On Saturday, Russia announced their intentions to formally enter the world of fifth generation fighters with the first official order of their advanced Sukhoi Su-57, a platform intended to serve as a challenge for America’s fleets of fifth generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighters and F-22 Raptors.
“The first contract for 12 aircraft has been agreed on, and the deliveries under this contract will begin shortly,” Deputy Defense Minister Alexey Krivoruchko told reporters.
According to the brief statement released by the Russian Ministry of Defense through the state-owned media outlet RT, the Russian military will receive their first dozen operational Su-57s within a year, making the anticipated timeline as optimistic (and to be honest… fishy) as the Kremlin’s claims about the aircraft’s performance. The Su-57 program, which began under the moniker T-50, dates back to the late 1990s, with Sukhoi securing the contract for construction officially in 2002. In the intervening years, only ten Su-57s have been built, with fewer than that considered “operational.”
Back in February, the Russian military deployed a bevy of Su-57s to Syria — where Russia continues to provide direct military support to Syrian President Bashar al Assad throughout multiple conflicts within Syria’s borders. Russia has a history of deploying immature weapons technologies to this theater for the sake of marketing, at it would appear that the debut of their fifth generation fighters was more of the same. The aircraft were spotted in Syria for a few days with no reports of any combat action (not dissimilar from their approach to the Uran-9 combat drone) only to return to Russia quietly soon thereafter. After losing financial backing from Russia’s partner in the Su-57 venture (India), it seems likely that the Russian government was simply getting their aircraft into the spotlight again as a bid for new customers. America will be exporting F-35s to a number of allied nations, and at the moment, the Su-57 is the only aircraft on the open market that claims to be its match (for those who find themselves outside of America’s good graces).
So how realistic is it that Russia will have any Su-57s in operation by this time next year and what threat would that pose to American defense? Put simply, it’s somewhat possible (based on Russian military standards) but effectively meaningless from a strategic standpoint.
To better appreciate how Russia could potentially field 12 Su-57s by next year, you first need to understand the inherent difference between how America sees “operational” status versus how the Russian military sees it. The F-35, for instance, has still not reached full operational status in all of its varied forms despite Lockheed Martin already delivering more than 300 of them to American and allied forces. In the United States, “operational” comes after a lengthy testing and evaluation phase with formal requirements to hit that address a variety of issues ranging from safety to survivability. It takes years and thousands of flight hours before a new air frame finds its place on the U.S. roster, and by and large, Americans tend to assume other nations take the same approach.
Russia, of course, does not. Their decision to put the Su-57 in a combat zone last February could have meant Russia’s fifth generation fighter seeing combat before the far more mature F-35 (Israeli F-35s were the first to ever see combat just this past May). With only ten or so of the aircraft ever built, it was a bold decision to put the aircraft into an operational capacity, particularly because the limited number of Su-57s in existence all but guarantees that Russia’s pilots have not had the opportunity to gain a significant amount of experience behind the stick of the aircraft. In other words, “operational” in the Russian military merely means “probably okay,” dramatically reducing how long it takes to get their new platforms into the fight.
Production, however, may be an issue. It takes an average of 41,500 hours of labor to build a single F-35, and one can assume that Lockheed Martin is a bit better at fifth generation fighter production game, not only because of their greater resources, but because they’ve literally built thirty times as many of them as Sukhoi. The Su-57, of course, lacks a great deal of the stealth technology inherent to the F-35 and may not require the same degree of sophistication, but by all accounts, the Su-57 is the most advanced aircraft Russia has ever produced — suggesting that it’s likely its production will be more complex and labor intensive than any of its predecessors as well.
In other words, Russia would have to employ hundreds of laborers with no time off, no delays, and no issues in production to work non-stop on these aircraft just to meet the production goal of one new aircraft per month. They could, of course, reduce that requirement by updating existing Su-57 test platforms and simply entering them into service alongside their newly built counterparts.
So, assuming Russia is actually able to place 12 new fifth generation fighters into service by this time next year, what does that mean in terms of U.S. defense? Very little. While the Su-57 can’t match the F-35 in stealth by any stretch of the imagination, it is expected to be faster and more maneuverable. It’s “cheek mounted” additional radar arrays also allow it to utilize strategy to circumvent some detection methods while keeping an eye on approaching fighters from perpendicular angles — something even America’s advanced jets have trouble accomplishing. However, the F-35s advanced detection and over-the-horizon offensive capabilities could result in the two never even having a chance to fight (with the F-35 either winning before it starts or bugging out to avoid a loss), in which case America’s more capable dog fighter, the F-22, could step up to take on Russia’s prize fighter.
But these “one on one” situations are not only unlikely, they lose sight of overall strategy. A dozen operational Su-57s is a drop in the bucket compared to nearly 180 F-22s and an ever growing number of F-35s — and with a radar signature expected to be only slightly better than advanced fourth generation jets, the Su-57 could even find itself working its tail fins off to survive a fight with the forthcoming Block III Super Hornets. Like China’s J-20, the Su-57 won’t even have the engine designed for it until 2025, meaning it may lack the ability to coast at supersonic speeds, which would place its classification as a “fifth generation” fighter in question for the time being.
The real purpose behind this initial order of jets, of course, is based in perception. Russia wants to have an “operational” fleet of fifth generation fighters just like China and the United States do. They also want international customers to place orders, injecting cash into the program and potentially building their own fleet further, and that isn’t going to happen with their ten existing jets collecting dust. Russia may indeed be joining its competitors in the fifth-gen fighter business, but for now, that membership is honorary at best.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons | By Dmitry Terekhov from Odintsovo, Russian Federation (T-50 (Su-57)) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons