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Russia's Su-57 – hype vs. reality

by Chris York June 11, 2024 4:27 PM 6 min read
A Russian soldier is seen in front of the Su-57 aircraft during the International Military-Technical Forum "Army 2022" at Kubinka military training ground in Moscow, Russia, on Aug. 17, 2022. (Pavel Pavlov/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images).
by Chris York June 11, 2024 4:27 PM 6 min read
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In the latest blow to Russia's military prestige, Ukraine this week claimed to have for the first time struck at least one – and possibly two – of Moscow's cutting-edge, fifth-generation fighter jets, the Su-57.

The aircraft were reportedly damaged after a strike on the Akhtubinsk airfield in the Astrakhan region in southern Russia, 589 kilometers from the front line.

The plane is Russia’s most modern fighter jet with only a few units in service in the Russian Air Force.

What does Russia say about the Su-57?

In an article last year, Russian propaganda media outlet Sputnik gushed about the plane in a piece claiming that the Su-57 "edges out" the U.S.-made fifth-generation fighter F-35.

"Russia's cutting-edge Su-57 fighter has taken the lead in aerospace technology, and is set for accelerated deployment," it wrote.

"This sets the stage for a clash of titans, pitting the Su-57's unparalleled agility against the F-35's capabilities, and highlights the Russian aircraft’s combat prowess during its deployment in the current Ukraine conflict."

In 2019, Russian President Vladimir Putin told a meeting of top Kremlin military officials and defense industry leaders that the Su-57, as well as Russia's Su-35, were "considered the best in the world."

But a closer examination suggests this might be quite far from the truth, and not only does the Su-57 fail to live up to the hype of the U.S.-made F-35, it doesn't even live up to that of the older F-22.

What is a 'fifth-generation' jet?

There is no official definition of the fifth-generation fighter offered by the U.S. military or NATO.

But it is generally accepted by experts that to qualify as a fifth-generation fighter, a jet must meet certain technological criteria, including:

  • Capable of supersonic flight without using afterburners
  • Stealthy design to avoid detection
  • Ultra-high manoeuvrability
  • Advanced avionics
  • Multirole capabilities.

The first major inkling that all was not right with the Su-57 came in 2018 when India withdrew from the project to co-develop and produce the aircraft with Russia.

Among several concerns, one of the major reasons cited was that Russia had not developed a fifth-generation engine to power its "fifth-generation jet."

"The aircraft is positioned as a fifth-generation fighter, but until new engines are received, it does not meet one of the fifth-generation criteria – the ability to perform supersonic cruise flight without switching on afterburners," Andrii Kharuk, a military historian and weapons expert, told the Kyiv Independent.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan inspect a Su-57 fighter jet at the MAKS International Aviation and Space Salon at Zhukovsky International Airport in Moscow, Russia, on Aug. 27, 2019. (Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Current models of Su-57 are powered by versions of the same engine as Russia's fourth-generation fighters, the Su-34 and Su-35, though Russian media reported in February that the new engine would be ready for the Su-57 this year.

There were also concerns about just how stealthy the aircraft was – a true fifth-generation fighter, like the U.S.-made F-22 Raptor, has, among other features, specially designed square exhaust nozzles to help keep the aircraft as undetectable as possible.

The Su-57's nozzles are round, just like they are on the Su-34 and Su-35, with Russian engineers reportedly unable to develop their own square ones either due to lack of funds and/or expertise.

"Overall it's pretty good, but only generation 4+,"  Viktor Kevliuk, a retired Ukrainian military officer and defense expert, told the Kyiv Independent.

"According to the concept of the fifth-generation aircraft, the engine must be protected from the radiation of radio-electronic equipment, and hide thermal radiation as much as possible, which was not implemented in the Su-57."

"The main criterion – inconspicuousness – could not be achieved."

So how advanced is the Su-57?

The Su-57 was meant to rival the fifth-generation fighter jets of other countries, particularly the U.S.

"The Su-57 came as a response to the F-22 Raptor, but the U.S. Air Force is already retiring the oldest F-22s, and production of the Su-57 is just beginning," Kharuk says.

The F-22 Raptor was introduced into the U.S. Air Force (USAF) in 2005. Its production run ended in 2011 and the USAF operates 186 of them. It is still considered one of the best fifth-generation fighter jets in the world.

Nine years after the U.S. stopped making the F-22 Raptor, the first Russian Su-57 entered service, though with some compromises in true fifth-generation technology.

The first non-prototype version crashed during a test flight in December 2019. It has been dubbed the "worst of the world’s stealth fighters."

The first fully operational regiment of Su-57s consisting of just 24 aircraft is not expected to be up and running until next year.

In December of 2022, pilots were still only just undergoing theoretical training.

"Apparently, only about 20 such aircraft have been produced so far," Kharuk says.

Russian Sukhoi Su-57 fighter aircraft fly over Red Square and the Kremlin during a rehearsal for the World War II Victory Parade in Moscow, Russia, on June 20, 2020. (Dimitar Dilkoff / AFP via Getty Images)

How does Russia use Su-57 against Ukraine?

According to former Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in 2022, the Su-57 has "shown itself brilliantly" in attacks against Ukraine.

"The aircraft has a very high degree of protection against various air defense systems, has protection against missiles … Most importantly, it has very powerful weapons. We also tried and tested these weapons, they work brilliantly," he added.

In reality, it's done nothing that Russia's older jets couldn't do.

"So far, the Su-57 has not demonstrated any exceptional characteristics – it is used only as a platform for launching cruise missiles, without entering the [Ukrainian] air defense zone," Kharuk says.

The Su-57 can carry Kh-59 and Kh-69 cruise missiles that regularly attack Ukraine's cities.

The Kh-69 has been particularly devastating in recent months, responsible for the attack that destroyed the Trypillia Thermal Power Plant in Kyiv Oblast on April 11.

But it is not publicly known which type of aircraft launched the missiles – the Kh-69 can also reportedly be launched from Su-34 and Su-35, all from the safety of Russian air space.

"In Russia, voices are already being heard about the 'uselessness' of the Su-57 – they say that the same tasks can be performed by much cheaper aircraft," Kharuk says.

The true cost of Russia's fighter jets is not publicly known, but the  Su-57 as well as the Su-34 and Su-35 cost tens of millions of dollars each.

The Ukrainian drones that were used to strike the Su-57s cost a fraction of this.

If Russia's boasts about the capabilities of the Su-57 were true, then it hasn't been backing them up by putting them into action to test them.

"Given the problems, the enemy uses the Su-57 from distances outside the airspace of Ukraine," Kevliuk says.

Kevliuk added the Su-57 was more useful for showing off at arms fairs "than for its combat use."

An assessment from the British Defense Ministry in January 2023 update said Russia's risk-averse approach to using the Su-57 was "symptomatic" of the military's wider approach to the war.

"Russia is highly likely prioritizing avoiding the reputational damage, reduced export prospects, and the compromise of sensitive technology which would come from any loss of (a Su-57) over Ukraine," it said.

Kharuk points out that the story of the Su-57 in Ukraine echoes that of another much-vaunted but barely used Kremlin weapon – the Armata tank.

"This is symptomatic of Russia’s continued risk-averse approach to employing its air force in the war," the U.K. Defense Ministry said.

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