Russia’s Su-57 stealth jets may not be the ace the country hoped for

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Russia’s recently revived military industry has high hopes for what they see as the crown jewel in their new arsenal and a very marketable one at that: the Su-57 fifth-generation stealth fighter. But the problems that have been dogging the project since its inception in 2007 indicate that it will be a good many years before the Kremlin can cash in on it, if ever, Defense Romania writes.

Since the summer of 2018, there have been various official Russian reports that the Su-57 began its first battlefield tests in Syria. The first one came from an unnamed Kremlin source saying that two prototypes have been handed over to the Air Force for testing, while Yuriy Borisov, deputy defense minister at the time, said testing in actual wartime conditions had begun.

Last month, the Russian Federation also announced that a squadron of Su-57 fighters took part in actual military operations in Syria, and those operations were in fact led by the Su-57s alongside the Su-35 fighters.

However, given the many reports about the new aircraft’s problems, these official statements must be taken with a grain of salt. Originally scheduled for the summer of 2009, the first test flight of the only prototype at the time was in January 2010 and it took another year until that prototype first reached supersonic speed in March 2011.

In addition, the first two prototypes — publicly displayed at the 2011 MAKS Air Show near Moscow — lacked both radar and weapons control systems. Even as recently as 2018, the Su-57’s only operational weapon was the GSh-30-1 30mm autocannon.

Currently, Russia has ten operational prototypes which suffer from various issues. Their supposed stealth capabilities still remain untested, while the jet’s sensor and avionics systems have a long list of problems.

But even if they manage to iron out those wrinkles, the Su-57’s real Achilles heel is its reportedly underpowered Al-41F jet engine used in the Sukhoi Su-35. Russia maintains that the final versions will be powered by the vastly superior Izdeliye-30, but that is still under development and would be available sometime in the mid-2020s.

While at the inception of the project the aircraft was intended for export and was in fact jointly developed with India, that country has since backed out of the program entirely. Currently, the only potential buyer seems to be Turkey, since it was expelled from the F-35 fighter program in July 2019.

While Russia claims that the Su-57’s main advantage over the competing U.S.-made F-22s and F-35s is its significantly lower cost, buyers are unlikely to commit until it has seen at least some regular service with the Russian Air Force, which could only happen in the second half of the 2020s at the earliest.

Title image: Sukhoi Su-57 fifth-generation fighters take off during the MAKS-2019 International Aviation and Space Show in Zhukovsky, outside Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2019. (Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

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