China and Russia have marketed their own domestic fifth-generation fighter platforms over the last two decades.
China’s J-20 and Russia’s Su-57 jets are the models each side has put forward as operational stealth airframes capable of countering the United States’ air superiority.
However, several technicalities cause these aircraft to fall short of the fifth-generation label.
Beijing and Moscow claim these jets are as capable as the world’s first two stealth fighters — the American-made F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The Kremlin has threatened to unleash its Su-57 in Ukraine, along with other air superiority platforms it has not yet introduced.
A Brief History of the Su-57
Designated the Felon by NATO, the Su-57 was developed by Russian manufacturer Sukhoi in the late 1990s. More than one decade earlier, the Soviet Union had outlined its need for a next-generation fighter that could better counter U.S. jet platforms. Two projects were initially created to address the USSR’s needs.
In the early 2000s, the Felon’s production and development fell behind schedule for several reasons.
Specifically, during the Felon’s initial trial flights, the airframe crashed due to a combination of structural and technical issues. The platform’s tendency to crack became a glaring issue and continually delayed production. Today, only five dozen Su-57 airframes have ever entered service.
Why Are Su-57 Felons Absent From Ukraine?
Moscow often claims the Su-57 could outperform the F-22 and F-35. Despite these boasts, the platform has been notably absent from the war in Ukraine. If the Su-57 is as formidable as the Kremlin says, why have they been relegated to more risk-averse roles such as deploying stand-off munitions?
Some analysts believe that Moscow is wary of showcasing the Felon, since it will be unable to live up to its hype and therefore cause reputational damage.
Why Isn’t the Felon Fifth-Generation?
Perhaps the most important quality of a stealth fighter is its minimal detectability. The F-35 and F-22 have small radar cross sections, which makes them exponentially more difficult for enemy airframes to locate.
An aviation expert explained the significance in an Aviation Geek Club piece: “It’s not just Su-57 being less stealthy than F-35 (-40 dBsm) – it has a 1,000 times bigger RCS. Since detection range is proportional to the 4th root of RCS, a 1,000 times bigger RCS equates to 5.6 times greater detection range. And this is after giving Su-57 every benefit of doubt, the F-35’s RCS is very likely closer to -50 dB.” According to these calculations, the F-35 has a detection range almost six times better than the Felon’s.
As the Ukraine war unfolds, the Kremlin will probably continue to threaten deployment of its so-called fifth-generation airframes.
These threats and Moscow’s other exaggerated claims should be met with skepticism.
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.