Russia appears to have deployed two prototype Sukhoi Su-57 PAK-FA fighters to its Khmemeim airbase in Syria.
While the reports of the stealth fighters arriving in Syria are unconfirmed, it would be highly unusual to deploy a developmental asset into a combat zone before it is ready for war. Indeed, the Russian move—if confirmed—would be the equivalent of deploying the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor into combat during the late 1990s or early 2000s while the jet was still in the engineering manufacturing development (EMD) phase. However, deploying a developmental jet into combat to gather operational experience and data might not be unusual from the Soviet/Russian perspective.
“This is testing in actual war. The Soviets did that,” Vasily Kashin, a senior fellow at the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at Moscow's Higher School of Economics, told The National Interest.
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The main purpose of the deploying the Su-57 to Syria is to gather as much operational experience and performance data as possible on the jet’s avionics. Not only can Russia test the performance of the Su-57’s active electronically scanned array radar and electronic intelligence packages, there is an opportunity to perform some limited combat missions.
“It can carry strike weapons although it is not the main purpose,” Kashin said. “[The Russian Air Force] can also use the radar on actual foreign aircraft. It depends on how the plane designers evaluate the tests.”
While the Su-57 is still in its developmental phases, these particular examples that have been deployed to Syria are likely full-equipped airframes fitted with operationally representative avionics.
“Maybe these are late prototypes and tests were going well,” Kashin suggested.
While some have speculated that there might be a geopolitical aspect to the Su-57 deployment that seems unlikely to Kashin. “I do not think there is a political dimension,” Kashin said.
The most likely reason for the Russian deployment is to refine the Su-57 design for production and to gain as much operational wartime experience as possible. Syria, to a large extent, has been used to prove out new Russian weapons and it is likely no different for the Su-57.
“It will be combat tested from the beginning,” Kashin said. “It will help to adjust serial production.”
While the Russian approach is unorthodox—and not without risk—Moscow might reap benefits by flying the Su-57s over Syria. However, the Kremlin risks giving away an intelligence bonanza to U.S. forces who will be monitoring the Su-57s’ operations closely. Moreover, a new and immature aircraft is prone to technical faults. Thus, the Kremlin’s move is a gamble.
Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.
Image: Creative Commons.