It’s pretty obvious why the Russian air force is keen to develop a two-seat version of its single-seat Su-57 stealth fighter.
The air force plans to pair the Su-57 with the S-70 Okhotnik drone. But the drone lacks autonomy. That means whoever is aboard the Su-57 might also have to steer the S-70, one input at a time.
If that’s the case, it’d be really helpful to have a second set of hands and eyes in the manned plane.
“The defense ministry and the Sukhoi Design Bureau have plans to develop a two-pilot aircraft,” Yuri Borisov, Russia’s deputy prime minister, announced in June while discussing the Su-57.
Borisov claimed, without explaining why, that a two-seat Su-57 would be attractive on the export market.
But the benefit to the Russian air force is clear. Around the same time as Borisov’s announcement, an industry source told state media the plan was for Russia’s Su-57s each to control between two and four S-70s.
The drones would add their sensors and weapons to the Su-57’s own capabilities.
A two-seat Su-57 would be an outlier. There are lots of stealth fighters in service or in development all over the world. All are single-seat. To fly them, pilots train in simulators and twin-seat training jets.
The second crew member in a two-seat Su-57 could devote their attention to controlling drones, freeing up the pilot to fly the jet. The backseater could monitor the drones on radar, send them commands via radio datalink and see what the drones see through the robots’ own cameras.
That’s not the only way to pair manned and unmanned fighters, of course. The U.S. Air Force is developing its own “wingman” drone, but isn’t developing two-seat versions of its F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters.
Instead, the American wingman drone boasts sophisticated artificial intelligence that allows the ‘bot to make routine decisions. A human controller would issue broad commands—go here, patrol there, open fire!—while the drone handles navigation.
The U.S. model for manned-unmanned teaming is hands-off. The Russian model is hands-on. While this could reflect doctrinal differences between the U.S. and Russian air forces, it also points to differences in A.I. development.
The USAF has made autonomy the driving factor in its Skyborg wingman-drone program. The airframe by contrast is small, cheap and “attritable”—that is, disposable in combat.
The Russian air force by contrast is focusing on the airframe to the detriment of the A.I. Where the American Skyborg is small (22 feet across) and cheap ($2 million a copy), the Russian S-70 is big (46 feet across) and expensive ($20 million a copy).
The S-70 is not attritable. And it’s not on track to be very autonomous in its initial version. “The Okhotnik will be a remote-controlled vehicle initially,” said Samuel Bendett, an analyst with the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C. and the Center for Naval Analysis in Virginia.
Which country is pursuing the best strategy for manned-unmanned teaming is hard to predict until wingman drones fly their first combat missions.