The Russian military has been showcasing its latest fifth-generation jet fighter, but the U.S. will continue to maintain its advantage in the aerial battlespace. Lately, the Russian military deployed the Su-57 to Syria in an attempt to test its capabilities and performance in combat conditions. During the flights, the Russian pilots tested the aircraft’s on-board systems, data management and coordination software, and the overall performance (for example, arming a weapon in extreme temperatures).
The latest show-off flights were conducted to garner favourable public relations for the airframe. Why? Because its production schedule has been significantly derailed. The Su-57 was supposed to be in mass-production. Hitherto, however, the Russian defence industry has managed to manufacture only 12 aircraft (all prototypes). Hardware shortcomings, largely the result of budget limitations — Western sanctions on Russia have begun to generate results — have frustrated the production schedule.
The Su-57, which was initially designated as PAK FA or T-50, first flew in early 2010. It is supposed to be a peer-level competitor to the American F-22 Raptor stealth fighter. But some go beyond that and claim that the Su-57 is even better: According to the aircraft’s chief designer, Mikhail Strelets, the Su-57 combines the lethality of the F-22 and the diversity of the F-35 and thus outperforms both aircraft.
The Russian Defence Ministry stated that the new stealth fighter has been “designed for the elimination of all types of air, ground and maritime targets. It has high maneuverability, supersonic capabilities, as well as modern on-board systems and stealth capability, provides high efficiency and air superiority.”
Strelets also claimed that the F-22, which was developed as an air-superiority aircraft, is restricted by the limited number of air-to-ground payloads it can carry and thus isn’t as effective as the U.S. claims it to be. The Russian engineer, however, ignores that the F-22’s primary role is to secure air-superiority. Once that crucial function has been achieved, more vulnerable aircraft, such as the A-10 Thunderbolt II, also known as the Warthog, can fly in theatre and obliterate any ground targets.
So, the fancy display of the Su-57 is nothing more than a marketing ploy. Although it doesn’t wish to acknowledge it, the Kremlin can’t mass-produce the aircraft in a combat-ready condition. India, which was supposed to co-finance the project with at least $5 billion and purchase hundreds of aircraft, has been having second thoughts over the Su-57s technical performances.
In the end, actions matter more than words. Russian officials have been quite vocal over their aircraft’s capabilities. But its questionable performance and poor manufacturing record suggest that the skies still remain under U.S. control.