Despite headlines last week about upgrades to the stealth coating applied to Russia’s pseudo-fifth-generation fighter, the Su-57, new reports out of Moscow indicate that production of what was to be Russia’s most advanced military aircraft has been postponed until 2020.
The Su-57 has long been touted as Russia’s response to fifth-generation platforms like America’s F-22 and F-35, as well as China’s J-20 and forthcoming J-31. However, the program has been fraught with issues from the start, including production limitations that most experts contend would severely hinder the aircraft’s stealth capabilities, and India’s withdrawal from the initiative, which, it could be argued, put the financial nail in the fighter’s coffin. Since then, Russia has been working overtime to try to make their advanced fighter seem feasible despite the nation’s economic limitations, even going so far as to deploy four of what were essentially prototypes to Syria for a short, but headline-grabbing, period of time early last year.
— Joseph Dempsey (@JosephHDempsey) February 21, 2018
At around that same time, it was announced full-scale production of the Su-57 would be cut down to just 12 airframes—amounting to little more than a token “fifth-generation” fleet that could keep Russia in the conversation with the likes of the United States, despite not having the capacity to field the jet in any real numbers in any potential conflict. Now, however, it appears it will be years before Russia has its serialized fleet of aircraft.
“In 2020, we plan to sign the second contract to manufacture and deliver 13 Su-57 fighter jets, some of them equipped with the second-stage engines,” an unnamed source was reported to have said in Russian state media. “The preliminary timeframe for the new contract is five years.”
Russian state media has repeatedly referred to this production contract as its second, citing the first as a small order of just two aircraft that are slated for delivery in 2019 and 2020.
Even more troubling for Russia, however, was the accompanying announcement that even when its limited fleet of Su-57s arrive, a number of them will still be lacking an engine capable of qualifying the jet as truly “fifth-generation” by most national standards. Although a stealth design and networking capabilities are both considered intrinsic to fifth-generation platforms, “super-cruise” capabilities, or the ability to sustain supersonic speeds without the use of afterburners, is another generational requirement. According to this week’s statements, many of Russia’s meager collection of Su-57s will still lack that super-cruise capability.
The Su-57 (previously known as the Tu-50) has been in development since at least 2010 and has been at the forefront of Russia’s efforts to market themselves as a 21st-century military arms supplier. As with the T-14 Armata battle tank, however, Russia’s stagnate economy has forced repeated reductions in what the nation’s defense apparatus can afford to invest in the program, reducing each to little more than symbolic exercises in weapons development.
With the Russian Air Force all but losing its new fighter, the Russian Army all but losing its new tank, and the Russian Navy very likely losing the nation’s sole aircraft carrier, the past year has been particularly problematic for the Russian defense apparatus, despite headline-drawing stories about doomsday weapons and robots.