On Monday, Russia’s TASS state news agency reported that the United Aircraft Company was developing a two-seat version of the twin-engine Su-57 stealth fighter (codenamed ‘Felon’ by NATO) that could serve as a control hub for up to four high-end Okhotnik-B (“Hunter”) stealth combat drones at once.
Russia’s defence military declined to confirm or deny the claim, made by an anonymous defence industry source. Reports of work on an Su-57 two-seater are far from new — but the drone-control rationale is. In June, Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov stated “The Defence Ministry and the Sukhoi Design Bureau have plans to develop a two-pilot aircraft that will boost the export demand for this model … and it may create additional demand.”
Going further back, Sukhoi was supposed to develop a customized two-seat variant of the Su-57 called the FGFA for license production in India, but New Delhi pulled out in 2018 due to lack of progress. Whatever work did get done on FGFA may help speed up the new two-seater concept.
Two-seat fighter jets like the F-15E and Rafale-B are inevitably a bit heavier and less agile, but are preferred for training purposes because an instructor can sit in the rear seat and take control if necessary. As a Russian defence official told Interfax in December 2020 “This [Su-57 two-seater] can be in demand in flight personnel’s training to lower the psychological stress of inexperienced pilots, and also to perform lengthy flights over featureless terrain.”
Furthermore, in combat a Weapon Systems Officer (WSO) in the back seat can operate sensors, guided weapons and more exotic payloads like electronic warfare systems and drone command links more effectively while the pilot focuses on flying.
However, there aren’t any two-seater stealth fighters so far because a stretching out a stealth jet while maintaining low-radar-observable geometry is more difficult and costly than it would be for a conventional fighter. Finesse thus will be required to refashion the Su-57 without compromising its stealth characteristics.