Key Point: In a close-quarters dogfight between an F-35 and Su-57 with no secondary assets or any other intervening variables, it is difficult to see how the Su-57 could lose.
As Russia's Su-57 stealth fighter moves into serial production in much larger quantities than previously expected, the U.S. expert defense community will be prompted to revisit the consensus view that Russia’s flagship fifth-generation fighter will not be produced in sufficient quantities, and is too far away, to pose a salient threat to.
The full strategic implications of the Su-57 have yet to be unveiled, with earlier reports suggesting that the fighter will be compatible with a variant of the nuclear-capable, 2,000-kilometer range, hypersonic Kh-47M2 Kinzhal missile unveiled by Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2018.
But in light of ongoing Russia-NATO military tensions-- and the looming threat of catastrophic escalation that they entail-- it’s worth exploring how the Su-57 compares with the current fighter lineup of the US Air Force (USAF).
In particular, how would the Su-57 fare against the USAF’s flagship F-35?
It goes without saying that we should hope to never have to find out, given that it’s difficult to imagine any possible context for a dogfight between the two fighters other than the unthinkable scenario of a full-scale war between Russia and NATO.
It should be added that controlled experiments are a scarce luxury in combat; a lone F-35 and Su-57 duking it out in a close-quarters duel makes for a thrilling Tom Clancy novel plotline, but has little to do with how wars are fought in the 21st century. From the potential presence of anti-air systems to the very likely presence of other nearby fighters, the sheer volume of unknown variables makes it exceedingly complicated to model how a dogfight between the two fighters would play out.
Nevertheless, there are some constant factors at play. For one, it’s abundantly clear that the F-35 would immediately try to disengage for the simple reason that it wasn’t designed for air superiority operations; that’s what the F-22 Raptors likely accompanying it are for. As General Mike Hostage, a former USAF chief, put it in 2014: “If I do not keep that F-22 fleet viable, the F-35 fleet frankly will be irrelevant. The F-35 is not built as an air superiority platform. It needs the F-22.”
The F-35 was designed as a strike fighter that penetrates enemy airspace to target vital assets or infrastructure, while doubling as a “quarterback in the sky” that generates a dynamic picture of the battlefield via onboard sensors and feeds it to nearby friendly units.
Meanwhile, the Su-57 is purpose-built for high-intensity air superiority missions, with a specs sheet corresponding to that task. When it comes to raw aerodynamics, there are few categories in which the Su-57 (assuming that it ships with its proprietary Izdeliye 30 engine, and not the weaker Al-41F1 of prototype models) doesn’t handily outperform the F-35. Notably, it flies significantly faster at a top speed of Mach 2 versus the F-35’s Mach 1.6, boasts a more robust short-range air-to-air armament suite, and was designed to prioritize supermaneuverability over cutting-edge stealth features. The F-35 retains a lead in its overall package of stealth capabilities, which it would likely use to evade the Su-57 before the latter comes within engagement range; however, the extent to which the F-35 could leverage its stealth advantage depends on the circumstances of the engagement.
What does all this mean?
In the hypothetical case of a 1-on-1, a close-quarters dogfight between an F-35 and Su-57 with no secondary assets or any other intervening variables, it is difficult to see how the Su-57 could lose. But it’s even more difficult, for the political, technical, and strategic reasons discussed above, to envision a viable scenario for this kind of engagement to unfold.
Mark Episkopos is a frequent contributor to The National Interest and serves as a research assistant at the Center for the National Interest. Mark is also a PhD student in History at American University. This article first appeared earlier this year and is reprinted due to reader interest.
Image: U.S. Air Force / Flickr
Mark Episkopos is a frequent contributor to The National Interest and serves as a research assistant at the Center for the National Interest. Mark is also a PhD student in History at American University.
This article first appeared earlier this year and is reprinted due to reader interest.
Image: U.S. Air Force / Flickr