The outbreak of open hostilities between Russia and Ukraine on February 24 and the resulting sharp deterioration in relations between Russia and the Western Bloc have raised multiple questions regarding how the Russian Military will be affected in the medium and long term. Speculated changes have ranged from accelerated moves to field larger numbers of advanced T-90M tanks with Relikt explosive reactive armour, due to the demonstrated potency of NATO’s most capable anti tank guided missile the Javelin against older Russian armour, to acceleration of production of tactical ballistic and cruise missiles to replace the Iskander and Kalibr missiles expended in combat.
One prominent Russian weapons program which could potentially be significantly influenced by the Ukraine conflict is the Su-57 Felon fighter, with some of the tiny fleet of five aircraft in service reportedly deployed to Ukraine possibly to test their sensors or perform some limited strikes. The Su-57 was initially scheduled to see 50 airframes in service by 2020 and 200 by the end of 2025, but delays and a reallocation of funding towards cheaper aircraft from the same weight range namely the Su-30SM and Su-35 resulted in postponement of serial production. While the first Su-57 fighter entered service in December 2020, before the war it was scheduled for 76 of the fighters to be operational by the end of 2027 which would be sufficient to form three full strength squadrons. One result of the conflict, however, may be to accelerate the program.
The Su-57 was initially developed as a fifth generation fighter, although Russian reports indicate that it is intended for combat at a sixth generation level with a range of new technologies under development ranging from laser and EMP weapons to new data links. With war in Ukraine leading NATO member states to deploy fighters, including significant numbers of F-35 fifth generation stealth jets, near Russia’s borders in Europe, the possibility remains significant that Russia could seek to accelerate work on its own next generation fighter to avoid the risk of having to face a NATO fifth generation fleet solely with its own ‘4++ generation’ fighters such as the Su-35 and Su-30SM2, which although having several advantages over the F-35 particularly in terms of weaponry and flight performances are less well suited to tackling them than the Su-57 would be.
Beyond a possible perception of greater need to investing the Su-57, Russia may well be more capable of doings so for two reasons. The first is that the country’s heavily oil dependant economy is benefitting from oil prices not seen in over eight years which will significantly increase state revenues, with new pipelines set to increase exports to China while others such as India have continued to buy large quantities of Russian oil despite Western pressure. The second is that many of Russia’s foremost clients for high performance armaments, notably Algeria and Kazakhstan but also others such as Turkmenistan and Venezuela, are themselves heavily reliant on oil revenues and could well invest part of their increased earnings into new fighter units. This would help to fund the program and potentially facilitate a larger scale of production.
Algeria in particular has shown multiple signs of either having already ordered or having the intention to purchase Su-57 fighters, and as Russia’s second or third largest defence client (estimates for Chinese imports vary) could well increase its orders due to high oil prices. This comes as its neighbour Morocco continues to receive tremendous assistance from Israel and the United Arab Emirates largely targeting Algeria, and as the possibility of a Moroccan F-35 acquisition has increasingly been raised. It also comes as tensions between Algeria and some NATO member states, particularly France, have risen over Western military operations in Algeria’s southern neighbour Mali where Algiers reportedly played a role in supporting the eviction of Western forces in January. With the Algerian Air Force prepared for the threat of a NATO assault comparable to that on its neighbour Libya in 2011, accelerating Su-57 purchases with its greater oil revenues remains a significant possibly as Russia itself may do the same. Although not an established client for Russian fighter aircraft, Iran has shown an interest in acquiring Russian heavyweight fighters in the past and, while considered more likely to acquire the Chinese J-10C fighter, could potentially look to the Su-57 should oil prices remain high. The future of the Su-57 program remains highly uncertain, but considering the number of potential clients which are heavily oil dependant for state revenues and military spending there remains a significant possibility that interest in the aircraft will grow should oil prices remain high.