New footage to surface on social media late Wednesday night appears to show Russia’s most advanced fighter platform, the Su-57, arriving in Syria for combat operations.
The Su-57, also known as the PAK FA and T-50, is Russia’s most advanced fighter platform, widely believed to be a 5th generation competitor for the likes of America’s F-22, and China’s J-20. However, unlike the F-22, which entered service more than a decade ago, and the J-20, which reportedly became combat operational last week, the Su-57 remains years away from mass production and combat operations. To date, the Russian military has taken delivery on fewer than 12 of the prototype aircraft, which have already suffered repeated setbacks due to hardware issues and budget limitations.
— Joseph Dempsey (@JosephHDempsey) February 21, 2018
So what is the untested platform doing in Syria?
It seems unlikely that the Su-57 was deployed to the Syria to meet a legitimate operational need. Russian President Vladimir Putin announced total victory over the Islamic State in December, when he also announced a planned withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria. However, in the time since, tensions have continued to escalate between the U.S. backed Syrian Democratic Forces and Bashar Al Assad’s sitting Syrian regime, which has received direct military support from the Kremlin.
Earlier this month, what some have called a proxy war between the United States and Russia over the future leadership of the Syrians state appeared to devolve into the traditional kind, with dozens or even hundreds of Russians being killed or wounded in a skirmish with U.S. Special Operations advisors co-located with SDF fighters on the American controlled side of the Euphrates River, which both sides recognize as the military deconfliction line. Russia has reluctantly acknowledged that there were Russian citizens among the dead a following that ill fated attack, but claims they were civilians serving alongside Syrian fighters on their own accord, rather than members of the Russian military. Russia, it’s worth noting, made similar claims about Russian soldiers fighting inside Crimea leading up to Russia’s military annexation of the region.
While one could postulate that the Su-57 was sent to Syria to bridge the operational gap presented by the presence of American F-22s, it seems unlikely. The Su-35, which is perhaps Russia’s most capable operational fighter, boasts similar maneuverability and speed when compared to the fifth generation F-22, but lacks its stealth capabilities. The Su-57 supposedly boasts advanced stealth characteristics itself, though some aerospace experts have questioned the legitimacy of Russia’s claims in that regard based on analysis of images of the aircraft. Issues with the development of the Su-57 and the fact that Russia currently has fewer than a dozen of the aircraft (intended for testing, not combat) mean the platform is likely far from ready to engage a tried and tested platform like the F-22, even in a bit war zone cat and mouse.
The two mostly likely explanations for the arrival of the Su-57 in Syria are less tactical and more strategic (in a global posturing sense). With China’s announcement that the J-20 has entered into operational service (all be it, with the wrong power plant), and a number of nations around the world taking delivery of their first F-35s from the United States, Russia likely wants to show the world that they have a 5th generation fighter all their own. Despite dwindling funding for the program, Russia does believe the Su-57 represents the future for their Air Force, and it may simply be a matter of geopolitical “keeping up with the Joneses.”
Further, Syria has served as a test bed for a number of Russian weapons platforms that may not have been entirely necessary in a conflict against rebels and terrorists, such as surface to air missile platforms, ground based cruise missiles and a variety of electronic warfare systems. These displays of Russian military might throughout the varying stages of the Syrian conflict have offered the nation not only a test bed for new weapons technologies, but an advertising platform for the sale of military equipment to other nations. It seems likely that Russia will want to be able to claim the Su-57 has already conducted combat operations as a part of their effort to sell the aircraft to foreign governments.
“According to the Defense Ministry, 215 up-to-date and dramatically new types of weapons were used. Many samples of current military equipment were put to test [in Syria],” Russian President Vladimir Putin said last month. “The use of our weapons in Syria has convincingly proven that by its armament the Russian military is among the world’s leading armies.”
Whatever the reason for the Su-57s apparent arrival in Syria, it’s unlikely that it will see any direct interactions with American aircraft. While Russians are still interested in gaining intelligence on advance fighters like the F-22, using the Su-57 to do so would allow American forces the opportunity to do the same intelligence gathering on the Russian jet – a comparatively rare opportunity.
Image courtesy of WikiMedia Commons
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