Fifth generation fighter platforms and hypersonic missiles are all the rage this holiday season, with every aspiring global military power in a rush to not only develop and build each, but to show them off to the world like school kids coming back from Christmas break. Between F-35 elephant walks, J-20 air shows, and heavily edited Su-57 highlight reels, the U.S., China, and Russia have each demonstrated an eagerness to let the world see just how advanced their latest and greatest fighters are, but the press these events garner can be misleading.

As Fighter Sweep has noted before, despite being one of three nations on the planet with a fifth-generation fighter in production, the United States remains the only nation on the planet with a formidable fleet of them. With only 12 Russian Su-57s slated for production and only around 20 or so J-20s rumored as currently operational, both Russia and China maintain what could be considered “token” fifth-gen fleets at best — giving them plenty to talk about in the media but offering little in the way of current operational value.

Su-57s on a low pass (YouTube)

That said, however, both China and Russia have already proven to be ahead of the United States in the hypersonics game — and although the United States has recently invested billions into playing catch up, largely through Lockheed Martin, the most recent Air Force estimates still put the U.S. about two years away from testing a hypersonic platform that’s actually moving toward production, rather than serving solely as a technology demonstrator. The U.S. may be ahead of the curve in the fighter game, but it lags sorely behind in the realm of hypersonic missiles.

Moscow is, of course, aware of this capability gap created by America’s nearly two-decade-long focus on anti-terror and counter-insurgency operations, and ever keen to find an opportunity to market their wares to the international defense market, they now have a new plan to use those hypersonic missiles to help garner headlines for their all-but-dead Su-57 program: just strap one to the other and hope the public doesn’t worry too much about the details.

“In accordance with Russia’s State Armament Program for 2018-2027, Su-57 jet fighters will be equipped with hypersonic missiles,” a Russian defense industry source told Russia’s state-owned Tass. “The jet fighters will receive missiles with characteristics similar to that of the Kinzhal missiles, but with inter-body placement and smaller size.”

The Kinzhal (also called the Kh-47M2) is an air-launched hypersonic weapon that Russia has already successfully test fired from a variant of the Mig-31 earlier this year, seemingly suggesting that mounting a variation of this platform isn’t impossible on the Su-57… but reality is a bit more complex than that.

Russian officials have already stated that they intend to adapt the Kinzhal into a smaller size for use inside the Su-57s internal storage bays. That decision is logical, as that big missile strapped to the bottom of a Su-57 in a similar fashion to the Mig shown above would almost certainly result in compromising the Su-57’s stealth. According to Russian officials, the new pint-sized Kinzhal will boast speeds in excess of Mach 10 and an operational range of 1,200 miles… but it’s important that we look at what’s really being said here.

Russia does not have a missile like the Kinzhal that’s small enough to fit inside the Su-57’s internal weapons compartments. Developing such a weapon will undoubtedly take a great deal of time and money (cutting edge missile technology often isn’t something you can just shrink with ease), and to date, Russia has yet to demonstrate that even their full-sized Kinzhal is capable actually hitting anything. We know it can be launched… but no footage has ever surfaced of it hitting a target and there’s little to no verifiable information about how accurate these missiles actually are in practice.

The Kh-47M2 Kinzhal ALBM being carried by a Mikoyan MiG-31K interceptor. (WikiMedia Commons)

In other words, Russia announced this week that they’re basically going to invent a new missile that’s sort of like this other missile that, as far as we know, still needs work. That doesn’t sound quite as scary as they may have intended.

And then there’s the most significant reason why hypersonic missile-armed Su-57’s aren’t much cause for concern: Because Russia is only producing a dozen of them. With literally hundreds of fifth-generation fighters in its fleet, the United States’ best jets likely wouldn’t find themselves outmatched by the Su-57 even in one on one engagements, thanks in no small part to the Russian jet’s weaker engine that calls its standing as a fifth-gen fighter into question as it is. Even if you could mount some really scary hardware on these 12 fighters… they’d still be just 12 fighters amidst an awfully large aerial war.

Like Russia’s claims of having an operational infantry robot (that were later proved to be bunk), or their nuclear-powered cruise missile that actually doesn’t fly, or the “predator-style” active camouflage that failed to manifest, or their latest laser system that they’re happy to show off unless you ask how powerful it is or what purpose it serves, Russia has a long track record of saying they have military capabilities that sound more like plot points in a straight-to-DVD sequel to Red Dawn and offer no real world capability. Thus far, there’s little reason to suspect this latest development is anything different.


Feature image courtesy of Flickr