Russia aims to deploy an unmanned strategic bomber by 2040. But first it’s going to try to deploy a new manned stealth bomber.
Lt. Gen. Sergey Kobylash, commander of long-range aviation for the Russian air force, announced the plan in an interview with newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets.
"It is expected that by the year 2040 a sixth-generation strategic bomber will be created, which will already be unmanned," Kobylash said, according to a TASS summary of the interview.
Meanwhile, the air force is going to modernize its existing Tupolev Tu-160, Tu-95MS and Tu-22MZ bombers, Kobylash said. It also plans to develop a “fifth-generation” strategic bomber that would enter service before the sixth-generation robotic bomber does.
That interim bomber, the PAK-DA, reportedly is under development by Tupolev and could take to the air in 2025 or 2026, according to some outside experts. The Kremlin has released very little information about the bomber.
Details are equally scarce when it comes to the sixth-generation unmanned bomber. It will be subsonic and "will be able to solve all the tasks of long-range aviation," Kobylash said.
“On the one hand, the projection is in line with Russian [defense ministry] thinking about its future force composition -- the growing role of unmanned and robotic systems in the land, air and maritime forces, especially given the increasing role of UAVs in the Russian forces today,” Samuel Bendett, a researcher with the Center for Naval Analyses and a Russia studies fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, told The National Interest. “There have also been previous statements about the Russian sixth-generation aircraft having unmanned capabilities.”
“On the other hand,” Bendett added, “the 20-year projection arc is meant to ‘buy time’ to figure out the most important technological issues with respect to this aircraft.” The Russian aerospace industry cannot yet build a fully reliable and combat-capable large drone.
To be sure, Russia’s Orion drone completed combat trials in Syria and began to equip units in Russia for further testing, TASS reported on Nov. 1, 2019. The armed, satellite-controlled Orion, a product of the Kronshtadt Group, roughly is similar to the U.S. Air Force’s own Predator drone, which the American flying branch retired in 2017 after the type had served for more than 20 years. The U.S. Air Force continues to operate larger Reaper drones from the same manufacturer, General Atomics.
Progress on more sophisticated drones has been slower. Russia’s Okhotnik drone demonstrator took off from a military test site for its first-ever flight on Aug. 3, 2019. The flying-wing-shape drone flew for more than 20 minutes at a maximum altitude or around 2,000 feet, reported TASS.
With its jet propulsion and approximately 50-feet wingspan, the subsonic Okhotnik is in the same class as China's Tian Ying drone, the U.S. Air Force's RQ-170 surveillance unmanned aerial vehicle, the U.S. Navy's experimental X-47B UAV and Boeing's X-45C drone demonstrator. Okhotnik could evolve into an armed wingman drone that accompanies manned fighters into combat.
Its shape could give it stealth qualities from some angles, but its unshielded engine nozzle probably means it easily can be detected from behind. “The drone is equipped with equipment for optical-electronic, radio engineering and other types of intelligence,” TASS reported.
But the testing and delivery schedule for Okhotnik keeps slipping to the right. It could take years, even a decade, before Okhotnik is ready for combat. That could weigh on plans to deploy a bigger and more sophisticated drone bomber by 2040.
It’s clear the Kremlin wants jet-propelled, armed drones. But the Russian defense ministry “would probably want this capability sooner, given what it sees as the intensifying high-tech competition with the West and NATO,” Bendett noted.
The U.S. Air Force also is developing a new strategic bomber. The B-21 Raider, which could fly for the first time as early as 2021, has a pilot-optional mode. With the flip of a few switches, it could transform into a long-range drone similar to the sixth-generation UAV the Kremlin hopes to deploy.