The Su-57 Fighter's Two Hypersonic Missiles That Could Ruin American F-35 Operations

Entering serial production in June 2019, and subsequently being inducted into the Russian Air Force in December 2020, the Su-57 next generation heavyweight fighter represents product of a highly ambitious program to develop the first entirely new Russian fighter airframe since the Soviet collapse. The fighter is set to replace the Su-27 Flanker and its many advanced derivatives in frontline service over the coming decades, and will integrate a number of sixth generation technologies such as artificial intelligence, laser weapons and powerful Saturn 30 engines - all of which are currently being tested for integration onto the airframe. It has gained considerable attention for features including its three dimensional thrust vectoring engines, its unprecedentedly large internal weapons capacity and its laser defence systems. While the Su-57’s combat capabilities make it a leading potential challenger for new American designs, namely the F-35A and the upcoming F-X sixth generation fighter, an assessment of the aircraft's weaponry, and in particular the two classes of hypersonic missile it fields, indicate a potential to seriously disrupt and potentially collapse altogether combat operations by American stealth fighters without engaging them directly. Such a capability is particularly useful considering that the Su-57 is expected to be overwhelmingly outnumbered in the event of a major war with NATO. The hypersonic weapons in question are the Kh-47M2 Kinzhal air launched ballistic missile and the R-37M air to air missile - both of which are expected to be integrated onto the Su-57 before 2025. 

The Kh-47M2 entered service in the Russian Air Force in early 2018, following its announcement in March that year by President Vladimir Putin, and has been integrated onto MiG-31K and Tu-22M supersonic combat aircraft - both of which deploy powerful sensors and have a high endurance. The missile is capable of impacting targets at speeds of up to Mach 10, and range estimates vary from 2000km to 3000km - possibly in reference to different variants integrated onto the MiG-31K and the Tu-22M respectively. Even shorter ranged variants deployed from the shorter ranged MiG-31K, however, would allow the aircraft to strike targets across Western Europe, the Middle East and almost all of East and Southeast Asia without these aircraft needing to deploy from overseas bases. No existing missile defence system is capable of reliably intercepting the Kinzhal, which is highly maenovuraable, and the missile is also capable of targeting enemy warships for potentially devastating effect. 

Plans to develop a variant of the Kh-47M2 for integration onto the Su-57, which will be miniaturised to deploy from its internal bomb bays, were announced near the end of 2018 less than a year after the original missile entered service. This was not the first time a missile developed for the MiG-31 would be miniaturised for the next generation fighter - with the R-37 air to air missile notably undergoing a similar process to later develop the R-37M. Integrating the Kh-47M2 onto the fighter would make the Su-57 the only one in the world capable of delivering hypersonic ballistic missile attacks, which would not only make it an excellent ship hunter but also allow it to deliver strikes against enemy command centres, logistics hubs, airfields and other critical targets deep behind enemy lines. Combined with the high survivability and long range of the Su-57, little would be able to stop the Kh-47M2 from taking enemy runways out of service and neutralising large numbers of enemy fighters on the ground very early in a conflict. The potential implications of this, particularly when considering the extremely high maintenance requirements of American stealth fighters and their need for pristine runways, are huge - with such fighters spending the large majority of their time on the ground. Stealth fighters based on aircraft carriers will, if anything, be more vulnerable to such attacks should the warships be operating within the Kinzhal's engagement range.

The R-37M hypersonic air to air missile is very likely the most capable in service today, although the upcoming American AIM-260 and Chinese PL-XX could soon challenge its primacy. Paired with the Su-57’s powerful sensors, the missile is capable of engaging aircraft at ranges of up to 400km, and its unrivalled Mach 6 speed and very high manoeuvrability makes it very difficult to evade. While the missile can be used to engage stealth fighters, such aircraft will in most situations not be detectable at more than half the missile’s range even when the Su-57 is sharing tracking data with ground based air defence systems and supporting fighters and AEW aircraft. Where the R-37M could excel against enemy stealth fighters, however, is in neutralising the aircraft critical to supporting their operations. In East Asia in particular, the F-35’s relatively short range compared to heavyweight fighters means it will rely heavily on aerial refuelling to operate offensively - and should these aircraft be destroyed it will seriously impede and possibly halt altogether offensive operations by the fighters. While newer MQ-25 lightweight unmanned tankers have stealth capabilities, these are set to be procured in very limited numbers for the U.S. Navy and have a lower performance than the more widely fielded non-stealth tanker designs. Losing tankers on a long flight over sea can potentially leave fighters stranded and force emergency landings, and even the presence of missiles capable of threatening these aircraft as the R-37M may be enough to end offensive operations by fighters  in a particular theatre. This is particularly critical should Russia engage U.S. forces in its Far Eastern regions, or should the Su-57 be sold to Asia-Pacific countries such as China, Vietnam or Myanmar. 

Ultimately while the Su-57 is designed to be able to go head to head with the elite of an enemy fleet, including the F-35A and the more capable upcoming F-X, Penetrating Counter Air Fighter and others, the fighter may well be equally effective at undermining the war efforts of an enemy air fleet in a less direct way without engaging enemy fighters directly. This versatility is unrivalled among fifth generation fighters, with the F-35A lacking comparable weapons, and the air to ground and anti ship capabilities of the F-22 and Chinese J-20 both negligible, while none of these non-Russian aircraft deploy hypersonic air to air missiles. This could change on future, depending on the capabilities of upcoming American sixth generation fighters and the progress made in American hypersonic missile programs. 

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