Russia's Su-57 Heavy Fighter Bomber: Is It Really a Fifth-Generation Aircraft?


Ryan Bauer, Defense Analyst

The Su-57 jet is Russia's proclaimed fifth-generation fighter aircraft that has been cast as a competitor to systems such as the U.S. F-35. But while the aircraft has been in development since 2002, the widely advertised system has not yet been delivered to any militaries, including Russia's, despite Russia's previous aim to have 60 Su-57s operational by the year 2020. And this has been due to a variety of development problems.

One of the biggest challenges has been the jet's intended second-generation engine. Current prototypes of the Su-57s are still using the older engine. And while the Russian Air Force is slated to receive 76 Su-57 jets by the late 2020s, they will not have the intended second-generation engine.

But the newer engine is not the only holdout. There are delays in the development of low observable stealth technology, advanced avionics, and sensor capabilities, all of which are crucial for a fifth-generation fighter aircraft. And these delays have pushed out the delivery delays until the late 2020s. Additionally, in December 2019, test flight crash has raised concerns about the safety of the aircraft at this point in its development.

Finally, Russia's 2014 invasion of Crimea and occupation of eastern Ukraine has hindered the development of the Su-57. The invasion effectively ended critical co-development production with Ukraine, and Western sanctions have limited the importation of microelectronics and information technologies that are essential for advanced weapons systems. In addition, the 2017 enactment of the U.S. Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, or CAATSA, has further challenged Russia's ability to both develop and export Russian defense systems.

Another problem restraining Russia's defense industry is the way in which it's financed. Major defense corporations borrow money to help support developments such as the Su-57. These corporations have then become strained and go into debt if there are issues with development delays or the exporting of military aircraft. The Russian government, as a result, has then had to bail out these industries, which puts additional pressure on overall government spending and defense spending, as this is tied to income generated by oil and gas sales. And this income has become less stable in recent years, which has been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic.

But despite the challenges with producing the Su-57, the Russian government has offered several countries co-development opportunities. India had previously entered into a joint development program back in 2007 but pulled out in 2018 due to development delays.

There were also reports in December 2019 claiming that Algeria signed a contract for 12 Su-57 jets, which would effectively make them the first export customer of the aircraft. But several sources have expressed skepticism about whether this deal will occur. One reason is that, given how far behind the Su-57 manufacturer, Sukhoi, is in delivering the aircraft to the Russian military, it is unlikely that the company would meet the 2025 intended deadline for the Algerian sale. Another reason is that, given Algerian law requiring imported military aircraft to first be flight tested within the country, this is something that the Russian military would never allow.

Though Russia has continued to aggressively market the aircraft to foreign countries, it is unlikely that a fully developed and production-ready Su-57 will be available until the late 2020s.

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