Here's What You Need to Know: On paper, the Su-57 has some serious issues that need to be addressed first, before looking into pilotless flight. It would be much more logical to improve the Su-57’s stealth characteristics, and especially necessary to address the platform’s engine shortcomings before trying to get the bird airborne without a pilot.
Domestically, Russia touts its Su-57 stealth fighter as a highly capable platform—and on paper it is. It carries a respectable weapon load, is decently maneuverable, and also has some stealth characteristics. It also has several glaring problems.
As I previously wrote, one of the crucial issues with the Su-57 platform is the jet’s engines. Though the Su-57 is a dual-engine airframe, its engines are not new. They’re the same engines used in the Su-35S—one of the airframes that the Su-57 was designed to replace!
The engines that were originally designed for use with the Su-57 have experienced some significant teething issues. The turbofan currently being used lacks the output to sufficiently power the Su-57, and the stealth fighter consequently has more limited flight characteristics.
Though the Su-57 is talked about as a stealth fighter, it does not have all the characteristics of a stealth jet. One of the problems is again, the engines. The F-22 Raptor, perhaps the world’s premier stealth jet, has flat thrust-vectoring jet nozzles that are buried in the jet’s frame, and help cool exhaust to minimize the F-22’s heat signature. In comparison, the Su-57 has fairly conventional jet engines that protrude quite a bit from the rear of the airframe. It is unlikely that they are stealthier than other conventional jet engines and so may significantly compromise the Su-57’s stealth characteristics.
The Su-57 platform made its combat debut with the Russian Armed Forces in 2018 in Syria. Russian officials lauded the Su-57’s service. It may have been more of a public relations stunt than anything else—the Su-57 isn’t terribly needed in Syria due to a lack of surface-to-air missiles and deconfliction zones that minimize the potential for combat between Russia and the United States.
For Russia to build a viable stealth jet on par with the American F-22 or F-35, they would need to invest a huge amount of R&D rubles that they just don’t have, thanks in large part to the crazy low price of oil. The money just isn’t there. That’s why a recent announcement that the Su-57 might fly without a pilot is not really that big of a deal.
If reports are to be believed, that Russian pilots simply sit in the cockpit and monitor the jet’s systems rather than flying the plane—the question “why?” still arises. On paper, the Su-57 has some serious issues that need to be addressed first, before looking into pilotless flight. It would be much more logical to improve the Su-57’s stealth characteristics, and especially necessary to address the platform’s engine shortcomings before trying to get the bird airborne without a pilot.
Caleb Larson holds a Master of Public Policy degree from the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy. He lives in Berlin and writes on U.S. and Russian foreign and defense policy, German politics, and culture.
This article first appeared in May 2020.