Few contemporary aircraft have invited the avalanche of controversy sustained by Russia’s Sukhoi Su-57 over the past decade. But despite being repeatedly declared a dead project, the first serial Su-57 units are here—and they bring a host of advanced capabilities that can credibly threaten North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) assets.
Here are five of the Su-57’s top features.
Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) designed the Su-57 as a class-leading air superiority platform; by all early indications, the UAC succeeded in spades. The Su-57 can more than give Lockheed Martin’s F-35 a run for its money in pure aerodynamics, boasting a speed of up to 2 Mach without the use of afterburners and subsonic range of up to 3,500 km. It trades stealth performance for thrust-vectoring, granting a level of supermaneuverability that translates into excellent performance in dogfighting scenarios. As previously noted by The National Interest, the Su-57 isn’t so much a dedicated stealth fighter as it is an anti-stealth fighter—a purpose-built machine that leverages its raw speed, maneuverability, and weapon acquisition tools to detect, engage, and neutralize high priority aerial targets with brutal efficiency.
The Su-57 primarily carries a potent arsenal of air-to-air missiles. An advanced evolution of Russia’s early 2000’s medium-range R-77, the K-77M beyond visual range (BVR) radar-guided missiles bring an active electronically-scanned array radar seeker and an impressive engagement range of just over 150 km. The short-range slot is capably filled by two K-74M2 infrared guided missiles. The Su-57 will reportedly support Russia’s upcoming R-37M long-range hypersonic missiles. Despite being intended largely for air-to-air missions, the Su-57 also boasts limited ground strike capability with the Kh-38 tactical ground missile as well as a range of guided bombs from the KAB family. Lastly, the Su-57 may also carry a version of Russia’s nuclear-capable, hypersonic Kh-47M2 Kinzhal missile.
The Kremlin has made major strides in recent years to drive down the Su-57’s cost, making it easier to mass-produce and allowing Russia’s defense sector to export it at a more competitive price. At a rough projected per-model cost of just $40 million, the Su-57 is markedly more advanced but seemingly no more expensive (at least, not significantly so) than its highly capable Su-35 predecessor.
The Su-57 threatens high-value air targets, among other things, with the IMA BK integrated avionics package that tracks enemy units and proposes the most effective engagement options to the pilot. The fighter boasts a well-implemented avionics suite, including side-mounted electronically scanned array (AESA) radars for added situational awareness and “beaming” countermeasures. In keeping with its anti-stealth mission, the Su-57 offers the 101KS Infrared Search and Track system to facilitate detecting and engaging stealthy aircraft at long ranges.
In the summer of 2019, Russia’s Defense Ministry released a video depicting Sukhoi’s upcoming Okhotnik-B drone flying alongside a Su-57. It is highly likely that the drone is being developed as a kind of “loyal wingman” for the Su-57, augmenting the fighter’s performance with datalink and reconnaissance support. Okhotnik also appears to have some limited offensive capabilities, potentially allowing it to strike in places deemed too high-risk for its accompanying Su-57. It has yet to be revealed how exactly the drone is controlled, and to what extent it can operate autonomously.
Mark Episkopos is a national security reporter for the National Interest.