A video and reports this week indicated that Russia deployed its stealthy Okhotnik drone to the Tiyas base in Syria near Palmyra. This may have happened several years ago but it also shows an increase in Russian drone activity in Syria. Russia’s Orion drone and its S-70 Okhotnik ("Hunter") drone are seen in the video.
Thomas Newdick at The Drive notes that, “while part of the purported combat sequence shows the Orion carrying four small weapons on underwing pylons, these areas have been deliberately obscured.” He notes that investigations online concluded that the “video was made sometime between December 2017 and early April 2019, which would coincide with the previously reported in-theater trials.”
The video was shown on Russia’s Channel One. The Orion drone, sometimes called Inokhodets, is Moscow’s answer to US armed drones such as the Reaper. Russia has been lagging behind the US in drone production, and has been trying to catch up. The deployment of the S-70 is interesting because Russia is not thought to have many of these wing-shaped stealth drones.
Russian drone design is not revolutionary. It has appeared to learn from elements of the US Predator program. The S-70 has elements of the US Sentinel and the X-47 prototype that Northrop Grumman made in the early 2000s.
Russia appears to have outfitted the Orion with armaments to carry out strikes. It may have guided missiles or laser-guided bombs. This matters because Turkey has perfected similar armaments on its Bayraktar drones. Other countries also have armed drones. Iran, for instance, has pioneered a plethora of drones and provided technology to the Houthi rebels in Yemen. The Islamic Republic has also flown drones from Syria and particularly the T-4 base in Homs Province. In 2018, Iran flew a drone into Israeli airspace and Israel shot it down.
In February Russia’s Izvestia said that drones might soon work as wingmen with manned aircraft, such as the Su-57. According to the article “Russian fifth-generation Su-57 stealth fighters will routinely operate together with the S-70 Okhotnik heavy reconnaissance and strike drones. To do this, they want to combine them into mixed air regiments. "This decision will radically enhance the capabilities of videoconferencing," Izvestia said. "Drones and airplanes will cover territories hundreds and even thousands of kilometers with an impenetrable shield. They will also be able to destroy the most important targets behind enemy lines.”
That Russia has shown the video of its drones doing combat drills in Syria shows that Moscow is lifting the lid further on its drone program and also its role there. That T-4 was used is also important as it shows Russian drones are flying more out of an airbase that was used by Iran in the past for drones. For instance, Moscow tried to move its 3rd Khordad air defense system to Syria in April 2018; an airstrike destroyed the system.