Recently, the RAND Corporation think tank published the article “Russia’s Su-57 Heavy Fighter Bomber: Is It Really a Fifth-Generation Aircraft?” (“Russian heavy fighter-bomber Su-57: is it really a 5th generation aircraft?”) Its authors considered a promising Russian project and made their own conclusions. The latter are of some interest, but they raise big questions.
By RAND Corp. collected and studied the available information from open sources and offer their views on the current situation around the Su-57. The main conclusion is that due to numerous problems and delays, the new fighter is unlikely to be exported until the middle of this decade.
RAND recalls that the Su-57 has been in development since 2002 and is seen as a key element of defense exports. The first flight of such a machine took place more than 10 years ago, but it has not yet entered service with the Russian or foreign air forces.
Tests are underway, incl. as part of the Syrian operation, but problems in the development stage and last year’s crash are shifting the achievement of initial operational readiness to the right. The full service of the Su-57, according to RAND, will begin no earlier than the mid-twenties. During the same period, exports may start.
The main task in the context of the Su-57 is now the development of the so-called. second stage engine. How soon this process will end is unknown. At the same time, a negative impact on the course of the program as a whole is expected. RAND cites expert estimates that the first series of 76 aircraft will be equipped with engines from the previous model.
According to the developers, the Su-57 fighter gets the ability to track the entire surrounding space using a system of distributed sensors throughout the airframe. By RAND Corp. indicate that the 5th generation fighter should not only be inconspicuous, but also have developed surveillance equipment with all-round visibility. They also remind that now there is only one aircraft in the series that meets these two requirements – the American F-35.
Experienced Su-57 with a second stage engine
RAND believes that the development of modern electronic equipment has been and remains one of the main problems of the Russian aviation industry. In the past, this industry lagged behind foreign competitors, but after 2014 the situation worsened – it was affected by sanctions and the severance of industrial ties with foreign enterprises. The Russian leadership has repeatedly spoken about the need for independent development of electronics, but the results in this area are still modest.
RAND also considered the financial and economic aspects of creating new technology, incl. fighter Su-57. Most of the problems of this kind are associated with the specifics of financing industry and promising projects.
The development of new samples is carried out by large corporations that apply for loans from Russian banks. Promising projects have repeatedly faced difficulties, because of which the developers could not pay off the loan and found themselves in a difficult situation. After that, the Russian authorities had to “save” key enterprises.
RAND points out that defense spending was tightly tied to energy revenues. The events of recent years, when Russia had to compete with Saudi Arabia, have led to a reduction in oil and gas revenues, with understandable consequences for the expenditure side of the budget. Recovery from this period has faced new challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
To stabilize the current situation, the Russian leadership is going to sell new aircraft to foreign countries, as well as to involve them in joint work. The authors remind that since 2007 India has participated in the development of the future Su-57, in the future it was going to put such an aircraft into service. However, in 2018 she left the project due to delays in the development of the second phase engine and disagreements over technology transfer.
Attempts to return to cooperation were unsuccessful. India announced its intention to independently create a 5th generation fighter. The issue of engines is planned to be solved with the help of French, British and American help. However, such events do not interfere with the continuation of cooperation in other areas. Not so long ago, the Indian Air Force purchased the next Su-30MKI and MiG-29 fighters of the previous generation.
The ability to interact with slave UAVs is one of the characteristic features of the new generation of fighters
The search for new partners continues, which can be China, Algeria, Vietnam or Turkey. In December last year, there were reports of the possible delivery of 12 Su-57s to the Algerian Air Force. RAND points out that such news has raised doubts due to difficulties in starting production. It is unlikely that Algeria will be able to receive equipment until 2025. In addition, Algerian legislation requires testing new equipment at local landfills before purchasing. Foreign experts believe that Russia will not agree to this.
Considering the current state of the project, the authors of RAND Corp. doubt that the Su-57 will be able to fully enter the international market before the end of the twenties. It is also noted that upon completion of development, the Russian fighter will combine the qualities of the 5 and 4+ generations, as a result of which it will be similar to both the F-35 and the F-15EX.
The look of foreign experts from a well-known organization on one of the main Russian projects of our time is certainly of interest. However, a note from RAND Corp. raises serious questions.
First of all, it should be noted the incomplete correspondence of the title and the disclosed topics. Compliance of the Su-57 with the requirements for the 5th generation is considered only in passing, while the main topics of publication were the difficulties in development and export prospects. As a result, the question from the title did not receive a direct answer – and it is unclear whether the Su-57 belongs to the latest generation.
At the same time, it is well known and obvious that the Su-57, even in its current configuration with a first stage engine, meets the basic requirements and can rightfully be called a fifth generation fighter. The machine is made inconspicuous, carries a developed complex of electronic systems, incl. all-round visibility, and is also capable of cruising supersonic flight and has other characteristic features.
By focusing on development issues, including the Phase 2 engine, RAND is effectively ignoring the fact that development work has been completed and the aircraft has entered serial production. The first production aircraft, unfortunately, crashed – but new ones will soon follow. All this points to unequivocal progress.
The situation with the expected export contracts is still uncertain, but there are reasons for positive forecasts. In particular, India’s plans to build its own next-generation fighter seem overly optimistic – and in the end, India is likely to still have to buy Russian Su-57s. A number of other countries that want 5th generation equipment actually have no choice and are also potential clients of Russian aircraft manufacturers.
It should be admitted that in the current situation around the Su-57 fighter, not everything is smooth and simple, there are difficulties on some issues, and the need to continue work and improve the finished aircraft remains. However, all problems find their solution, and the project has already been brought to a series. There is every reason for optimism, and the credibility of publications such as Russia’s Su-57 Heavy Fighter Bomber: Is It Really a Fifth-Generation Aircraft? falls.