During the Second World War, combat aircraft rolled off assembly lines at a blistering pace that rivaled the peacetime production of the automobile.
Today, the story is a bit different. A fifth-generation aircraft does roll down a line and its construction is something more akin to a high-performance “super car,” where only a few can be built at a time. This is why dozens – not hundreds – of fifth-generation combat aircraft are typically produced each year.
The complexity of the production is one factor on why Russia has only received a handful of the Sukhoi Su-57 (NATO reporting name “Felon”), the single-seat, twin-engine multirole combat aircraft that combines the functions of an attack plane and a fighter jet. Its use of composite materials and innovation technologies, along with the fighter’s aerodynamic configuration, ensure that it has a low level of radar and infrared signature, but it actually takes considerable effort including skill and time to build the aircraft.
To date, only a dozen have been built, include two prototypes.
Progress has been made to increase the production the Russian Defense Ministry announced this week, and according to a report from Tass that includes both aircraft for the Russian military as well as aircraft for export.
“This year, 15 combat planes are due to be delivered [by the Gagarin Aviation Plant] to the customer and under export contracts,” said Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov during his visit to the Gagarin Aviation Plant in Komsomolsk-on-Amur in Russia’s Far East on Wednesday.
“As you know, the Defense Ministry has signed a large long-term contract on the Su-57, and this year four serial-produced planes will be delivered,” Borisov added.
The vice-premier also said that the production of generation 4++ Sukhoi Su-35 multirole combat aircraft would continue.
While not as advanced as the Su-57, the Su-35 is a supermaneuverable fighter that is outfitted with an onboard phased array radar station and thrust vectored engines. The fighter can also reach a top speed of up to 2,500 km/h and operate at a distance of 3,400 km. It is outfitted with a 30mm gun and has a dozen hard points for carrying bombs and missiles.
The Su-57 has remained just one of only a handful of fifth-generation fighter aircraft introduced, and Moscow has struggled to ramp up production. The cost has certainly been another issue, which is why the company has sought to find foreign buyers to help off-set the cost.
While its capabilities are still essentially still largely unproven, it is known that the advanced jet fighter’s stealth technology further utilizes a broad range of composite materials, while the Su-57 is capable of developing supersonic cruising speed. In addition to its speed and low radar signature, the Felon is a well-armed and combat-capable aircraft.
During the August 2013 MAKS Air Show outside of Moscow, the aircraft’s manufacturer highlighted the fighter’s weapons platforms including missiles that could be fitted into the fighter’s voluminous weapons bays or under its wings and fuselage. The Sukhoi Su-57 features two large internal weapons bays arranged in tandem, which run nearly the entire useable length of the aircraft. Each of those bays can carry up to four K-77M beyond visual range radar-guided missiles.
Compared to earlier versions of the K-77 (NATO nickname: AA-12 Archer) the K-77M missile has a larger body and active electronically-scanned array radar seeker, allowing it to engage highly agile targets at ranges of up to 100 miles. The aircraft also stores a pair of K-74M2 short-range infrared-guided missiles in underwing fairings.
This month the Russian defense contractor Rostec also announced that a two-seat version of the Su-57 would be developed for export.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.