Russia is developing a stealthy, jet-powered robot warplane. And it's possible, though not certain, that the United States has nothing to match it.
The first blurry images of the Okhotnik-B drone appeared on Jan. 23, 2019 on a Russian aviation website. The photos depict a tractor towing the apparently roughly 50-foot-wide unmanned aerial vehicle along a snow-ringed runway at an airfield in Novosibirsk in south central Russia.
A flying wing similar to, but much smaller than, the U.S. Air Force's B-2 stealth bomber, the Okhotnik-B—which means "hunter" in Russian—in theory could penetrate enemy defenses to fire missiles or drop bombs.
If and when the Kremlin finishes developing the UAV and acquires it for front-line use—and to be clear, neither of those things is sure to happen—Russia could become one of the first countries to deploy stealthy, jet-propelled attack drones.
In that case, the Russian military might possess a whole class of warplane that the U.S. military lacks. Over the past two decades the Pentagon officially has passed up several opportunities to acquire stealthy attack drones.
If the U.S. military does possess a radar-evading killer drone, it remains a secret. The Air Force canceled earlier, public drone-development efforts in 2006 and 2012, instead preferring to devote the bulk of its resources to manned stealth fighters such as the F-22 and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
Russia's closest competitor in the visible killer-drone race might be China. The Tian Ying UAV, which is also a jet-powered flying wing, made its first appearance in early January 2019, taking off and landing during a test. The Chinese navy reportedly plans to deploy the Tian Ying on a large aircraft carrier that's under construction in Shanghai.
The United States pioneered modern armed drones. The propeller-driven Predator entered service in 1995. The U.S. Air Force added weapons to the type starting in 2001. The much larger and more powerful Reaper UAV arrived in 2007 while the Predator retired in 2018.
Today the prop-powered Reaper is America's only large, armed drone and a mainstay in the country's counterterror campaigns. Compared to the killer drones China and Russia are developing, the Reaper is slow and lacks stealth features. In that sense, it's possible the Kremlin and the Chinese People's Liberation Army, with their new killer drones, could be poised to leapfrog the Pentagon.
But appearances are deceiving. The complicated history of U.S. drone development hints at unseen American advantages and even "black" UAV programs. It's possible that the U.S. Air Force already possesses, in secret, the kinds of sophisticated killer drones the Russians and Chinese are developing out in the open.
It's also apparent that the U.S. Navy's newest, unarmed jet drone possesses subtle stealth qualities that could help it to evolve into a powerful strike aircraft. In any event, the U.S. military possesses a depth of experience and expertise in robotic air power that the Chinese and Russian armed forces can't match any time soon.
The U.S. Defense Department got a 15-year head start on jet-powered, armed drones. In the early 2000s the Air Force and Navy teamed up with warplane makers Boeing and Northrop Grumman to develop highly sophisticated robot fighters.
Boeing's X-45 and Northrop's X-47 surprised their developers in early tests. Guided by a combination of human controllers using Boeing-developed software plus their own internal sensors and algorithms, the drones proved they could swiftly penetrate simulated enemy defenses.
Small in size, they were hard for the enemy to detect at first. And flying in swarms of multiple drones, once detected, they could absorb enemy fire, sacrificing a few individual machines as they fought their way to the target.
Effectiveness, efficiency—those were the killer drones’ selling points. But the robot warplanes apparently threatened the pilot-centric cultures of the Air Force and the Navy’s aviation arms.
In 2006 the Air Force dropped out of the program. "The reason that was given was that we were expected to be too good in key areas and that we would have caused disruption to the efforts to ‘keep F-22 but moreover [the F-35] JSF sold,’" one Boeing engineer told The Daily Beast on condition of anonymity. "If we had flown and things like survivability had been assessed and Congress had gotten a hold of the data, JSF would have been in trouble."
In similar fashion, in 2012 the Air Force terminated the short-lived MQ-X killer-drone program.
Left to its own devices, the Navy continued developing Northrop's X-47 test drone and, in 2013, successfully landed and launched the UAV on an aircraft carrier. In 2018 the Navy tapped Boeing to build, as part of a $5-billion effort, a carrier-compatible, jet-propelled drone called the MQ-25, whose main mission is to refuel other aircraft in mid-air.
The MQ-25 has stealth features, including a top-mounted engine inlet and a carefully-shaped engine exhaust nozzle, both of which help to reduce its visibility on radar. Boeing and the Navy have implied that the MQ-25 might one day carry weapons, transforming from a tanker plane to a robotic stealth bomber with minimal modification.
The Air Force's relationship with killer drones is murkier still. While working on the X-45 and X-47 with the Navy, the Air Force also paid Lockheed Martin to build a flying-wing stealth reconnaissance drone.
That UAV, the RQ-170, entered service around the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. The Air Force copped to its existence years later, in 2009. The RQ-170 flew overhead during the Pentagon's 2011 operation to kill al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
There have been rumors that the Air Force developed a more powerful variant of the RQ-170.
In mid-2011 a freelance photographer—I agreed to withhold his name—was visiting the Air Force’s Tonopah Test Range in Nevada. While walking along the tarmac with an officer guide, the photographer spotted, some 150 yards away, what appeared at first to be an RQ-170 parked in an open hangar. But upon closer inspection, the photographer noticed details inconsistent with the recently revealed RQ-170.
The engine air intake was different. And the craft appeared to be much bigger than the baseline RQ-170 is.
It was clear the Air Force had not intended the photographer to see the UAV, whatever it was. The colonel leading the tour grew uncomfortable. "I was specifically asked not to photograph it and I complied," the photographer said of the mystery drone.
In 2013, aerospace trade magazine Aviation Week revealed that the Air Force had acquired a new stealth spy drone called the RQ-180. The Air Force never really gave up on drones in favor of manned aircraft. Instead, it began developing drones mostly in secret.
As of 2019, there's no hard evidence that the Air Force possesses a stealthy, jet-powered, armed drone. But there's ample evidence that the flying branch has been hard at work developing other kinds of drones of at least equal sophistication.
Equally, there are indications that Russia's new UAV isn't as sophisticated as it might seem to be. That might have something to do with its possible origin... as a copy of an older American drone.
An RQ-170 crashed on the Afghanistan-Iran border in December 2011, possibly while surveilling Iran's nuclear program. Iran seized the wreckage and reverse-engineered the UAV's airframe, if not its sensors and control systems. Russia and China both asked to inspect the wreckage.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the Okhotnik-B and the Tian Ying both are roughly similar in shape to the RQ-170. Although to be fair, the physics of stealthy flight are the same in any language.
If Russia copied the RQ-170 to produce the Okhotnik-B, it might have done so badly. The photos of the Okhotnik clearly show an unshielded engine exhaust nozzle and a straight engine inlet, both of which undermine the radar-evading qualities of its overall shape.
But Russia's biggest potential liability as a drone power, as well as the greatest advantage America possesses, is invisible to the naked eye.
It's not hard to build an airframe. Twentysomething cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado have managed all on their own to build their own stealthy drone airframe.
What's hard, when it comes to deploying killer drones to meaningful military effect, are the communications, control systems and computer algorithms—and the techniques and tactics for operating UAVs over long distances in crowded airspace alongside manned aircraft and other forces.
"The U.S. has literally decades of experience operating unmanned systems, from battlefield use in places like Iraq and Afghanistan to successful tests taking off and landing on aircraft carriers," Peter W. Singer, the author of several books on high-tech warfare, told The Daily Beast. "Neither Russia or China has that."
But Russia and China's progress openly developing new UAV types should inspire the Pentagon to maintain, or even expand, its own drone-development efforts.
"We have to envision using this technology in roles other than countering terrorists or as air tankers," Singer said. "The future battles will see more and more robots in more and more roles."