[This article was written for the Unz Review]
When I got an email from a friend telling me that a pair of Su-57s was seen landing at the Russian Aerospace Forces base in Kheimim, Syria, I immediately dismissed it as a fake. The list of reasons why this could not be true would run for pages. I knew that, so I simply replied: “that’s a fake” and forgot about it. Over the next couple of days, however, this story was picked up by various websites and bloggers, but it still made no sense. Still, what kept me feeling really puzzled was that the Russian official sources did not dismiss the story, but chose to remain silent. Then another two Su-57s were reported. And then, suddenly, the Russian media was flooded with stories about how the Su-57s were sent to Syria as an act of “revenge” for the killing of Russian PMCs by the US; that the Su-57s had basically flattened eastern Ghouta while killing about “2000 Americans“. This was truly some crazy nonsense so I decided to find out what really happened and, so far, here is what I found out.
First, amazingly enough, the reports of the Su-57 in Syria are true. Some say 2 aircraft, some say 4 (out of a current total of 13). It doesn’t really matter, what matters is that the deployment of a few Su-57s in Syria is a fact and that this represents a dramatic departure from normal Russian (and Soviet) practice.
Introducing the Sukhoi 57 5th generation multi-role fighter
The Su-57 (aka “PAK-FA” aka “T-50”) is the first real 5th generation multi-role aircraft produced by Russia. All the other Russian multi-role and air superiority aircraft previously deployed in Syria (such as the Su-30SM and the Su-35S) are 4++ aircraft, not true 5th generation. One might be forgiven for thinking that 4++ is awfully close to 5, but it really is not. 4++ generation aircraft are really 4th generation aircraft upgraded with a number of systems and capabilities typically associated with a 5th generation, but they all lack several key components of a true 5th generation aircraft such as:
- a low radar cross-section (“stealth”),
- the capability to fly at supersonic speeds without using afterburners,
- the ability to carry weapons inside a special weapons bay (as opposed to outside, under its wings or body)
- an advanced “situational awareness” (network-centric) capability (sensor and external data fusion).
To make a long story short, the difference between 4th and 5th generation aircraft is really huge and requires not one, but several very complex “technological jumps” especially in the integrations of numerous complex systems.
The only country which currently has a deployed real 5th generation fighter is the USA with its F-22. In theory, the USA also has another 5th generation fighter, the F-35, but the latter is such a terrible design and has such immense problems that for our purposes we can pretty much dismiss it. As for now, the F-22 is the only “real deal”: thoroughly tested and fully deployed in substantial numbers. The Russian Su-57 is still years away from being able to make such a claim as it has not been thoroughly tested or deployed in substantial numbers. That is not to say that the Russians are not catching up really fast, they are, but as of right now, the Su-57 has only completed the first phase of testing. The normal Soviet/Russian procedure should have been at this time to send a few aircraft to the Russian Aerospace Forces (RAF) base in Lipetsk to familiarize the military crews with the aircraft and continue the testing while getting the feedback, not from test pilots but from actual air combat instructors. This second phase of testing could easily last 6 months or more and reveal a very large number of “minor” problems many of which could actually have very severe consequences in an actual combat deployment. In other words, the Su-57 is still very “raw” and probably needs a lot of tuning before it can be deployed in combat. How “raw”? Just one example: as of today, only one of the currently existing Su-57 flies with the new supercruise-capable engines, all the others use a 4th generation type engine. This is no big deal, but it goes to show that a lot of work still needs to be done on this aircraft before it becomes fully operational.
The notion that the Russians sent the Su-57 to Syria to somehow compete with the F-22s or otherwise participate in actual combat is ludicrous. While, on paper, the Su-57 is even more advanced and capable than the F-22, in reality, the Su-57 presents no credible threat to the US forces in Syria (if the Russians really wanted to freak out the Americans, they could have, for example, decided to keep a pair of MiG-31BMs on 24/7 combat air patrol over Syria). The Russian reports about these aircraft flattening Ghouta or killing thousands of Americans are nothing more than cheap and inflammatory propaganda from ignorant Russian nationalists who don’t seem to realize that flattening urban centers is not even the theoretical mission of the Su-57. In fact, as soon as these crazy reports surfaced, Russians analysts immediately dismissed them as nonsense.
Utter nonsense is hardly the monopoly of Russian nationalists, however. The folks at the National Interest reposted an article (initially posted on the blog The War is Boring) which basically dismissed the Su-57 as a failed and dead project and its deployment in Syria as a “farce” (I should tip my hat off to the commentators at the National Interest who immediately saw through the total ridiculous nature of this article and wondered if Lockheed had paid for it). On the other hand, in the western insanity spectrum, we have the UK’s Daily Express which wrote about Vladimir Putin sending his “fearsome new state-of-the-art Su-57” into the Syrian war zone. Just like with the Kuznetsov, the Ziomedia can’t decide if the Russian hardware is an antiquated, useless pile of scrap metal or a terrifying threat which ought to keep the entire world up at night. Maybe both at the same time? With paranoid narcissists, you can’t tell. Finally, the notion that Putin (personally?) sent these 4 aircraft to Syria to help him in his re-election campaign (peddled by the Russophobes at Ha’aretz) is also devoid of all truth and makes me wonder if those who write that kind of crap are even aware of Putin’s popularity numbers.
So what is really going on?
Well, frankly, that is hard to say, and Russian officials are being tight-lipped about it. Still, various well informed Russian analysts have offered some educated guesses as to what is taking place. The short version is this: the Su-57s were only sent to Syria to test their avionics in a rich combat-like electromagnetic environment. The more detailed version would be something like this:
The Su-57 features an extremely complex and fully integrated avionics suite which will include three X band active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar (one main, two side-looking), another two L band active electronically scanned array radars in the wing’s leading edge extensions, plus an integrated electro-optical system location system (working in infra-red, visible and ultra-violet frequencies). All these sensors are fused (5 radars, 2 bands, plus passive optics) and they are then combined with the data received by the Su-57’s advanced electronic warfare suite and a high-speed encrypted datalink, connecting the aircraft to other airborne, space, as well as ground-based sensors. This is not unlike what the USA is trying to achieve with the F-35, but on an even more complex level (even in theory, the F-35 is a comparatively simpler, and much less capable, aircraft). One could see how it would be interesting to test all this gear in a radiation-rich environment like the Syrian skies where the Russians have advanced systems (S-400, A-50U, etc.) and where the USA and Israel also provide a lot of very interesting signals (including US and Israeli AWACS, F-22s and F-35s, etc.). To re-create such a radiation-rich environment in Russia would be very hard and maybe even impossible. The question whether this is worth the risk?
The risks of this deployment in Syria are very real and very serious. As far as I know, there are still no bombproof shelters built (yet) and Russia recently lost a number of aircraft (some not totally, some totally) when the “good terrorists” used mortars against the Khmeimim base. So now we have FOUR Su-57s (out of how many total, maybe 12 or 13?!), each worth 50-100 million dollars under an open sky in a war zone?! What about operational security? What about base security?
There is also a political risk. It is well known that the USA has been putting an immense political pressure on India to withdraw from the joint development between Russia and India of the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) or Perspective Multi-role Fighter (PMF) program. To make things worse, India currently has too many parallel aircraft programs and there are, reportedly, disagreements between the Russians and the Indians on design features. With the apparently never-ending disaster of the F-35, the very last thing the USA needs is a successful Russian 5th generation competitor showing up anywhere on the planet (especially one which has the clear potential to far outclass both the successful F-22 and the disastrous F-35). One can easily imagine what the AngloZionist propaganda machine will do should even a minor problem happen to the Su-57 while in Syria (just read the National Interest article quoted above to see what the mindset is in the West)!
The Su-57 also has formidable competitors inside Russia: the 4++ generation aircraft mentioned above, especially the Su-35S. Here we have a similar dynamic as with the F-22: while on paper the Su-57 is clearly superior to the Su-35S, in the real world the Su-35S is a well tested and deployed system which, unlike the F-22, also happens to be much cheaper than the Su-57 (the F-22 being at least twice as expensive than the Su-57). This issue is especially relevant for the internal, Russian market. So the real question for the RAF is simple: does Russia really need the Su-57 and, if yes, in what numbers?
This is a very complex question, both technically and politically and to even attempt to answer it, a lot of very debatable assumptions have to be made about what kind of threats the RAF will face in the future and what kind of missions it will be given. The biggest problem for the Russians is that they already have an array of extremely successful combat aircraft, especially the Su-35S and the formidable Su-34. Should Russia deploy more of these or should she place huge resources into a new very complex and advanced aircraft? Most Russian analysts would probably agree that Russia needs to be able to deploy some minimal number of real 5th generation combat aircraft, but they would probably disagree on what exactly that minimal number ought to be. The current 4++ generation aircraft are very successful and more than a match for their western counterparts, with the possible exception of the F-22. But how likely is it that Russians and US Americans will really start a shooting war?
Furthermore, the real outcome from a theoretical Su-35S vs F-22 (which so many bloggers love to speculate about) would most likely depend much more on tactics and engagement scenarios than on the actual capabilities of these aircraft. Besides, should the Su-35s and F-22s even be used in anger against each other, a lot would also depend on what else is actually happening around them and where exactly this engagement would take place. Furthermore, to even look at this issue theoretically, we would need to compare not only the actual aircraft but also their weapons. I submit that the outcome of any Su-35S vs F-22 engagement would be impossible to predict (unless you are a flag-waving patriot, in which case you will, of course, be absolutely certain that “your” side will win). If I am correct, then this means that there is no compelling case to be made that Russia needs to deploy Su-57s in large numbers and that the Su-30SM+Su-35S air superiority combo is more than enough to deter the Americans.
[Sidebar: this is a recurrent problem for Russian weapons and weapon systems: being so good that there is little incentive to produce something new. The best example of that is the famous AK-47 Kalashnikov which was modernized a few times, such as the AKM-74, but which has yet to be replaced with a fundamentally new and truly different assault rifle. There are plenty of good candidates out there, but each time one has to wonder if the difference in price is worth the effort. The original Su-27 (introduced in 1985) was such an immense success that it served as a basis for a long series of immensely successful variants including the ones we now see in Syria, the Su-30SM, the Su-35S and even the amazing Su-34 (which still has no equivalent anywhere in the world). Sometimes a weapon, or weapon system, can be even “too successful” and create a problem for future modernization efforts.]
Whatever may be the case, the future of the Su-57 is far from being secured and this might also, in part, explain the decision to send a few of them to Syria: not only to test its avionics suite, but also to score a PR success by raising the visibility and, especially, the symbolical role of the aircraft. Russian officials admitted that the deployment to Syria was scheduled to coincide with the celebration of the “Defender of the Fatherland” day. This kind of move breaks with normal Soviet/Russian procedures and I have to admit that I am most uncomfortable with this development and while I would not go as far as to call it a “farce” (like the article in the National Interest did), it does look like a PR stunt to me. And I wonder: if the Russians are taking such a risk, what is it that drives such a sense of urgency? I don’t believe that anybody in Russia seriously thinks that the US will be deterred, or even be impressed by this, frankly, hasty deployment. So I suspect that this development is linked to the uncertainty of the future of the Su-57 procurement program. Hopefully, the risks will pay-off and the Su-57 will get all the avionics testing it requires and all the funding and export contracts it needs.
Just as I was writing these words, the Russians have announced (see here and here) that the Israeli satellite images were fakes, that the the Su-57 stayed only two days in Syria and that they have been flown back to Russia. Two days? Frankly, I don’t buy it. What this looks like to me is that what looks like a PR stunt has now backfired, including in the Russian social media, and that Russia decided to bring these aircraft back home. Now *that* sounds like a good idea to me.