Russia has a long and storied history of fielding capable fighter platforms that evoke anxiety in American pilots and interest from Chinese officials. A number of Chinese fighters in operations today are either production lines purchased directly from the Russian government or, as is the case with their carrier-based J-15s, were reverse engineered from Russian jets they acquired indirectly. Now it seems that China’s broad military modernization efforts may include purchasing Russia’s most advanced (and most troubled) fighter: the Sukhoi Su-57.
Russia’s Su-57 was originally a joint venture with India and was intended to serve as the first “fifth-generation” fighter in either nation’s stable. However, as Su-57 development continued, India’s interest began to wane. Rumors swirled about cost overruns and failures to meet performance objectives. Soon, Russia announced that their own initial production run of Su-57s would be reduced from 150 fighters to just 12. India formally backed out of the program.
Since then, Russia has worked hard to keep the Su-57 at the forefront of public consciousness, despite having only one fully operational prototype and fewer than a dozen total airframes. Two pairs of Su-57s were even deployed to Syria for a brief time in February of 2018, seemingly for no other reason than to garner press for the program, as the fighters seemed to fly no combat operations before returning to Russia days later.
Russia’s stagnant economy, coupled with a variety of international sanctions levied for things ranging from Russia’s military annexation of Crimea to attempted election interference in the United States, have left the Su-57 in a sort of limbo. Like Russia’s rumored-to-be-capable T-14 Armata main battle tank, the Su-57 is often touted as Russia’s most advanced and capable platform, despite the nation not being able to afford to field these vehicles in large enough numbers to have any real strategic impact. Instead, press associated with these (and countless other) programs seems to be tied directly to encouraging sales of these platforms to foreign markets in the interest of injecting some much-needed capital into the Kremlin’s military apparatus.
China, which is already purchasing what may actually be Russia’s most capable fighter, the Sukhoi Su-35, may be considering doing exactly that.
“China has recently taken delivery of 24 Su-35 aircraft, and in the next two years [China] will make a decision to either procure additional Su-35s, build the Su-35 in China, or buy a fifth-generation fighter aircraft, which could be another opportunity for the Su-57E,” an unnamed Russian defense official was quoted as saying in China’s state-owned Global Times.
Interestingly, experts have long contended that Russia’s Su-57 likely lacks the stealth capabilities Moscow claims, due largely to production limitations tied to the extremely tight tolerances required to avoid creating radar returns. In the Global Times piece, China seemed to acknowledge the Su-57’s stealth limitations, suggesting that it was instead the aircraft’s maneuverability that makes it such a dangerous fighter.
“While U.S. warplanes stress stealth and beyond visual range attacks, the Su-57 can evade incoming long-range missiles through its super-maneuverability and engage enemies at close range, a situation where stealth is not so important as super-maneuverability,” Wang Yongqing, chief designer of the Shenyang Aircraft Design Institute under the state-owned Aviation Industry Corporation of China, told the Global Times.
The Su-57 has long been hailed in Russian media as a response to America’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, though this may be the first time anyone has acknowledged that the fighter doesn’t seem to actually offer any real stealth capabilities.
The fact that China is considering this purchase raises some interesting questions about the two fifth-generation fighters already under development or in production in Chinese factories. China’s J-20, which was largely based on stolen plans for America’s F-22 Raptor, continues to face issues with its engines and China’s forthcoming J-31, based on stolen F-35 plans, has yet to come to fruition. China may be looking to bolster their fleets with a third “fifth-generation” platform, or they may be looking for opportunities to combine elements of the Su-57 program with their own struggling stealth fighters.
Chinese media has also suggested that India may reconsider their decision to back out of purchasing Su-57s, though no official statements from the Indian government would seem to corroborate those claims.