Since the outbreak of war in Ukraine on February 24, Russia has deployed a range of combat aircraft for roles ranging from provision of close air support to precision strikes and suppression of enemy air defences. The country’s two most capable and newest fighters the Su-34 strike platform and Su-35 air superiority fighter, have both been deployed for air to ground operations with the latter also thought to have gained at least five kills against Ukrainian fighters in air to air combat. One Su-34 shootdown has been confirmed, and one Su-35 shootdown reported, although the sheer volume of Ukrainian surface to air missiles and the high number of sorties Russian jets have launched means these losses remain relatively low. While the two fighters are considered highly capable, with both having entered service in 2014 and seen considerable combat operations prior to the Ukraine war supporting counterinsurgency operations in Syria, Russia was by 2022 expected to field several squadrons of more advanced Su-57 heavyweight fighters which would have likely made operations against Ukrainian forces far smoother. While both the Su-34 and Su-35 are derived from the Su-27 Flanker fourth generation heavyweight fighter, albeit heavily enhanced with next generation technologies, the Su-57 represents a clean sheet fifth generation design with superior capabilities for both strike and air superiority operations.
The Su-57 first flew in 2010, and was initially scheduled for entry into service in 2015 with 50 airframes set to be service by 2020 and 200 by the end of 2025. It represented Russia’s third fifth generation fighter program to reach a prototype stage, which may well have influenced the ambitious schedule since many of the necessary technologies were inherited from the Soviet MiG 1.42 program. With Russia’s defence sector facing ongoing issues with decline even 25 years after the Soviet collapse, and the Su-57 lacking support from a large industrial base or tech sector and having relatively little funding, the fighter only entered serial production in 2019 and only joined the Air Force in December 2020. The program’s shifting goal posts as the aircraft was increasingly set the task of countering upcoming sixth generation fighters, rather than fifth generation jets such as the F-22 and F-35 which the Russian Defence Ministry expressed confidence its Su-35 could handle, further prolonged development as the aircraft was intended to integrate a range of new technologies. The Su-57 is currently at a low initial production rate with an estimated 6-8 in service, out of 76 that are set to be operational by the end fo 2027. The aircraft were reportedly deployed briefly in limited numbers over Ukraine, although whether they engaged in combat or were simply testing their sensors or some other features in a combat zone remains uncertain.
While the Su-35 is more than capable of countering any threat from Ukraine’s own combat aircraft, which rely in 1980s Soviet technologies and have not proven particularly capable, a number of the Su-57’s unique capabilities and next generation features still make it a potentially ideal fighter for conflict in Ukraine and an asset that remains sorely missed. The Su-57’s stealth capabilities make it far more difficult to detect than any other Russian fighter, and complement its Himalayas electronic warfare system to provide additional protection. Furthermore, with Ukrainian forces largely reliant on handheld infrared guided surface to air missiles for air defence, the Su-57’s unique laser defence system was developed specifically to blind such missiles and thus prevent targeting. The fighter also has a reduced heat signature compared to older Russian aircraft. The Su-57’s sensor suite and network centric warfare capabilities are also much better suited to mapping the battle space than other Russian fighters, with each fighter deploying six radars – twice as many as the Su-35 and six times as many as other Russian and Western fighters. These allow the Su-57 to track up to 60 targets simultaneously, while its nose mounted AESA radar provides greater situational awareness than prior Russian designs and is complemented by a next generation infra red search and track system.
The Su-57’s ordnance would have potentially allows Russian ground forces to progress significantly faster had meaningful numbers been deployed to provide air support. The PBK-500U Drel glide bomb allows the fighter to engage targets 30-50km away with high precision and a ‘fire and forget’ capability, using inertial and GLONASS satellite guidance. A single submunitions cluster is reportedly sufficient to destroy an entire missile battery or a tank column, and its short range and lack of the need for thrusters or engines allows Su-57s to deploy considerably greater firepower when using it instead of standoff weapons. Each bomb contains fifteen self-guided anti-tank element charges, and their guidance and identification friend or foe systems make them optimal for engaging moving targets. Beyond close air support, the Su-57 could also have likely eroded Ukrainian air defences far faster than existing fighters using the Kh-58UShE anti radiation missile. These capabilities combined with the fighter’s advanced performance in air to air combat would have strengthened Russia’s position in Ukraine considerably, the latter primarily by presenting a fifth generation aircraft on NATO’s borders to counter growing F-35 deployments rather than to counter Ukraine’s own fighter fleet.