As Russia’s most advanced fifth-generation fighter jet, the Su-57 Felon was expected to lead the Kremlin’s war efforts during its invasion of Ukraine. However, many analysts believe the long-touted fighter has at best achieved only minimal incursions into Ukrainian airspace.
Last month, the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense indicated that the Su-57 was probably involved in combat operations related to the invasion, citing imagery of these airframes at Russia’s Akhtubinsk Air Base as its evidence. UK intelligence added that if the fighters are indeed participating in missions, they most likely remain within Russian airspace to avoid being targeted. Besides this latest reveal, the only other remarks that corroborate Su-57 activity in Ukraine stem from Russian state media.
An Overview of the Su-57 “Felon” Fighter
Known to NATO as the “Felon,” Russia’s Su-57 fighter was designed as a direct challenge to the American-made F-22 Raptor fifth-generation fighter. Since the fall of the USSR, Russia has relied heavily on aging Cold-War parts and fighters like the MiG-29 and the Su-27. The Felon was meant to replace these outdated fighters and lead Russia’s aviation capabilities. The Russian manufacturer Sukhoi initially began work on the Felon in the late 1990s, and the airframe took its first flight by 2010.
What Are the Felon’s Best Features?
As Russia’s first operational stealth fighter, the Felon theoretically features supermaneuverability, large internal payloads for multirole versatility, and 3D thrust vectoring controls — a function that even China’s J-20 Chengdu stealth airframe does not possess.
Equipped with two side bays that store short-range air-to-air missiles, and two internal weapons bays mounted between the engines, the Su-57 does have significant means to carry advanced weapons. Additionally, since these weapons are stored internally, drag is minimized and the airframe can fly with a lower radar profile, aiding its ability to operate undetected. Another key capability the Felon possessed is its advanced sensor suite and communications datalinks, which do in fact parallel the American-made F-22 Raptor’s and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter’s electronic intelligence.
Where Are the Felons in Ukraine?
While the Su-57 should indeed be leading Moscow’s war efforts in Ukraine, the jet has hardly been documented.
That is because prolonged delays of the Felon’s development and production have ravaged the fighter’s potential. Today, only a handful out of the hundreds of Su-57s that were planned are believed to be in the Russian arsenal.
A significant hurdle for the Felon’s rollout remains the engine. The fighter was initially built to be powered by the Izdeliye 30 engine, but many of the current models feature an older version. According to a RAND Corporation report, a majority of the Felon’s operational models will never fly with the intended engine. The same report also notes that, “Aside from the advanced engine, the Su-57 is touted as having an all azimuth, a.k.a. 360-degree sensing capacity similar to the F-35. After all, what makes a fifth-generation fighter bomber is not just its low observable (LO) features but also the advanced all azimuth sensor suite. At the present time, only the F-35 has both of these features and is in mass production.”
Despite these issues regarding production and development, the Kremlin insists that its Su-57 fighter could outperform its near-pears. Russian state media has boasted that it will acquire 78 new Felon prototypes by the end of the decade, but this number seems unlikely given the state of Moscow’s current monetary capabilities.
Even if Moscow does somehow build additional Felon airframes, it is unlikely they would ever fly over Ukraine. Russia has already suffered several humiliating defeats during its invasion, and the potential downing of its premiere weapon of war would not bode well for propaganda purposes.
Maya Carlin is a Middle East Defense Editor with 19FortyFive. She is also an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel.