This One Problem Makes Russia's Stealth Drone Not Very Stealthy

David Axe

Key point: The engine needs to have a stealthier profile, otherwise Moscow's new toy won't be very good.

It appears the Russian warplane-make Sukhoi has a plan to fix the most obvious flaw in the design of its new Hunter drone.

Photos from The War Zone editor Tylor Rogoway obtained from the Sukhoi pavilion at Russia's MAKS air show in Moscow oblast reveal what is apparently the ultimate version of the fighter-style Hunter.

This version features an engine exhaust that is flush with the airframe. The current, prototype version of the Hunter, which first appeared in January 2019, features an AL-31 engine that protrudes from the fuselage.

Such an engine arrangement represents a major source of radar signature and could ruin the drone’s stealthiness from the side and rear aspects.

“So, at the moment, Russia's Hunter design is far from realizing the low-observability it seems to aspire towards, but now we know that Sukhoi is not only aware of this, the company hopes to fix it as the aircraft moves forward in development,” Rogoway wrote.

The new exhaust layout “is most reminiscent of the one found on the X-45A demonstrators that largely paved the way for American [unmanned combat air vehicle] development,” Rogoway pointed out.

It’s unclear whether the new exhaust also will require Sukhoi to install a new engine on the Hunter. A change of powerplant could complicate Russia’s efforts to speed Hunter into front-line service.

But the extra work likely is worth it. A flying wing similar in shape to the U.S. Air Force's B-2 stealth bomber, Hunter, in theory, could penetrate enemy defenses to deliver ordnance. The design greatly would benefit from all-aspect stealth.

In size and shape,Hunter 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.

The Chinese drone and the X-47 and X-45 are just demonstrators or prototypes. By contrast, the likelihood of Hunter-B eventually entering squadron service with the Russian air force is "big," Tom Cooper, an independent expert on Russian military aviation, told The National Interest.

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