, full-size mock ups,” but not yet launched. The RIA Novosti essay adds that the “dummy missiles lack a propulsion system, fuel and warhead but are otherwise identical to the real weapon in terms of weight and dimensions.”
The source cited in the Russia paper also says that test versions of the weapon include “seeker heads and electrical circuits.” The paper adds even more detail about the new weapon, describing it as “a compact, air-to-surface weapon intended to destroy adversary air and missile defense systems, and cruise and ballistic missile launchers.”
An interesting report in TheDrive mentions that Russia already has an air-launched hypersonic weapon, called the Kinzhal aero-ballistic missile system.
“This combines a modified MiG-31 Foxhound interceptor with the Iskander surface-to-surface missile, which has reportedly received the NATO codename Killjoy in its air-launched form,” TheDrive reports.
TheDrive reports that these kinds of air-launched hypersonic weapons typically rely upon a scramjet engine for propulsion, something which the U.S. Air Force has had some success with. In recent years, the Air Force succeeded in launching the X-51 waverider hypersonic drone from a B-52.
Fighter jet-launched hypersonic weapons, however, would introduce new threats for U.S. defenses, as the principle reality associated with enemy hypersonic weapons is simply that they are extremely difficult to defend. Long-range, ship-launched or even intercontinental hypersonic weapons can already travel unparalleled distances in minutes, exponentially decreasing flight time to target, so fast-maneuvering stealthy fighter jets attacking with hypersonic missiles would provide defenders with even less time to respond to an attack before being hit. A 5th-Gen fighter would bring an ability to maneuver much closer to target areas, presenting unanticipated complications for defenders hoping to stop hypersonic attacks. When it comes to defending hypersonic weapons, however, there is much work being done by the Pentagon. Some of these involve new innovations related to disrupting the air flow or “boundary layer” surrounding hypersonic weapons, using laser interceptors as they travel at the speed of light or even using hypersonic interceptors themselves to hit approaching hypersonic attacks. All of these methods of course will rely heavily upon high-speed methods of threat detection and sensor data analysis.
There already are several emerging and tactically relevant air-launched U.S. weapons, to include the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile and bomber-launched cruise missile, the Long Range Stand-Off weapon. An Air Launched weapon moving at hypersonic speeds, while likely on the developmental radar, may not yet exist. Along these lines, the level of technical maturity of the reported Russian weapons may not be known, or very clear, and the Russian media has a long history of “hyping up” or “exaggerating” weapons capabilities.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.