Russia’s long awaited fifth generation stealth fighter, the Sukhoi Su-57 Felon, has seen its fair share of setbacks. The program aimed at bringing Russia’s Air Force into the 21st century actually began as a joint venture with the Indian government, only for India to pull out for reasons rumored to be the aircraft’s poor stealth performance. Since then, Russia’s original dozen Su-57s have been paraded about to garner headlines, with brief deployments to places like war-torn Syria serving as the fighter’s only claim to fame.
Last year, it was announced the Russia’s stealth fighter would finally enter serialized production, more than nine years after the first Su-57 took to the skies, but that story too proved an embarrassing setback for Russia’s aviation apparatus: That first Su-57 promptly crashed during initial testing.
“The Su-57 was performing a test flight at the altitude of 8,000 meters,” Russia’s Tass quoted a source as saying. “After the control system had failed, the fighter jet spontaneously entered a downward spiral and started descending and then crashing…At a critical altitude of 2,000 meters the pilot decided to eject.”
Russia’s stagnate economy, hindered by overlapping international sanctions establishing in response to Russia’s aggressive behavior on the world stage, has forced the nation to make hard decisions about where to place its defense budget. Russia works hard to maintain the illusion of its military might, a carryover from the Cold War, where the United States and Soviet Union repeatedly found ways to one-up each other in the realm of military technology.
Today, Russia lags far behind nations like the United States in a number of important military categories, but continues to garner press thanks to a slew of high profile announcements that tend be followed by little more than aesthetic capabilities.
Russia’s Uran-9 infantry support drone drew headlines the world over, only to prove an utter failure when deployed to Syria. Russia’s T-14 Armata battle tank is widely believed to be among the most capable tank platforms in the world, but Russia’s limited budget has hindered the nation’s ability to field these tanks in any meaningful numbers. Russia’s Poseidon nuclear torpedo, rumored to carry a positively massive 100-megaton nuclear warhead, similarly drew global attention, despite how little strategic value the system actually provides. The list goes on.
Over the years, debate has raged about just how effective Russia’s stealth fighter could even be if it ever did reach full production. Bolstering rumors that the Indian government was disappointed in the aircraft’s radar profile are observations made by aviation experts about the poor production quality of the aircraft. Despite Russia’s reputation for building formidable fighters throughout the Cold War, stealth is as much about advanced production methods as it is about the technology in play, and Russia has long seemed to be lagging behind in this essential field.
Production tolerances on stealth aircraft have to be extremely tight, particularly when it comes to mounting body panels to the air frame. The Su-57 has long appeared to have tolerances that were a bit too loose to adequately deflect inbound radar, making this stealth fighter not all that stealth after all.
However, new images released earlier this week and first covered on The War Zone show the second production Su-57 Felon as it nears completion–and to be frank, it looks a lot better than its predecessors. Here’s Steve Trimble, Defense Editor for Aviation Week, giving his two cents:
Quick observation: the tolerances on the skin panels here are significantly better than what we saw on the 11 pre-production aircraft. https://t.co/jcrvjM5yEV
— Steve Trimble (@TheDEWLine) August 12, 2020
Improved production methodologies seem to be in play as the second production Su-57 moves through assembly. And while that still doesn’t suggest that the Su-57 can keep pace in the stealth department with its competition from the United States or likely even China, it does indicate that the platform may yet prove to be rather effective — especially because the aircraft itself seems to have been designed with that very understanding in mind.
While Russia may have fallen behind in the complex (and expensive) world of stealth technologies, the nation does have a solid track record of producing highly capable fighter platforms. So while we may dismiss the Su-57 as a knock-off fifth generation fighter that doesn’t quite hold up when compared to America’s top tier interceptor the F-22 Raptor or even the multi-role workhorse F-35, it’s important to note that this aircraft would still pose a threat to these more advanced fighters in certain circumstances. More importantly, however, is how effective the Su-57 could be when flying against the majority of America’s fighter aircraft that are considered “fourth generation,” and therefore lacking in stealth and even situational awareness to a certain degree.
Systems like the Su-57’s side facing cheek-mounted radar systems, which allow a broader scope than the sole nose-mounted radar found in most fighters, grant the Su-57 a tactical advantage in air combat, especially when used in conjunction with a sound air-to-air strategy. As Tyler Rogoway has pointed out in the past, these side mounted radars allow the Su-57 use “beaming” to avoid detection while keeping an eye on an opponent. Beaming is effectively flying perpendicular to an inbound aircraft, which makes your relative velocity to the approaching fighter close enough to zero for many systems to disregard your presence as part of the background. In other words, the Su-57 can leverage beaming to stay sneaky (to a certain extent) despite its lack of stealth.
The Su-57 also draws from its acrobatic Russian predecessors through leveraging 3D thrust vectoring that allows the aircraft to execute incredible maneuvers most other fighters couldn’t even approach. Thrust vector nozzles allow an aircraft to point the outflow of its jet engine in a direction other than straight back, allowing the aircraft to continue moving in one direction with its nose pointed in another — as one prime example of this technology’s utility in a dogfight. There are significant drawbacks to this tactic, however, as it tends to scrub an aircraft’s forward momentum, leaving it more vulnerable to attack from other fighters in the area.
However, maneuverability is never a bad thing, and the Su-57’s 3D thrust vectoring sets it ahead of even the mighty F-22 Raptor, which can really only leverage thrust vectoring on a single axis (the jet can be directed up or down).
The Su-57’s thrust vectoring nozzles can move in just about any direction, making it the first fifth generation fighter anywhere in the world with such a capability.
— Russia in RSA 🇷🇺 (@EmbassyofRussia) October 20, 2017
Ultimately, even if the Su-57 does manage a full production run, the aircraft itself lags far behind America’s F-22 and F-35, as well as China’s J-20, but that may not ultimately be what matters. America still relies heavily on fourth generation fighters like the F-16 Fighting Falcon and brand new F-15EX, both of which could find themselves outmatched by Russia’s stealth fighter if they found themselves in a scrap. Of course, that’s assuming they’re ever built in sufficient numbers to actually find their way into a fight.
Is Russia’s Su-57 Felon as capable as they make it out to be? The answer seems to be a resounding no… but does it represent a threat on the horizon? Absolutely.