Could Russia’s New Su-57 Fighter See Action in Ukraine? Low Risk Deployment of Tiny Fleet Possible

Shortly after launching its military intervention in Ukraine on February 24, it was quickly announced that the primary targets of Russian precision strikes were military infrastructure, air defence sites, airfields and aircraft. 

The destruction of these assets, which in the case of ground based air defences was reportedly achieved within 2-3 hours, paved the way for greater freedom of action for Russian combat aircraft in Ukrainian airspace. As Ukraine’s aerial warfare capabilities weaken, with the Air Force shooting down its own fighters and pilots of elite Su-27 jets fleeing to neighbouring Romania, the Russian Air Force may well have an opportunity to deploy some of its newer less combat ready assets for low intensity strike operations in Ukrainian airspace. 

In particular, the country’s Su-57 heavyweight fifth generation fighters which are deployed near Ukraine under the Southern Military District, could potentially be deployed for strike missions as part of the war effort. 

A Su-57 deployment would be far from unprecedented, with even prototypes of the aircraft having been dispatched to Khmeimim Airbase in Syria on multiple occasions from February 2018 to test their capabilities in a low intensity war zone. The Russian Air Force today fields an estimated five serial production models, which are considerably better suited to combat operations than prototypes and have a limited initial operating capability. 

The Su-57 will likely not be deployed as aggressively as other Russian assets, with the prevalence of Ukrainian handheld anti aircraft missile systems still posing a threat, but if deployed from higher altitudes they should remain safe with Ukrainian S-300 systems largely destroyed and its fighter fleet depleted and not operating widely across the country. 

The benefits of deploying the Su-57 for operations in Ukraine are manifold. Much like the deployment of prototypes to Syria, albeit to a greater extent, it would demonstrate that the Russian Air Force is confident in the capabilities of the fighters to operate in a contested theatre of operations.

 Doing so with production models in the territory of an adversary state actor, rather than with prototypes for counterinsurgency in the territory of an ally as was done in Syria, would be considerably more impressive.

 The Su-57’s sensor suite, communications and new standoff weapons could also be tested, with the fighter deploying six radars as well as an infra red search and track system allowing to to track sixty targets simultaneously which a chaotic battlefront would be an ideal location to test. 

The Su-57 is notably better optimised than any other Russian fighter, if not any other in the world, to operate in a theatre where handheld short ranged surface to air missiles are deployed. The fighter has a unique laser defence system which allows it to blind the infrared seekers used by such weapons systems, although with the Su-57 still not ready for medium intensity engagements it is likely that if deployed, it would remain at high altitudes to avoid having to test these countermeasures.

 Deploying the Su-57 to Ukraine could do much to diminish enemy morale, boost that of Russian forces and boost in the aircraft confidence among the fighter’s potential export clients. With Russian benefiting from deploying serial production models today which it did not have when deployments to Syria were made, there remains a not insignificant possibility of a calculated low risk deployment for combat testing. 

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