What does Russia really think of the F-35? An expert gave us his analysis (see our new video on this topic below): Though it is true that Nazi Germany truly underestimated the capabilities of the Soviet Red Army when it launched Operation Barbarossa in late June 1941, Moscow has also long been shown to misjudge its enemies. That was true in 1939 when it went to war with Finland and again in 1979 when it began its war in Afghanistan. Of course, it was just over six months ago that the Kremlin launched its unprovoked and unwarranted invasion of Ukraine – expecting a quick victory.
Russian military leaders have shown a bad habit of believing their own propaganda, but also dismissed out of hand the capabilities of other military hardware. This has certainly been the case with the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, an aircraft that while ghastly expensive – to the point that it would be painful to lose any in combat – remains arguably the most capable multirole fighter in service today. Even as some F-35 pilots have suggested that NATO could use the aircraft to completely destroy the Russian forces in Ukraine, Moscow continues to ignore such warnings.
This isn’t new.
In late 2018, Mikhail Strelets, the chief designer and director of the Sukhoi Design Bureau, said in a live interview with the state-run Zvezda TV Channel that the Su-57 was far superior to the F-35 as well as the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor.
“The Su-57 has no rivals among fifth-generation planes,” Strelets suggested and took his argument to the absurd. “It so turned out and we didn’t choose this specially [SIC] but if you sum up 22 and 35, you get the figure 57.”
Even as some NATO F-35 pilots praise the Lightning II’s capabilities, Russia’s own pilots have simply dismissed it.
“Su-57 will kill [an F-35] easily, should they meet one on one. The F-35 cannot maneuver, it’s simply incapable. But it does has electronic might,” Magomed Tolboyev, a renowned test pilot, told Tass while marking his 70th birthday. “Today, you no longer fight one on one. Everything depends on your support. There is electronic warfare today. This is no longer a sparring tatami, but a complex approach to tactical issues.”
Can’t Beat It, Make It Cheaper
The one area where perhaps a Russian fifth-generation aircraft could best the F-35 is in the cost – which explains why last year, the Kremlin introduced its Su-75 “Checkmate,” a bargain basement multirole fighter.
Though the Checkmate is still years away from making its maiden flight, Russian experts have touted its capabilities, but typically come back to the price tag.
“There is no doubt that in this decade Russia will be able to restore the tandem of breakthrough aircraft platforms: the heavy Su-57 [fifth-generation fighter] and a new light plane designed to cope with tactical assignment,” said Oleg Panteleyev, executive director of Aviaport Aviation News Agency to Tass last summer.
Clearly, few in the Russian military have any respect for the F-35, or at least a willingness to show that respect publicly. That shouldn’t be seen as a bad thing. Joseph Stalin underestimated Finland, while Leonid Brezhnev certainly failed to see the quagmire that Afghanistan would be the Soviet Union.
Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin is just making a similar mistake with Ukraine – but also with the F-35. It is always better to have your enemies underestimate your capabilities, and in this case, the Kremlin is likely dead wrong about the F-35.
Expert Biography: A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.