Russian Su-57 Fighters to Now Serve as ‘Mothership Carriers’ For Miniature Drones

Small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have been developed to be carried by and operate alongside Russian Su-57 fifth generation fighter aircraft, according to an informed source cited by state media. “Mini-UAVs to be used for various purposes have been created for the Su-57, which the aircraft will be able to carry on an external sling and inside the fuselage, and drop in the air. It is planned that the fighter will launch several drones at once and control this group of drones,” the source stated. The source elaborated that the UAVs will be able to launch air strikes, conduct electronic warfare, and provide reconnaissance, and will reportedly be dropped in groups by Su-57 units to break through enemy air defences. Doing so can capitalise on the Su-57’s high endurance and stealth capabilities, which allow each fighter to carry a considerable payload of smaller aircraft over long distances while masking its presence from enemy assets. The Russian Air Force is set to form its first full strength Su-57 squadron in 2024, with the fighters’ production rate having reportedly doubled in 2023 to an estimated 12 airframes per year. 

It remains uncertain whether the UAVs carried by the Su-57 will be single use ‘kamikaze’ assets, or whether they will be designed to return to base for further operations. Serving as a drone carrier will make the Su-57 entirely unique among combat aircraft across the world today, although proposals have been raised repeatedly for American transport aircraft such as C-130s to be modified to launch drones from the air. The Su-57’s more limited stealth capabilities compared to Chinese and American fifth generation fighters have resulted in a greater emphasis on fielding more capable classes of beyond visual range weaponry to avoid the need for the aircraft themselves to operate too far outside the protection of Russian air defences. Carriage of drones for air defence suppression represents the latest of multiple developments in this regard, and a means of significantly bolstering Su-57 units’ air defence suppression capabilities while reducing the risk to the aircraft themselves. Another notable example has been the integration of R-37M missiles onto the fighters, which allows them to fire on enemy aircraft at close to double the maximum engagement ranges that Western fighter classes are capable of.  

Su-57s have been deployed in combat from March 2022 for a range of roles, which have reportedly included strikes, air defence suppression, supporting electronic warfare efforts, and even beyond visual range air to air combat. Operations in Ukraine have made the Russian Air Force the only service in the world with experience operating fifth generation fighters in high intensity combat. The ability to serve as a drone carrier is the latest in a long line of new features announced for the Su-57, with a new communications suite secured by artificial intelligence reported in August, and new data links and radar absorbent fireglass technologies reported in the first half of the year. In the first week of November the fighter class was reported to have integrated a new class of radar evading cruise missile based on the Kh-101/102 carried by strategic bombers, which provides by far the longest air to surface engagement range of any tactical aircraft in the world at around 3500km using either conventional or nuclear payloads.