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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

Russia Claims Su-57 Stealth Fighter Have Been Used ‘Brilliantly’ in Ukraine, but Evidence Is Scarce

It seems highly unlikely that Russia would risk any of its Su-57 stealth fighters in Ukraine for obvious reasons.

Russian Stealth Fighters
Su-57 in 2011

Despite the general underperformance of Russia’s Aerospace Forces in the skies of Ukraine during over the course of Russia’s invasion, Russian military leaders have nonetheless claimed that new prestige weapons such as the Su-57 ‘Felon’ have performed well over the course of the invasion. Despite Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s claim that the Felon has already been used “brilliantly” in combat during Russia’s invasion, evidence that the aircraft has participated in combat there appears to be non-existent.

Shoigu’s Performance Claims

Speaking as part of an interview with the state-controlled Rossiya-1 TV channel, Defense Minister Shoigu claimed that the Felon “has shown itself brilliantly” over the course of Russia’s so-called “special military operation.” In particular, Shoigu sought to highlight the purported on-board protections of the aircraft against air defenses as well as the utility of its offensive armament in response to a question on the aircraft’s combat employment in Ukraine.

What is the Su-57?

The Su-57 is claimed by Moscow to be its first attempt to develop a fifth-generation fighter. However, while much of what we know about the Su-57 is based on what information has been published by Russia or allowed to reach external observers, it is highly unlikely that the Su-57 Felon, as it is dubbed under its NATO reporting name, possesses many of the key characteristics of a fifth-generation aircraft. For an aircraft to be generally considered to be fifth-generation, it must possess specific technical characteristics, such as the ability to fly at supersonic speeds without afterburners, as well as the ability to serve as network hub for other military assets. However, the defining feature of membership in the fifth-generation club can be seen as stealth capability, which Russia appears to be struggling with implementing in the Su-57.

Due to a variety of technical challenges in the development of various aspects of the Su-57, such as the bonding of body panels to the aircraft tightly enough to reduce the Su-57’s radar profile or struggles to fit the aircraft with stealth-capable engines, the Su-57’s stealth capability is debatable. Nonetheless, Russia seems to be very interested in giving the Su-57 the networking capabilities which are so valued in fifth-generation aircraft, which can be observed in Russia’s pairing of the S-70 Okhotnik as a “loyal wingman” to the Su-57, which it is designed to work with in combat. While the Su-57 is reportedly equipped to carry a combination of air-to-air and beyond-visual-range missiles as well as air-to-ground missiles or precision-guided bombs, the lack of confirmed combat experience of the Su-57 makes these assertions difficult to confirm.

Has the Felon Seen Combat in Ukraine?

Despite Shoigu’s hyping of the Su-57’s supposed performance in Ukraine, it is unlikely that the Su-57 has seen combat in Ukraine to date – or at all. Moscow first claimed that the Su-57 saw its first taste of combat in 2018, as part of Russia’s intervention in the Syrian Civil War on behalf of the country’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad. However, no evidence of its combat employment in Syria has come to light. Despite Russian claims in May 2022 following Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine that the Su-57 that the aircraft had first seen combat in Ukraine in the first two to three weeks following the invasion, evidence of the Su-57’s participation in combat was similarly scant. According to unnamed sources in Russia’s military industry speaking to Russian state media, Russia’s Su-57s fired missiles at targets in Ukraine at stand-off distances, which would be difficult to prove or disprove conclusively.

Su-57 Stealth

Russia’s Su-57 Stealth Fighter. Image: Creative Commons.

With less than 10 Su-57s likely in the Russian fleet today, Russia has remained hesitant to deploy and potentially risking the embarrassing destruction of a prestige system like the Su-57 in combat.

In order to avoid specific questions about the status of the Su-57, which it hopes to procure 76 examples of by 2028, Russia will likely continue to claim battlefield successes of the Su-57 without actually employing them in operations in Ukraine.

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 as well as in the Diplomatic Courier. He can be found on Twitter @WesleyJCulp.

Written By

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.