Only weeks after Russia announced that it would be giving its dying fifth generation fighter a new lease on life (in the form of plans to actually produce 76 of the aircraft), Russian President Vladimir Putin has been spotted peddling the fighter to Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This sales pitch has been seen by many as a not-so-subtle swipe at America’s decision not to sell Turkey Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, following Turkey’s decision to purchase advanced Russian air defense systems. The thinking within the U.S. has been simple: Russia is looking for a way to mitigate the advantage presented by the stealth F-35 and connecting these jets directly to Russian anti-air systems would provide them precisely what they need.
Erdogan, then, seems keen on making the U.S. feel foolish for canceling the high-dollar sale by reallocating funds toward the procurement of a different fifth-generation stealth fighter that was purpose-built to compete with America’s growing fleet of stealth of platforms. The thing is, despite being widely touted as a fifth-generation fighter just like America’s F-35 and F-22, there’s really very little evidence to suggest that the Su-57 is any good at all.
The trouble with the Su-57 first gained international attention when India, originally a partnered nation in the development of the aircraft, withdrew from the partnership in 2018 after a decade of development. While the exact reasons for their withdrawal haven’t been made public, it was widely reported that Indian officials were frustrated with Russia’s unwillingness to share software and were disappointed in a number of aspects of the Su-57’s performance — most notably, it’s stealth. Apparently, the aircraft may have been designed to be a stealth platform but may not actually limit detection as well as intended. This theory has been bolstered by American experts analyzing images of the Su-57, with many contending that that tolerances allowed in the aircraft’s construction are too big to reflect radar as effectively as American stealth fighters. In other words, Russia’s “stealth” Su-57 may really only limit observability from specific angles – like head on, where most fighters already have the smallest radar cross section on enemy scopes.
It seems that Russian officials weren’t particularly pleased with the Su-57’s performance either. For years now, Russia has maintained only a token fleet of a dozen or so Su-57 jets, only one of which is actually equipped with the more efficient engine Russia intends to install on all of their newly built fighters. In fact, up until Russia announced plans to restart production of the platform last month, many considered Russia’s first foray into stealth fighters dead in the water. Now, it seems like a clever bit of marketing on Putin’s part to first announce place to put their own stealth fighter into production, and then pursue a new costumer he knows can afford to place an order.
Russia has been striving to position themselves as the arms dealer of choice for nation’s on America’s naughty list, and now they see the real potential for an infusion of cash into their struggling military budget in the form of foreign Su-57 sales. If Turkey is really looking to thumb their nose at the United States, they may well choose to purchase a stock of Su-57s from Russia as a replacement for the F-35s they intended to purchase.
Of course, if they do, it seems likely that they’ll be purchasing a deeply troubled platform that is, at best, entirely unproven. Which begs the question: is it better to have no fifth-generation fighters at all… or a fleet of ones that really just for show?
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