Sukhoi Su-57 is one of two fighters under development in Russia. Each of these fighters was developed with different specialties in mind but share a collective focus on a few specific design elements that have come to define their generation of aircraft.
Here are eight reasons Su-57 is doomed:
1. The engine
The plane is bigger and heavier than the Flanker variants. It borrowed its engines from Su-35 while engines more appropriate to it were under development. This means they tend to overheat when pushed to the power levels necessary to operate the plane within its design parameters. This has already had a significant impact on marketability. When the Russians were trying to interest India into a co-development contract, one of the prototypes burned up on the runway. It was just one of the factors that caused the Indians to back out, but it was definitely a factor. It turns out developing an engine that runs reliably at the power levels needed and has a chance of maintaining stealth without throwing heat signatures out there that modern IRST units can pick up quickly is not an easy thing to do.
The Chinese, who either use Russian engines or model those they develop after the Russian designs, have the same problem for their J-20 and J-31 aircraft. Current estimates are that Chinese and Russian engine development will likely succeed for next-gen fighters somewhere between 2028 and 2030, though this is admittedly speculation. And, of course, by that time, the planes themselves will be on the verge of being obsolete, with sixth-generation fighters starting to appear in America and Europe. So, the Russians have, for the most part, decided to develop the Su-57 as a test-bed aircraft until Russian engineers learn and develop the necessary skills to build a next-gen fighter jet while they work on the engines.
2. Stealth technology
A German engineer developed the stealth concept, to begin with, during WWII; Russian knew about stealth technology but essentially dismissed it while U.S. engineers ran with it for decades before developing the F-117 Nighthawk.
The Russians essentially figured it wouldn’t be as easy as it needed to be to develop a whole fighter-engagement philosophy around and would likely be effectively countered in relatively short order. So compared to the U.S., Russian couldn’t figure out how an aircraft’s radome and verticle stabilizer can be V-shaped. It turns out there are many things about effective stealth technology that requires the plane to be designed essentially from the ground up to incorporate, and effectively developing the technology takes years.
Rather than the use of steel and titanium airframe and wings, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman took decades to develop baked-meshed composites manufacturing technology to build airframes and wings, which is by design evade radar.
Consequently, the Radar Cross Section (RCS) on both the Chinese and Russian fighters are hundreds of times larger at distance than either the F-35 or F-22. There aren’t any simple modifications to their planes that they can make to overcome the built-in limitations.
3. Software suite
The F-35 uses an entirely different approach to aerial engagement from what the Russian and Chinese do. It can network with other planes, ground-based assets and naval warships to coordinate attacks against opponent aircraft and ground assets long before the enemy even understands it is about to be destroyed.
This is not something that can be developed quickly. It requires hardened very-high tech computers and millions of lines of code developed for the specific hardware.
Russian philosophy is not currently leaning in this direction anyway. They prefer to develop powerful, exceedingly manoeuvrable planes to give them a tactical advantage in BCM (Basic Combat Manoeuvring or dogfighting).
Estimates are the Russians are somewhere between twenty and thirty years behind in stealth capability. Because of the long-term cost (and the general lack of need to develop those kinds of systems for a plane that will not ultimately be deployed and be capitalized through exports), they are not committing the resources in this area that would be required to overtake the West.
Russian and Chinese are busy making surface-to-air missiles that are aimed at aircraft at a distance close to home base, but the U.S. and European allies have already developed air defense busting technology neutralizing Russian capabilities with extremely powerful radar jamming techniques and stand-off weapons, reducing Russian missile accuracy at a range where their air defense systems will not produce an advantage. In the end, the Su-57 and J-20 will have no greater capability in this area than any of the much cheaper Flankers they deploy.
4. The Russian economy
While the cost of building a Su-57 in Russia is considerably lower than building an F-35 is in the U.S., it is still a major stumbling block for the Russians being as high as it is. The Russians had to consider how useful the plane would be incorporated into their overall military philosophy.
And given the task of the overall modernization of Russian military forces, Putin is engaged in, and money had to be diverted to other things such as the S-500 and Zircon hypersonic weapons that would be seen as having a greater long-term value in terms of export opportunities.
The Russian doctrine has two major air arms in their Air Force. One is for home defense, the other is for projecting power. The home defense forces are made up of ground defense forces and interceptors. And the interceptors are aircraft specifically suited to that need, such as MiG-25 and MiG-31. They have limited flight times (and, by today’s standards, limited manoeuvrability) but operate at extremely high speeds, have phased array radars, and pack long-range weapons packages. They are primarily tasked with air-to-air missions aimed at AEW&C, ISR aircraft and are designed to intercept incoming attack aircraft and incoming bombers with high radar cross-sections.
The second major branch of the Russian Air Force is designed for -projecting military power outside of Russia. This would include bombers, ground-attack aircraft, and air-superiority fighters, and the pilots of these planes generally have much greater autonomy in approaching engagements.
Russia has a limited number of foreign military bases and aerial refuelling capacity. The Su-57 falls into the general classification of WVR dogfight fighters. The problem is that the Russians already have a bunch or very capable dogfight fighters in their Flanker series (SU-30SM, SU-34, SU-35), many of which also have some ground-attack capabilities that cost significantly less than the Su-57. Russia has to balance their capital outlay against what they project to be the need to project power when considering buying Su-57s. As it happens, they initially ordered 76 of the aircraft.
5. The Radar
It’s the same reason the Su-35 has a minimal BVR capability on its main radar; the Irbis-E doesn’t provide mid-course guidance for missiles while the aircraft is flying away. The Irbis-E does not have SAR capability, nor it has a great wide field of regard.
The downside of the phased array Irbis-E is that these arrays’ range and power output is less than the AESA radar. However, the effective engagement range of BVR missiles is far shorter than the range of the primary radars of either aircraft, so this is a trade-off for the Su-35 and Su-57 would close roughly head-on with their targets before launching any missiles.
When Russia brag about AESA technology, you know they are lying; look at their fighter aircraft none of them has AESA, including Su-75 and Su-57.
6. Aerospace technology
This ties into funding, of course, but it’s not something you can just throw your money at, and it will resolve itself, like the flaws with J-20 and its engine problem. China spent $24 billion to develop an engine but still couldn’t produce a reliable and powerful enough engine that could make the J-20 manoeuvrable.
Russia has been lagging in material science since, well, forever. Material science is the science of creating new materials, which has the curious property of being hard to steal. You can have samples of the material in your lab, and it won’t allow you to recreate the material all that easily; you need hundreds of researchers toiling in laboratories for years on end to come up with something significantly better but here, significantly better might mean slightly better heat resistance.
When American engineers were looking for a new type of fuel for the rocket engine that could power ballistic missiles and launch from a submarine, they burn almost all metals to figure out the correct type of metal used in submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Due to reliability, ease of storage and handling, solid rockets are used on rockets and ICBMs such as UGM-133 Trident II. The solid components bound by the fuel binder are HMX, aluminium, and ammonium perchlorate. You cannot buy innovation and gain the technology overnight unless you have skilled scientists, chemists and physicists working in cohesion to develop new technology.
These small marginal gains build up over the decades until you end up with materials that are vastly superior to what the enemy has. U.S. has been investing in material science for decades and has been able to produce an F-119 engine in 1990; almost 30 years later, Russia still doesn’t have a counterpart. You need money for this, yes, but born in Soviet-era, Russia would easily afford the science. Russia may have spent that kind of money from the earning of the Nord-stream gas pipeline.
It lacks expertise because it didn’t invest enough for long enough and consequently lags badly. The upside for them here is that materials eventually reach a plateau, and they’ll catch up in the next century or two.
Probably. Here’s another problem, those who speak of their mind and wants to develop something new and challenge status-cue get harassed by Putin’s thugs or, worse, get killed by Novichok poison.
On the contrary to Russia, China took a shortcut to steal technology from any country they wanted, whether it is Bhutan’s pesticide and fertilizer-free agriculture technique to the American F-35.
7. The doctrine
It would be incorrect to call the Russian military doctrine obsolete; it’s more like “are you serious?”. Look at what they’re investing in:
The Pantsir system features an autocannon and is intended to shoot down incoming enemy munitions. The problem is its Soviet-era unidirectional radar doesn’t detect incoming fighters or UAVs.
And finally, the Su-57, like another semi-modern vector thrusting, enabling super manoeuvrability.
It’s a superb thing that lets the airplane change the direction of the nose almost instantly. Once you fire off all your missiles, if the enemy just misses you, you’re able to change direction and have a shot at him from the back for a split second. The airplane also carries missiles that can flip over after launch and target the aircraft behind you, giving you a chance to survive the ambush.
The thrust vectoring will only save you if you can escape Meteor BVRAAM and AIM-120 AMRAAM. Did anyone escape AIM-120 AMRAAM to date? The answer is no!
The Russian R-77 missile gives you nothing but a false hope that it will reach the enemy aircraft. I was hoping you wouldn’t believe me; ask the Indian Air Force pilots who failed in Kashmir skirmish with Pakistani F-16 armed with AIM-120 AMRAAM.
R-77 is a mockery of a weapon for sure, but it brings something to the table. You call it a missile.
Pantsir, on the other hand, is an atrocious defeatist weapon. It conceded in Syria and Libya badly; it would be best described as a waste of resources.
This brings us to the vaunted vector-thrusting of Russian jets. They’re great at airshows, but they’re just short of useless in actual air combat: using vector thrusting to change the direction of flight also bleeds off most of your airspeed, making it a sitting duck for anyone else that might be around.
Air combat is no longer a one-on-one fight; it’s now many-to-many fights, usually more. It’s not bad to have if you know how to use it and know the limitations, but you consider it your main advantage and expect to die young.
The F-22 Raptor is best at destroying enemy aircraft as early as possible before it can take off from the ground so that it never has to fight within visual range (WVR) combat; that’s called stealth technology, advanced radar, sensor fusion and stand-off weapons. The F-22 will go deep inside enemy territory and get the job done.
U.S. and NATO have long since realized this and have sought greater networking, the ability to look first and shot first, to take the enemy out before he has the chance to respond. That’s why F-35 is a strike fighter; the idea is that it should take the enemy fighters on airstrips and in hangars, not shoot them down.
They invest heavily in having well-trained pilots and a well-equipped logistical system to keep it all operational. The American doctrine does not give the enemy a chance to fair fight; Russian doctrine offers the enemy a good fight where you might have an edge and then hope for the best.
8. Syrian experiment
There was a recent incident where the Syrian ground defense shot down a Russian AWACS. Putin was very upset about it, not because the Syrians were incompetent in their targeting, but because they were trying to shoot down Israeli aircraft, effectively using the Russian plane for cover and concealment. Putin initially blamed the Israelis and threatened retaliation. He quickly backed off that position, however, because the Israelis essentially said, “Bring it. We’re ready.” And there’s simply no way Russia could master sufficient air power to pose a legitimate threat to the Israeli Air Force.
Putin would have been difficult to concentrate more than 40 Flankers operationally in the area and keep them operational when their engines have to be replaced about twice as often as any Western fourth-gen fighter. They have to be shipped back to Russia for servicing).
Meanwhile, the Israelis are already flying F-35I, and a major component of their air-superiority forces is made up of F-16s and F-15I, each great enough to defeat the Flankers. And the Israelis are right there and have full support capabilities at the ready. The F-35I would have slaughtered them. If Had the Russians had taken on the Israeli Air Force, they would have suffered a humiliating 100 percent loss rate while killing no Israeli Air Force aircraft at all. Therefore, with superior aircraft and full support (ground, radar, AWACS, maintenance, etc.), the IAF is a vastly superior force to anything the Russians could project against them short of a nuclear missile strike.
In the end, the Russians are great at developing various weapons prototypes. Still, Russia’s economy is about $1.483 trillion annual GDP LESS than the state of Texas ($1.887 trillion) keeps them from actual deployment and further development of many of the weapons they develop.
Many of their aircraft production facilities produce older generations of aircraft for export because they are cheaper and can sell them, keeping the factories open. In fact, a couple of years ago, plants originally designated to produce Su-57 components were re-converted to making Su-30 and MiG-29s for export because they couldn’t afford to buy the numbers of Su-57s that would have kept the plants open in making Su-57 components.
Why would the West bring their best F-35 fighters to fight J-20 and Su-57? The Su-57 and J-20 could be a kind of threat to Western forces that can be taken care of EA-18 Growler, F-15EX, Super Hornet, Eurofighter Tranche 5, Rafale F4 or Gripen E.
It would have had to start off significantly better than it did in terms of stealth and engine development, and the Russians would have needed to deploy several hundred of Su-57. Because even after deployment, such aircraft typically takes ten to twenty years or so to get all the bugs worked out and all systems operating efficiently under all conditions.
To Russian, It’s a beautiful plane and cheerleader at MAKS airshow in Moscow, manoeuvrable with good weapons systems. Still, underpowered for its needs and in such limited production, it will never be a threat to Europe.
By the time, Su-57 and J-20 are ready for prime time; the Western air forces will deploy sixth-generation NGAD, FCAS, F-3 and Tempest fighters.
In other words, the comparison of Russian, Chinese vs the U.S. approach to war looks a little bit like this:
It doesn’t matter how great a swordsman you are if the enemy brings gatling guns to the battle. You’re doomed!
To use the above analogy into fighter aircraft, it also doesn’t matter how super maneuverable your fighters are if the enemy destroys them on the airstrips or from beyond visible range. Then the war was over before it started!
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