The Russian Su-57 Felon stealth fighter is promoted by Russia’s leadership as its most advanced fighter in service today. At the same time, there has been little to suggest that Russia’s largely untested advanced multi-role fighter has been involved in combat operations within Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
However, recent state media reporting based on leaks supposedly emanating from the Russian defense industry has suggested that the Felon, as it is known by its NATO reporting name, has actually been operating in Ukraine since shortly after the start of the invasion in February.
Su-57 In Ukraine?
According to an alleged source speaking to the Russian state media outlet TASS, the Su-57 entered Ukraine two to three weeks after the invasion, which would place its entry in early to mid-March. The source further claimed that Su-57s operating in Ukraine have avoided enemy air defenses by operating outside of their range and have relied on missiles to accomplish their missions.
According to Pentagon officials, that would be consistent with the flight patterns of other Russian multi-role or attack aircraft, which prefer to launch their weapons at a distance and return to safe or Russian airspace as quickly as possible.
That said, there has been scant evidence that any Su-57 felons have entered Ukraine. Photographic or video evidence purported to be of Su-57s operating in Ukraine previously has either been too jumbled to identify the Russian aircraft in question or simply erroneous.
Su-57: The Protected Stealth Fighter?
Questions about the truth concerning Russia’s employment of the Su-57 in combat in Ukraine closely resemble similar debates about whether the Felon’s use in Syria.
The aircraft appears to have been dispatched to Syria twice as a means to combat-test the Su-57, according to the Russian Defense Ministry. However, despite claims that the Felon had been combat-tested in Syria on its two deployments, there is no evidence that it participated in any sort of combat operations.
It should also be noted that the situation in the air in Syria was much more to the Russian Aerospace Forces’ advantage – the various Syrian opposition groups scattered across the country had no air forces of their own to speak of and had only rudimentary air defense systems, at best.
Su-57: Just How Good Is It?
Troubles in the development and procurement of the Su-57 would further complicate the use of the advanced multirole aircraft on combat missions in Ukraine. While Russia’s military leadership and defense industry claim that the Felon possesses a whole range of fifth-generation characteristics, such as advanced computing systems and avionics, stealth capability, powerful state-of-the-art engines, and the capability to wield advanced (even hypersonic) missile systems,
Russia has reportedly struggled significantly to include such systems in the aircraft in practice. What we know about the capabilities of the Su-57 is largely dependent on what information is officially provided on the aircraft by Russian authorities or near-rumors which find their way out of Russia that give a clearer sense of what the aircraft could be capable of.
What if the Su-57 Is Shot Down in Ukraine?
If Russia is indeed sending Su-57s to fight in Ukraine, it would not have a significant reserve of aircraft to sustain losses. Organizational issues which plague the aircraft’s production and development has made serial production of the aircraft scattered at best, in practice. Flip-flopping by the Defense Ministry and the Kremlin on whether the aircraft would be serially produced delayed production further, which contributed to the present reality that the aircraft will not be delivered in meaningful quantities until the late-2020s, if at all.
While the announcement in Russian state media that the Su-57 Felon has already been sent to Ukraine certainly came as a surprise, it is not possible to confirm this for certain. Careful observation is necessary to determine if Russia will employ the aircraft in the coming weeks, whether over Ukraine or at a safe distance in non-contested airspace, if at all.
Wesley Culp is a Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. He regularly writes on Russian and Eurasian leadership and national security topics and has been published in The Hill and the Diplomatic Courier. He can be found on Twitter @WesleyJCulp.