In a sharp reversal late last month, U.S. President Joe Biden revealed that the U.S. would support Ukraine’s training on F-16 Fighting Falcon airframes. During the G-7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, America gave the green light to a request that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had been pushing since the onset of Russia’s invasion. For many months, the U.S. cited stockpile limitations and lengthy training procedures as reasons not to provide these fourth-generation fighter jets to Kyiv. The sudden policy shift was welcomed by Ukraine, whose fleet is largely made up of antiquated Soviet-era airframes.
Now that Kyiv is expected to use these modern fighters, Moscow could turn to its Sukhoi Su-57 stealth fighters as a counter.
History of the Su-57
Moscow has kept its fifth-generation Su-57 jets at a distance so far in this conflict. While the Kremlin has long touted this fighter platform as being the best of the best, the airframe’s performance has yet to measure up to Moscow’s claims.
The twin-engine stealth multirole fighter airframe was developed by Russian defense giant Sukhoi in the early 2000s, but its conception dates back far earlier. During the height of the Cold War, the USSR mapped out its need for a next-generation fighter to replace the Su-27 and MiG-29 in frontline tactical operations. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Russian Ministry of Defense initiated the PAK FA program, which ultimately resulted in the Su-57.
Specs and Capabilities
Designated by NATO as “Felon,” the Su-57 features stealth technology. In a 2020 analysis, the Royal United Services Institute described the Felon as “not yet having matured into a credible frontline weapons system,” but nonetheless a stealth aircraft with potential. According to Air Force Technology, “The aircraft is equipped with 3D thrust vector jets for higher maneuverability. Short take-offs, network centricity and multi-role capabilities are the other features that fulfill the criteria for the fifth-generation aircraft.”
The Felon sports air-to-surface missiles in addition to air-to-air missiles to take on ground targets and carry out longer-range air combat operations. With two internal weapons bays, the Su-57 can carry up to eight K-77M air-to-air missiles. The airframe is powered by Izdeliye 117 or AL-41F1 turbofan engines, which Moscow asserts will be replaced by newer Izdeliye 30 engines. Since Moscow is struggling financially under sanctions, this engine upgrade may not occur as soon as the Kremlin wishes.
Felons vs. Falcons?
Even if the Felon is lacking in several areas, the airframe has some advantages over the F-16 Fighting Falcon. Retired Indian Air Force pilot Vijainder K Thakur detailed how the fifth-generation Felon could be synchronized with ground radars that would give it a first-launch advantage over the fourth-generation Falcon. Once Kyiv uses the F-16s expected to be delivered in the upcoming months, Moscow will very likely call on its Su-57s in response.
Maya Carlin, a Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, is 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. You can follow her on Twitter: @MayaCarlin.