Is Russia’s next-generation fighter, the much-hyped Su-57 Felon, actually serving in Ukraine?
This is a popular question among military analysts and observers. According to a top Russian general, the fighter is indeed seeing significant action. This leader told reporters the Su-57 has hit air and ground targets in “each sortie.”
Su-57: Unclear Role
Gen. Sergei Surovikin claimed the stealth Su-57 is taking advantage of advanced weapons when flying over Ukraine. In September, four Su-57s were deployed, according to RIA Novosti. But Russia is likely being careful with the Su-57s, and it may be using them in a standoff role outside the reach of Ukraine’s air defense network. If entering Ukraine air space, they might be only flying at night and at lower altitude. It would be a propaganda coup if Ukraine shot down a Su-57, so caution is probably being emphasized at this time.
Yet Surovikin also said the Su-57 was creating what he called “a tactical information network.” It is not clear what this means, and the phrase may have been lost in translation or misinterpreted. It could refer to a secure communications system with other airplanes, in which the Su-57 could “quarterback” a group of fighters collecting intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance data in the same fashion as an F-35.
Need Independent Verification
What we don’t really have are reports from Ukrainians claiming to spot the Su-57, which you would expect if the warplane had actually been detected. 19FortyFive reported on Oct. 1 that one unconfirmed video on Twitter could have been of a Su-57, but the tweet did not reveal where and when the alleged Su-57 was seen.
It appears that the Russians have a total of four Su-57s in action – that is, if you believe Russian military leaders and pro-government media outlets. Four fighters is not enough to transform the air war over Ukraine to Russia’s favor. The fighters would have to totally suppress anti-aircraft defenses.
The Su-57 has endured a checkered history of delays and schedule slips dating back to 2009. Engine problems were the first culprit, and when it first flew in 2010, the airframe cracked on six out of 10 fighters. Russian designers and engineers changed the composite materials to make the airframe stronger, and they enlarged its wingspan. Russia’s air force wanted 60 Su-57s. That number will not be produced any time soon, even though the Ministry of Defense declared in August that it could acquire 22 Su-57s by 2024.
What the Experts Told 19FortyFive
“Russia flew Su-57s in Syria in a promotional rather than a combat role, as they operated in a permissive environment and did not conduct much in the way of combat strikes,” explained Dr. Robert Farley, a Senior Lecturer at the University of Kentucky. “Ukrainian airspace is a more dangerous, complex environment, and there is cause for Russia to be extremely cautious about using the Felon in risky situations. That said, Russia claims that the Su-57 has been used on multiple occasions in multiple roles. The evidence for that is scant, but the claims can’t be disregarded,” Farley added.
Can the Su-57 Compete With Other Stealth Fighters?
The Su-57 is purported to have 3D thrust-vectoring controls that make it more maneuverable than other fighters in the Russian arsenal. The avionics are up to date and in line with stealth fighters from the United States and China, although it is not believed to be as stealthy as the F-35, F-22, or J-20. Stealth attributes are improved with internal weapons bays that hold a bevy of missiles and bombs for air or ground strikes. The Su-57 may have active electronically scanned array radar.
We are still looking for independent confirmation that the Su-57 is indeed operating over Ukrainian airspace. In any case, four airplanes do not make a squadron, and as mentioned previously, they are not going to change the war.
The airplane is more likely testing its network integration capabilities, rather than using its weapons. If the Su-57 actually had been in combat, the Russian military would offer more specifics. The stealth fighter is still a bit of a mystery, and we will wait for more details once Western intelligence can verify them.
Expert Biography: Serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Dr. Brent M. Eastwood is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and Foreign Policy/ International Relations.
Note: This piece has been updated to account for new expert analysis by Dr. Daniel Goure from the Lexington Institute.
October 24, 2022 at 8:50 pm
If anyone knows whether Russia is using the SU-57 in Ukraine, it would be the US DOD and its NATO partners who have a slew of ISR aircraft in the sky over Eastern NATO countries and the Black Sea. Why don’t you ask them rather than speculate?
October 25, 2022 at 11:10 am
Using or not using su-57 is strictly a russian prerogative. Russia doesn’t need to give any explanation or an exclusive story to its rivals.
What needs an explanation is why russian air force hasn’t hunted down zelenskiyy up to now.
USAF would have done that long ago. US military once claimed that saddam used to employ ‘doubles’ to confuse his real whereabouts. But so far, zelenskiyy has not used this method of concealment.
Perhaps the russian air force has failed to coordinate its efforts with field intelligence, thus not doing its job. Nothing to do with felon though.
October 25, 2022 at 7:26 pm
Nice, target practice on newest Russian entry.
October 26, 2022 at 9:19 am
I have a huge doubt that the prototypes currently online are deployed in combat. The so-called “second stage” Sukhoi Su-57 made its first flight on October 21, 2022. The combat aircraft has a number of new systems but is not yet equipped with its new turbojet engines.
December 10, 2022 at 7:38 pm
The MiG-31B used to test the R-37 in the 1998 ‘proof of concept’ trials which ended in a 308km impact kill, could not see the target its missile was fired at.
Instead, an Su-30 was used as a surrogate illuminator from a position somewhat offset and downrange. The MiG-31B SBI-16 Zaslon A was already producing 30% more range than the baseline model which Adolph Tolkachev’s betrayal gave the details to the West on, largely due to the provision of a new radar data processor called the Argon.
And the MiG-31M (which was the intended R-37 carrier) would have had a further 100% greater detection/tracking ranges, thanks to innovations in the No-11M Bars on the Su-30 and an approximately 25% larger antenna (1.4 vs. 1.1 meter diameter).
Due to extreme fiscal constraints in the wake of the USSR disintegration; the MiG-31M never went into series production and is now dated technology but the Antenna improvements and the RDP upgrades have continued with iterative (Argon 7/11/15) updates and the MiG-31BM MLU transition to the Baget series processor.
The resulting late series Foxhound, as a ‘rebuild of a rebuild’, is unlikely to have the full potential improvement of the MiG-31M but additively, it may have 50% more than the baseline MiG-31B or 80% more than the initial MiG-31.
Is this enough to support a missile which has a claimed 398km maximum engagement range and has shot down aerial targets at 217km (118nm) over Ukraine? Difficult to say.
What it may highlight is the return to use of a forward illuminator concept as the Su-57 itself has the extremely powerful No-36 Byelka radar and is sufficiently stealthy to operate adjacent to if not directly overhead Ukrainian S-300PS and NASAMS WEZ envelopes as the systems which are likely protecting residual PZU fighter bases.
There was one, specific, incident, early in the spring/summer, in which 4 Ukrainian Su-27s were shot down in a single day and some say, a single hour. Such would not normally happen in a ‘guerilla air force’ which was fighting to remain a viable threat in denying overall enemy air dominance of the skies of central Ukraine.
But if the Felon was close-in a number of Flankers might have been caught out during a standing CAP orbit exchange or when responding to a draw play as large raid via Zulu QRA tasking, BAM: 1-2-3-4.
Before awareness of the threat could lead to PZY air operations being shut down in the Russian equivalent to Operation Bolo.
If so, this highlights the complimentary nature of the Felon and Axehead, in that absolute VLO penetration of air defenses is not necessary against Gen-4 targets if the radar weapons system can make up the standoff difference in providing rapid, gear in well, coverage of enemy baselanes.
In this, it should be acknowledged that the R-37M is not a Phoenix. It has a different center of lift, different flight controls, much higher total impulse and vastly different guidance function, compared to even the last, AIM-54C++, generation of American heavy LRAAM.
It is very fast, it is designed to hit very small (.1m2) targets at low level and it has a mixed Inertial/TVM-SARH/ARH guidance which allows it to tailor how the missile functions in terms of kinematic profile and delayed active tracking until the very last second.
We will come to regret underestimating the Russian ‘kompleks’ understanding of integrated system-of-systems weapons system function that the Su-57/R-37M likely represents.
Felon is not Raptor, Axehead is not the White Buffalo. The Russian engineering community is not stupid. Figure out why they made those signature and weapons system compromise choices and you will begin to understand why the lesser of each still results in a greater synergy capability of the whole, compared to the F-22/AMRAAM.
Integral to this is the fact that the Russian weapon engineering establishment is not locked into the plodding, Soviet, model.
Sistema/Rostec are system /integrators/ in the model of the large Western prime contractors like LM and Raytheon, with a portfolio of companies under their umbrella business model.
Operating within the State Sponsored corporate system to minimize destructive competition and profiteering, they administer these sub division/franchise companies to pull in the best possible solutions from each, as needed.
And unlike the U.S., which hasn’t had a functional budget in decades, they are able to operate within a long-term development plan of tiered TRL funding commitments which guarantees incremental advancement of promising concepts into service. The Axehead has been 30 years in development folks. It probably works to whatever KPP system requirement is needed.