What’s Going on With Russia’s New Stealth Fighter?
Sergei BobylevGetty Images
The Russian government has bumped up its first order for new Su-57 fighter bombers, commiting to five time as many planes as it had originally planned to purchase by 2028. The order comes after the fighter’s development has stalled and co-developer India has pulled out of the project. Moscow has also offered the jet to Istanbul if Turkey is kicked out of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program.
The Su-57’s first flight was on January 29, 2010, when it flew for 47 minutes from the Yuri Gagarin aircraft factory in Russia’s Far East. The fighter surprised Western observers who were unaware Russia was working on a new fighter program. The Su-57 is Russia’s first fifth generation fighter, in the same vein as the American F-22 Raptor, F-35 Lightning II, and the Chinese J-20. Like other fifth generation fighters, the Su-57 is set apart from previous generation jets by a stealthy design, powerful radar, and the ability to cruise above the speed of sound.
The Su-57 was supposed to enter production by 2020, but technical problems and a lack of funding has slowed development to a crawl. One of the biggest problems has been the development of new engines for the Sukhoi jet. The Izdeliye 30 engine developed for the Su-57 would deliver 41,000 pounds of thrust, for a combined 82,000 pounds of thrust. The engine proved difficult to develop however and is only now in testing.
As a result of these problems only nine prototype aircraft have been built, and until recently Moscow had committed to buying only 16 of the jets by 2027. This is in sharp contrast to a the original planned purchase of 400 to 450 planes between 2020 and 2040. India, which which had committed $6 billion to the project under a co-development program that would allow Delhi to buy the jets when they were complete, pulled out of the program entirely, frustrated by slow development and what it considered excessive secrecy.
Now, according to FlightGlobal, Russia will buy 76 of the jets by 2028. That’s enough for three full air regiments of 24 fighters each, plus four spares. The purchase is buoyed by a promise by the manufacturer that the jet is now, for some reason, 20 percent cheaper. Moscow and Sukhoi have not explained how the Su-57 suddenly became cheaper.
Russia, unfazed by India’s dropping of the Su-57, is now pitching the jet abroad. Russian President Vladimir Putin has offered the Sukhoi to Turkey, which is embroiled in a spat with the United States over a missile purchase. Turkey was an early, key member of the F-35 development coalition but recently committed to purchasing the S-400 long range surface to air missile system from Russia.
The U.S. says that the purchase of the S-400 is incompatible with Turkey’s participation in the F-35 program and has threatened to kick Turkey out, and now Russia is rushing to offer Su-57 fighters in the F-35’s place.
Another development is that, according to Russian state media, the Su-57 will be equipped with hypersonic air-to-ground missiles. Hypersonic missiles, which fly at speeds exceeding Mach 5, are difficult for current air defense systems to defend against. The Su-57’s hypersonic missiles will apparently fit internally with the fighter’s weapons bays, in order to preserve the fighter’s stealthy, anti-radar profile.
The Su-57 program has been a mess for several years now and although there are signs of improvement, particularly with the engines, how much it improves remains to be seen. Russia has been forced to scale back ambitious plans to outfit the Russian Aerospace Forces with the new jet, and the announcement that Moscow will buy 76 jets over eight years is not a particularly dangerous threat to U.S. security–especially when the U.S. and its allies will take possession of 141 F-35s in 2019 alone.