Key point: The Su-57 jet is one of the best but Russia might not buy that many. Between the high cost and American sanctions, can Russia really sell these warplanes abroad?
Less than half a year following the introduction of the Su-57 stealth fighter jet, Russia is stepping up its efforts to sell foreign customers on its flagship fifth-generation multirole aircraft.
Russia’s defense ministry reportedly received its first serial Su-57 unit in December 2020, with four more to follow over the course of 2021. These initial fighter jets will be powered by the stopgap AL-41F1 engine; Su-57’s with the bespoke, more powerful Izdeliye 30 engine will begin to ship in 2022.
This first appeared earlier and is being reposted due to reader interest.
Twenty-two Su-57 fighter jets are expected to be operational by the end of 2024. The Kremlin is aiming for an eventual production target of as many as fifteen Su-57 jets per year. At a rough per-model cost of around $40 million, the Su-57 packs sophisticated avionics, class-leading aerodynamics, and a formidable weapons suite into a relatively affordable package. Still, given Moscow’s ambitious target of seventy-six jets to be purchased before 2028, the Su-57 project will occupy a sizable chunk of Russian defense spending.
The Kremlin is keen to offset as much of these costs as possible through a series of high-profile export contracts. "If we speak about the Su-57E, this aircraft evokes high interest in many countries because it features unique combat properties and flight characteristics,” said Rostec Director for International Cooperation and Regional Policy Viktor Kladov, referring to the export version of the Su-57. “We see that there is the need for next-generation aircraft and there are both a market niche and pre-requisites for the delivery of this plane.”
Moscow has embarked on a Su-57 marketing blitz, consisting of public messaging, high-level talks between politicians, and ongoing behind-the-scenes negotiations. In an approach vaguely reminiscent of the mass-marketing techniques employed by Lockheed Martin to boost the F-35 jet’s public image, Russia’s defense ministry and state-affiliated media regularly publish slick promotional clips showcasing the Su-57 fighter jet. “WednesdayMotivation: The sound of a #Su57 = the sound of freedom and peace,” read one such tweet from the Russian Embassy in the United States, accompanied by a Su-57 promotional video from a TV network owned by Russia’s defense ministry.
Concrete details from ongoing export talks remain tightly under wraps, but India, Turkey, and Algeria are among the importers that have previously expressed interest in the Su-57 jet. A Su-57E model was displayed in February at the thirteenth edition of Aero India, a biennial air show and exhibition held in Bengaluru, India. New Delhi withdrew in 2018 from the joint Russian-Indian Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) program to manufacture a fighter based on the Su-57, but Russia’s defense industry has repeatedly tried to bring India back on board as a Su-57E customer. As the geopolitical rift between Ankara and NATO widens, Moscow hopes to follow up on the success of its controversial S-400 sale by supplying either the Su-57 or Su-35 fighter to Turkey. During the MAKS 2019 Airshow, Russian president Vladimir Putin treated Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to an ice cream cone while the two discussed prospective fighter import contracts. Notably, Erdoğan asked in front of a stationary Su-57 if Turkey was buying the Russian fighter jet. Little has been confirmed, but Algeria is reportedly in an advanced stage of talks to procure at least one dozen Su-57 units—according to unverified reports, that acquisition may already have taken place in late 2020.
Russian officials maintain that market interest in the Su-57 will expand once the fighter enters widespread service in Russia’s Armed Forces. “It is unlikely that there will be a significant demand until we ship enough machines in our own army,” Rostec aviation complex’s Industrial Director Anatoly Serdyukov told Russian state news. “Meanwhile, we offer this machine to the foreigners, we conduct our advertisement campaign.”
Mark Episkopos is a national security reporter for the National Interest. This first appeared earlier and is being reposted due to reader interest.