In terms of military technology, the United States stands head and shoulders above the rest of the world in a number of categories, and stealth aircraft is certainly one of them. America’s stealth-expertise dates back decades, when classified programs that produced radar-defeating bombers like the F-117 Nighthawk and the B-2 Spirit were still in their infancy. Today, America’s two premiere fighters, the F-22 Raptor and newer F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, were both built with stealth in mind, making them arguably the least-detectable combat aircraft anywhere on the globe, but that’s not to say there isn’t competition.
China’s J-20 and forthcoming J-31, both based on stolen specs for the F-22 and F-35 respectively, are expected to prove capable, though likely not quite as stealthy as their American predecessors. There’s also Russia’s ill-fated foray into fifth-generation fighters, the Su-57. Once touted as the “most advanced fighter” on the planet, Russia’s struggling fighter failed to sustain the effort, prompting the Kremlin to announce that it would end its order of these new fighters with just 12 operational aircraft.
Even America’s curtailed F-22 program was cut short after producing more than 180 air frames. Fielding just 12 Su-57s all but guarantees that the few pilots tasked with operating these aircraft will have limited training time and likely won’t ever see combat. Aircraft, like any other machine, require continuous maintenance and the occasional replaced part. With so few Su-57s in existence, replacement parts alone will likely prove too costly to maintain a stock, leading to what we can expect will be long-duration waits anytime one of these rare fighters needs a bit of work done.
According to Russia, its tiny fleet of fifth-gen fighters keeps improving every day, most recently thanks to the addition of a “new composite material with enhanced radar wave-absorbing properties” Russian engineers added to the cockpit canopy of the aircraft.
“The coating weakens the thermal component of solar radiation by more than three times while the integral transmittance index in the visible range makes up no less than 65%, and the impact of the ultraviolet component drops by more than 4-6 times,” Russia’s ROSTEC claimed in a press release offered up to Russian state media. “It doubles radar wave absorption and reduces the aircraft cockpit’s radar signature by 30%.”
Is there any credibility to these claims? It’s entirely possible. The United States has long employed the use of radar-absorbent coating to increase the stealth characteristics of stealth and even non-stealth aircraft. Boeing’s forthcoming Block III Super Hornet upgrades, for instance, include an added layer of radar-absorbent coating meant to hinder the decidedly un-stealthy fighter’s detection for just a bit longer.
The thing is, Russia’s fleet of Su-57s is so small that it wouldn’t much matter if they had developed a predator-style cloaking device (which Russia has notably claimed to have done). These 12 fighters are too rare and too pricey to serve as any real means of force projection, despite Russia’s frequent allusions to their stealthy aircraft “hunting down” America’s best fighters. Instead, this announcement is really more about keeping the world’s eyes on their small fighter program in hopes it may usher in new foreign investors who could fund further development and production.
If any of those potential investors have a bit of stealth experience themselves (or access to Google), they may note a number of glaring issues with the Su-57’s claimed stealth capabilities to begin with. For instance, visible rivets all along the air frame and large seams where wing flaps and even body components near the nose meet suggest Russia currently lacks the means to produce the sort of tight tolerances required of a legitimately stealthy aircraft. In other words, they can add all the coatings to their cockpit that they like, but if any of Russia’s token Su-57s did meander their way into a fight, it’s likely enemy aircraft would have little trouble engaging them.