Russia’s RIA Novosti state media has reported that the country is now testing unmanned Su-57 fighter jets at an “undisclosed” location, a move which appears to be part of the country’s broader effort to rival the U.S. and NATO by bringing weapons and autonomous flight to more effective stand-off ranges and increase mission scope for 5th-Gen stealth aircraft.
The RIA Novosti announcement, referred to in a report from Popular Mechanics, cites “anonymous” sources and seems to offer little detail.
Also, Russian state media has a history of at times “hyping up” some of its weapons and military technology. Nonetheless, if true, an unmanned Su-57 does not necessarily place Russia ahead of U.S. fighter jet technology, given the ongoing pace of U.S. autonomous flight development.
For many years now, the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory and other service weapons developers have been making rapid progress with a “loyal wingman” concept. The idea is to enable a pilot of an aircraft such as an F-22 or F-35 to command and control a small fleet of nearby drones. This changes the tactical equation substantially by allowing manned planes to conduct ISR, test enemy air defenses, and possibly even conduct attacks at safer standoff ranges. One big advantage, among others, is not only a more organic or close-in ability to control drones from the air but also a massive decrease in latency.
For instance, drones are now operated from ground terminals – often from long distances across continents. Enabling air-to-air operation could make navigation, data-sharing, and an entire range of air combat options both faster and more feasible.