Why Russia’s Top Fighter the Su-57 Won’t Take Part in a War for Ukraine

Amid high tensions between Russia and NATO over Ukraine, and following multiple claims by Western officials that a Russian invasion of its neighbour is imminent, it has been widely speculated that Russian air assets concentrated in the country's western regions could spearhead an offensive to quickly cripple Ukrainian defences and pave the way for a rapid ground assault. Russia has redeployed a wide range of aerial warfare assets to it Western borders and to the territory of neighbouring Belarus which lies between it and NATO, many of which like the Su-35 fighters and S-400 systems in Belarus came from Russia’s far eastern regions. The presence of multiple Su-35 squadrons are expected to both ensure total air superiority over Ukraine within hours, potentially deterring Ukrainian fighter from taking off at all, while also serving as a deterrent to possible intervention by NATO member states. Notably missing from any expected Russian intervention force, however, is the country’s newest and most capable fighter the Su-57 Felon which is its fifth generation combat jet. 

Although the Su-57 has been in service in the Russian Air Force since December 2020, it is not expected to play any part in possible hostilities on Russia’s western borders. This is despite the fighters being deployed under the Russian Military’s Southern Military District which is responsible for territory bordering Ukraine. The fighter’s capabilities are overwhelmingly superior to the Su-35, including a higher endurance, the ability to track 60 targets simultaneously using six radars on each fighter, integration of a nose-mounted AESA radar, stealth capabilities, and use of the new K-77M air to air missile as its primary armament, among many other advantages. The Su-35 by contrast deploys three radars, while Ukrainian and Western fighters deploy just one each. The Su-57 was thus claimed by Russian President Vladimir Putin to be the most capable fighter in the world, although this tile is closely contested by China’s J-20, America’s upcoming F-X sixth generation fighter, and modernised variants of the American F-22 which are expected to enter service from around 2024. While the Su-57 would be a game changer for the balance of power in the air had it been deployed in place of the Su-35, which has a similar role but entered service almost seven years earlier, there are multiple reasons why it has been held back from the frontlines. 

The Su-57 was initially scheduled to enter service around the year 2015, with 60 set to be operational by 2020 and 200 by 2025, after the preceding highly ambitious MiG 1.42 fifth generation fighter program was cancelled. While the USSR was set to be a pioneer in fifth generation fighter technologies, however, post-soviet Russia’s much weaker economy and smaller defence sector struggled with development resulting in considerable delays. This was only worsened as the Su-57’s specifications became more ambitious to counter the expected challenge from American sixth generation fighters. As a result not only did the Su-57 enter service behind schedule, but the rate of production has also been low with only five serial production models thought to have been completed out of 76 expected to be operational by the end of 2027. The numbers in service are insufficient to form even a half squadron.

While Su-57s even in small numbers could play an important role in Ukraine - a campaign which is not expected to be large and where their very overwhelming superiority over the small Ukrainian fleet of 1980s Soviet jets could be useful - a further factor holding the Su-57s back has been their lack of operational readiness. Much Iike the American F-35 light stealth fighter, the Su-57 is not capable of high or medium intensity combat, and although technically operational is far from ready for a major war. While the Su-57 appears to have less deficiencies than the F-35, and could be ready for high intensity combat much sooner, it is expected to be some years perhaps until 2025 until it reaches such a stage. The fighters in service will until then continue to be used to test new technologies and armaments and familiarise the Russian military with their next generation systems.

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