Could the F-35 Stealth Fighter Lose to Russia's Su-57 in a Dogfight?
One of Russia’s most prominent test pilots seems to think so.
Former Soviet test pilot Magomed Tolboyev told Russian reporters earlier this week that Russia’s new Su-57 fighter can “easily” defeat Lockheed Martin’s F-35 fifth generation fighter in a one-on-one engagement: “Su-57 will kill [a F-35] easily, should they meet one on one. The F-35 cannot maneuver, it’s simply incapable. But it does have electronic might.” Tolboyev added that the F-35’s reliance on its electronics suite makes it especially susceptible to jamming. “This is why I oppose everything electronic.”
The two fighters are exceedingly unlikely to face off in a realistic combat scenario, noted Tolboyev: “Today, you no longer fight one on one. Everything depends on your support. There is electronic warfare today. This is no longer a sparring tatami, but a complex approach to tactical issues.”
Tolboyev is a well-known Soviet test pilot who flew numerous fighters including the MiG-23M, MiG-25, MiG-31, Su-24, and Su-27 over the course of a storied career. He became a politician in Russia’s State Duma in the years following the Soviet collapse, also serving in several posts as a Russian security official and military officer. He was presented with the Hero of Russia award—Russia’s highest honorary title—in 1992.
Tolboyev accurately observed that isolated dogfights are idealized relics of a bygone era. Any prospective engagement between F-35’s and Su-57’s will likely occur in the broader battlefield context of intervening missile defense systems, advanced radar installations, and significant numbers of supporting aircraft. Two lone pilots duking it out in an isolated aerial duel makes for a thrilling action movie plot line, but has little to do with the reality of how wars are fought in the twenty-first century.
Still, there is another piece to this equation: everything else being equal, an F-35 pilot would do everything in their power not to engage an enemy Su-57 in the first place. The Su-57 is an advanced aerial superiority fighter, with the specs sheet to match. From its top speed of over 2 mach, to its 3D thrust vectoring and formidable arsenal of air-to-air missiles, the Su-57 is designed to hunt down high-profile air targets. Meanwhile, the F-35 is primarily a strike fighter that penetrates enemy airspace to target vital assets or infrastructure. It also leverages its extensive suite of avionics and sensors to act as a “quarterback in the sky,” generating a dynamic picture of the battlefield and feeding it to nearby friendly units via a capability Lockheed Martin calls “sensor fusion.” In all likelihood, the F-35 caught in this contrived, hypothetical situation would leverage its edge in certain stealth features to attempt to slip away from an approaching Su-57.
A one-on-one dogfight between a Su-57 and an F-35 is, to be sure, exceedingly unlikely—not only because this scenario ignores the realities of modern warfare, but also because it involves the catastrophic and thankfully far-fetched prospect of a major conventional war between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Russia. More fundamentally, it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison that tries to force the F-35 into a role it is not meant to play.
Mark Episkopos is the new national security reporter for the National Interest.