Following the deployment of Russian Su-57 fifth generation fighters to military facilities in Syria in February 2018, the aircraft have reportedly been operating under combat conditions to test their capabilities for the very first time. The Su-57 was designed as a next generation equivalent to the Su-27, and an analogue to the American F-22 Raptor heavy air superiority fighter. With air superiority playing a key role in Russian military doctrine today, and the Russian military fielding the second largest air superiority fleet today, the first being that of China, the importance of the Su-57’s place in the future of the Russian Air Force cannot be overstated.
The Su-57 is set to debut a number of other new weapons systems including the K-77 air to air missile, which makes use of formidable new APAA technology to strike targets at extreme ranges of up to 193km with an unprecedented degree of accuracy, and the Drel fire and forget glide bomb, which can be dropped up to 30km from a designated target. A single cluster of sub munitions from the Drel bomb is reportedly sufficient to destroy an entire missile battery or a tank column. While the Su-57 has yet to deploy these weapons for combat testing, a report from Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu indicates that the new heavy fighter has deployed other types of munitions against Islamist insurgent targets in Syria. The minister stated: "Operational test launches of advanced operational tactical cruise missiles have been conducted from the fifth generation Su-57 fighter in February this year in order to evaluate under battle conditions the stated specifications of the developed military vehicles.”
Another cutting edge air to ground weapons system, which recently made its debut deploying from the Su-57 in Syria, is the Kh-59MK2 fire and forget cruise missile. The platform was in mid May deployed by Russian stealth fighters against Islamist insurgent targets, and this was later confirmed to be the weapons system referred to by Defence Minister Shoigu. The missile's ability to independently target hostiles without constant guidance from a fighter makes them an invaluable asset and allows the Su-57 to more quickly move onto other targets or else better conduct hit and run attacks. The missile's ability to deploy a 320kg penetrating warhead and strike targets at up to 115km away makes them useful against fortified installations such as bunkers. Whether the Su-57 will also deploy the Kh-59MK variant, specialised in targeting ships, remains to be seen - but this remains highly likely particularly if plans for a navalised carrier based variant of the fifth generation fighter materialise.
While the Su-57 is also known to be able to deploy Kh-58 anti radiation missiles for an air to ground role, a new air to ground missile, the Kh-38M, has reportedly been designed to be operated by the Su-57. The missile deploys a large 250kg warhead, and various variants can make use of satellite, infrared, laser and radar guidance systems to strike with high levels of precision. Striking at over twice the speed the sound, they are significantly faster than most Western made cruise missiles. The Kh-38M entered service in 2012 and have already seen their first combat tests when deployed by Russian Su-34 strike fighters in Syria. Further tests by the Su-57 remain a possibility. A tactical cruise missile variant of the Kh-38, known as the Kh-36 Grom, is also set to be deployed by the Russian fifth generation fighter. The Kh-36 is set to be deployed by both the Su-57 and the MiG-35, a light multirole fighter platform also expected to enter service in 2018 in a complementary role to the heavy stealth fighter. Deployment of the Kh-36 by the Su-57 in Syria remains a distinction possibility, and would represent the latest of several new weapons systems tested by the Russian military in the country. The combat theatre provides an invaluable opportunity to examine the effects and improve the performance of these weapons systems.