As the Kremlin continues its search for prospective Su-57 customers, one of Russia’s largest and most important defense partners—China—looms on the horizon. Nevertheless, the prospect of a Su-57 export deal between Moscow and Beijing remains exceedingly scant.
Russian defense officials have spent the past several years devising ways to pitch Russia’s fifth-generation Su-57 air superiority fighter to China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). Rostec executive Viktor Kladov floated the idea at the LIMA-2019 Aerospace and Maritime exhibition: “China has recently taken delivery of 24 Su-35 aircraft, and in the next two years [China] will make a decision to either procure additional Su-35s, build the Su-35 within China, or to buy a fifth-generation fighter aircraft. This could be another opportunity for the Su-57E,” he said. The Su-57E is the rumored export version of the Su-57, unveiled in 2019.
Russia’s aerospace industry is looking to follow up on the success of its high-profile Su-35 export contract with China. A prospective Su-57 deal appears to be one of the most profitable, both financially and geopolitically, ways of doing so. But it’s also likely not in the cards.
Simply put, there is little indication that the PLAAF is interested in operating a Su-57 squadron. While they generally respect its raw aerodynamic prowess, it appears that China’s defense community does not see the Su-57 as a “true” fifth-generation fighter. As Chinamil, the Chinese military’s English-language news site, put it, “The Su-57, Russia’s fifth-generation fighter jet comparable to China’s J-20 and the US’ F-22, is usually considered not a true fifth-generation jet because of its ‘below-standard’ stealth capability, according to media reports. This makes it at a significant disadvantage against Chinese and U.S. counterparts, some military observers said.” The PLAAF is instead more in line with the U.S. approach to fifth-generation fighter technology, as embodied in the Lockheed Martin F-35’s commitment to stealth performance, sensor fusion, and deep penetration capabilities. China’s own fifth-generation fighter—the J-20—is much closer to that vision than to the Russian focus on air superiority capabilities.
Then there is the logistical question. China’s aircraft industry appears to be interested in moving away from its earlier reliance on foreign aircraft and even certain foreign components. A military insider recently told the South China Morning Post that the PLAAF has ruled out the possibility of purchasing more Su-35s, as they consider that Russian fighter to be similar, if not possibly inferior, to their own J-16 strike fighter. Earlier this month, China’s state media celebrated that the J-20—which previously used Russia’s AL-31F engine, but has now turned to the domestic WS-10C—is “no longer reliant on Russian engines.” It does not seem that there is currently an appetite in Beijing for a large procurement of cutting-edge foreign fighters.
To the extent that the Chinese are interested in buying the Su-57, it would likely be in a small batch and exclusively for training and R&D purposes. Chinese engineers may very well be interested in reverse-engineering some of the Su-57’s technologies. If nothing else, a deep-dive into the Su-57’s design could generate useful technical knowledge for China’s ongoing or future aircraft projects.
Mark Episkopos is the new national security reporter for the National Interest. Image: Reuters.