According to RIA Novosti, an arm of the Russian state media services, Russia’s Su-57 stealth fighter is reportedly undergoing unmanned flight testing.
The Su-57 is flying unmanned at an undisclosed location in Russia. Novosti cites an unmanned source which claims that the fighter is flying with a pilot, but the pilot is merely monitoring the aircraft’s systems.
The RIA Novosti report is troublesome—not only does it come from a news outlet controlled by the Russian state government, but the actual source is also remained anonymous. Typically, piloted aircraft modified for autonomous missions require the installation of equipment to remotely manipulate the weapons, sensors, and flight controls. The Su-57 is a single-seat aircraft, and if there is a pilot sitting in the seat, there is no room for such equipment. Either the Su-57 used for unmanned testing is a two-seat variant or the aircraft is controlled remotely via software.
Russia’s aviation industry lags behind others in the development of autonomous combat aircraft, but Moscow is trying hard to catch up. Last year saw the introduction of the S-70 Okhotnik (“Hunter-B”) strike drone. Russia envisions the Su-57 and S-70 working together in wartime as a team, with the Su-57 clearing the skies while the S-70 conducts strikes against enemy forces on the ground. Alternatively, the S-70 could act as an robotic wingman for the piloted Su-57.
The Sukhoi Su-57, codenamed “Felon” by NATO, is a large twin-engine stealth fighter in the same rough class as the U.S. Air Force’s F-22 Raptor.
The Su-57 is designed to fulfill both anti-air and air-to-ground roles. The aircraft is Russia’s first stealth fighter, with a reduced radar cross-section from the frontal and side aspects. The Su-57, along with the U.S.’s F-22 Raptor, F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and Chinese J-20 is a so-called “fifth-generation fighter,” mixing speed, stealth, and advanced weapons and sensors.