Key point: Moscow really wants its Su-57 ready for any contingency, but the plane lacks certain key features. In fact, it is still unsure if Russia can begin to produce its vaunted stealth fighter in large numbers.
The Russian air force deployed Su-57 stealth fighters to Syria a second time since first deploying them to the war-torn country in February 2018.
But that doesn’t mean the twin-engine Su-57 is any closer to being ready for mass production, to say nothing of its readiness for full-scale warfare against a high-tech foe.
The Russian military’s chief of the general staff Valery Gerasimov announced the deployment in mid-December 2019, according to TASS.
"The fifth-generation Su-57 aircraft is being tested,” Gerasimov said. “They were re-tested in Syria, during which all the planned tasks were successfully completed."
But it’s unclear what those tasks might have been. The Su-57’s first deployment to Syria apparently did not involve any actual combat. It’s possible the 2019 deployment didn’t, either.
The two T-50s that took part in the 2018 deployment appeared in Syria along with a Russian air force A-50 radar plane, four Su-25 attack planes and four Su-35s fighters. The warplanes arrived in Syria following weeks of intensive airstrikes by Russian planes targeting areas controlled by anti-regime rebels in Idlib and East Ghouta.
U.S. and coalition forces monitoring the air space over Syria reacted with caution. The Su-57s’ presence “certainly raises the level of complexity the crews have to deal with out there,” Air Combat Command Commander Holmes said, according to a tweet from Aviation Week reporter Lara Seligman.
But the coalition also seemed to acknowledge the limited combat potential that just two warplanes represented, regardless of their stealth qualities. “The presence of any new Russian aircraft in the region does not affect coalition operations, nor do we see this as a danger to coalition aircraft,” a coalition spokesperson stated.
In deploying Su-57s, the Kremlin was “outright gambling with precious prototypes and their pilots’ lives,” according to Tom Cooper, an aviation expert and author. The Su-57 was then, and remains, a prototype fighter.
The Russian air force possesses just a dozen or so of the type, which flew for the first time in 2010 but has suffered from a dearth of funding and the collapse of a co-development deal with India.
As of early 2018, the Su-57 possessed “inadequate and incomplete sensors, incomplete fire-control systems and self-protection suites, no operational integrated avionics and ... unreliable engines,” Cooper noted.
The plane had conducted hardly any weapons-separation testing and lacked any other operational weapons beside its 30-millimeter internal cannon. Worse, the aircraft were “flown by pilots who lack any kind of doctrine or tactics for the type and who cannot really depend upon the planes’ avionics and other systems,” according to Cooper.
Shortly following the 2018 deployment, the Kremlin suspended production of the Su-57 after the 28th copy, effectively canceling the program. Russian president Vladimir Putin dramatically revived the program in mid-2019, announcing a plan to buy an additional 48 copies.
The Kremlin ordered its first dozen production-standard Su-57s in August 2018, hoping to form the first regular squadron some time in 2019.
Turkey later expressed interest in buying the type after its insistence on acquiring Russian-made air-defense systems got it kicked out of the American-led F-35 program. Moscow has touted the United Arab Emirates as another potential buyer. These possible sales obviously incentivize Russia to portray the Su-57 as an operational warplane.
But for all the drama of its de facto cancelation then restart and for all the talk of exports, the Su-57 program remains under-funded and under-developed. It’s one thing for Russia to announce an order for 48 more of the fighters. It’s another for the government actually to pay for the planes, and for Sukhoi actually to build them.
It's unclear how much the Su-57's development has cost so far, how much the program would need to complete development and how much each production-standard plane would set back Russian taxpayers. The U.S. military spent more than $60 billion acquiring around 180 F-22s and expects to spend $400 billion buying some 2,300 F-35s.
But the Su-57 undoubtedly is expensive. And time is running out for the Russian air force to integrate the type into its force structure. The "fifth-generation" stealth fighter began development in the early 2000s, but its fortunes are tied to the Kremlin's 2009 defense strategy, which aimed to reverse years of budget cuts and declining military readiness.
In May 2009, Dmitriy Medvedev, then Russia's president, announced a new national security strategy through the year 2020. The strategy praised former, and future, president Putin for leading Russia out of its "political and socio-economic systemic crisis" and anticipated that Russia would "consolidate its influence in the world arena" as a leading political and economic power.
"Unprecedented" new spending backed up the new strategy, according to the 2017 edition of the International Institute for Strategic Studies' "The Military Balance" report. "The proportion of military spending increased when measured against GDP, placing Russia in a small group of nations spending over five percent of GDP on defense."
"After almost two decades of deterioration and neglect of the Russian military, Moscow began developing a more modern military force capable of power projection outside Russia’s borders," the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency reported in 2017.
The spending supported five fighter production lines -- one producing the Su-57, three making variants of the Su-27 including the Su-30, the Su-34 and the Su-35 and a fifth manufacturing versions of the MiG-29. Russian air arms received around 200 new and upgraded aircraft in 2017, another 100 in 2018 and around 130 in 2019. By comparison, the U.S. armed forces ordered more than 400 new aircraft in 2018 alone.
An economic downturn, which shaved nearly four percent off of GDP in 2015, forced Moscow to reconsider its priorities. "In preparing the 2016 budget, there was clear awareness that this level of spending could not be sustained," IISS reported.
A few years of higher spending had a dramatic effect on the Russian air force. "Substantial deliveries of new frontline aircraft, and their intensive use in Syria, have given the Russian air force an entirely new public face in a short period of time," analyst Keir Giles wrote in a 2017 report for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"Optimistic Russian commentators, comparing their airpower specifically with that of the United States, note approximate quantitative parity with the U.S. Air Force," Giles continued.
In fact, the DIA estimated in 2017 that Russian air arms maintained just 1,000 tactical aircraft. At the same time, the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps between them possessed more than 3,000 fighters, including hundreds of F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters.
To support the 2009 strategy, the Kremlin needed to acquire 1,000 new airplanes and helicopters by 2020, the DIA estimated. Deepening budget cuts could force the Russian armed forces to make do with far fewer new aircraft. The same cash-crunch could weigh on plans to buy scores of Su-57s, and bodes poorly for the type’s development into a fully combat-capable warplane.
In light of the difficulties the Su-57 program faces, the purported second Syria deployment likely achieved as much as the 2018 deployment did. Nothing much.