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.