January 29th 2020 marked the ten year anniversary of the Su-57 next generation air superiority fighter’s first flight. The ambitious combat jet, formerly known as the PAK FA (Perspektivny Aviatsionny Kompleks Frontovoy Aviatsii or 'prospective aeronautical complex of front-line air forces'), before receiving its designation in 2017. The aircraft was the third major attempt by Russia to develop an entirely new next generation fighter concept - following on from the Soviet MiG 1.44 stealth fighter program and the forward swept wing design which would later become known as the Su-47. Neither of these previous designs passed an early prototype stage, although technologies developed for them reportedly assisted development of the Su-57 - with the former also possibly benefitting China’s J-20 next generation fighter program. 

The Su-57 was intended as a successor to the Soviet Su-27 fourth generation air superiority fighter, and while this older jet was designed to outperform the American F-14 and F-15 heavyweight fighters - the most capable Western jets of their time - the Su-57 appears to have been initially intended to outperform the American F-22 Raptor. A number of technologies previously proposed for the Raptor, including an infra red tracking system and cheek, side and rear mounted radars, were integrated onto the Russian design which were among the features meant to provide an advantage over the Raptor. Others included a more modern radar and electronics - with the Raptor’s early 1990s computer architecture notably lagging behind - as well as a higher weapons payload, superior flight performance, three dimensional thrust vectoring engines and access to longer ranged and faster munitions. 

The purpose of the Su-57 appears to have shifted away from its initial goal of being a ‘Raptor killer’ in the decade since it made its first flight. When the new Russian fighter was first announced in the mid 2000s, the F-22 had just begun its production run and it was expected that several hundred would enter service and the design would continue to be modernised for decades - much as its predecessors the F-15 and F-4 had. Due to budget cuts in the U.S. and issues with the Raptor design, including its untenable operational costs and maintenance requirements, the program was cut short and production lines closed in 2009 - less than four years after it entered into service. Closing production lines meant not only that 75% of the 750 Raptors initially planned would never be built - but also that the fleet would increasingly fall into disrepair and upgrades to the design would be limited. The evolution of the Raptor threat to Russia’s ability to contest air superiority would be closely reflected in the evolution of the Su-57 program.

F-22 Raptor Fifth Generation Air Superiority Fighter

Russia would commission a new class of next generation heavyweight air superiority fighter in 2014, the Su-35, which was a cheaper and less ambitious program than the Su-57. The fighter was an extensive enhancement of the original Su-27 design incorporating many revolutionary next generation technologies - including a high composite airframe, a powerful new Irbis-E radar, AL-41 three dimensional thrust vectoring engines and state of the art avionics and electronic warfare systems. These along with a radar cross section reducing profile, a range of next generation missiles and other advanced features made the Su-35 a potential match for the F-22 Raptor - which particularly in terms of manoeuvrability, weapons payload, sortie rate and flight performance was outmatched by the new Russian jet. While the F-22, the only Western heavyweight air superiority fighter developed since the F-15 in the 1970s, had stagnated as a program, the Su-35 had provided Russia with an answer to the remaining threat it posed without the need for a more costly next generation program.

The evolution of the Su-35 and F-22 programs ultimately appears to have led to a repurposing of the Su-57 - not as a ‘Raptor’ killer but instead as something far more ambitious. This repurposing appears to have extended its development time considerably, and saw the fighter increasingly testing sixth generation technologies. From artificial intelligence to laser weapons, hypersonic missiles and anti gravity suits for its pilots, the Su-57 appeared to be being pressed into something above and beyond the technology level of the Raptor - and into a sixth generation fighter. With the U.S. developing three heavyweight sixth generation fighter programs in parallel - two for the Air Force and one for the Navy - and with the F-35 unspecialised lightweight fighter set to integrate sixth generation technologies in its later iterations, this appears to have been the new threat to which the Su-57 was tailored to counter. This has been pursued in parallel to the MiG-41 sixth generation interceptor program.

The Su-57 entered mass production in July 2019, and the Russian Air Force plans to field at least 76 of the aircraft by the mid 2020s. The fighter’s more advanced combat capable prototypes were deployed to for low intensity combat testing to Syria multiple times in 2018 and 2019 - which is suspected to have been an attempt to gain foreign interest and demonstrate that the design is combat ready. Ultimately, with the Su-35 and MiG-31BSM providing an effective answer to current threats, Russia appears to have limited interest in the Su-57 in its fifth generation form - producing the fighters on a far smaller scale than the Su-35 and other new designs despite its relatively low manufacturing cost. A more advanced next generation variant of the fighter, which maybe potentially be branded ‘Su-60’ or ‘Su-65’ if taking the preceding Su-27’s evolution as an example, is what Russia appears to be planning for in the long term - a jet needed to counter upcoming American sixth generation fighters which will be fielded in considerable numbers. In the interim, operating the Su-57 in its current form will provide experience with the airframe, likely leading to further refinements of the design, and will also drive down the costs per unit and demonstrate faith in the design which could lead to interest from export clients. Exports, in turn, could subsidise current production and provide much needed funds for research and development of next generation technologies for the evolving program. Ultimately the Su-57 and its likely future derivatives are set to remain flying and in production for several decades to come, and are will increasingly begin to phase out the Su-27 and its derivatives from frontline service.

Military Watch Magazine