The Russian Air Force is soon set to receive its first fully operational Su-57 fifth generation heavy air superiority fighters, a platform under development for little over a decade which has been widely touted as a Russian analogue to the Chinese J-20 and U.S. F-22 Raptor - otherwise as an attempt by Russia to regain parity in the air under a program initiated shortly after the the American Raptor entered service in 2005. With this widely believed to be the aircraft’s primary purpose, it raised a number of questions when the Russian Air Force placed its initial order for Su-57 jets at just a dozen fighters - a stark contrast to both the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force, which appears to be inducting dozens of J-20 fighters every few months, and the U.S. Air Force which placed an initial order for 183 F-22 Raptors. The cause behind Russia’s small order for the new fighter jet is that its true purpose differs markedly from that of its two foreign analogues - indeed, the Su-57 program from the beginning had drastically different goals to the F-22 Raptor program which will be strongly reflected in its development. The true nature of the Su-57 program and the role it is set to fulfil in Russia’s military modernisation efforts is often misunderstood, but has key implications for the country’s ability to retain parity with its near peer rivals in the coming decades.
It is first critical to understand that at present Russia has no urgent need for the Su-57. The country’s cutting edge air defence network and its heavily upgraded ‘4++’ generation fighter fleet, backed up by advanced electronic warfare technologies which are reportedly heavily relied on to compensate for a lack of stealth, are more than enough to retain sufficient parity with the Western Bloc that they will be cautious about challenging the Russian fleet openly - in Syria, Eastern Europe, the Pacific or elsewhere. The fact of the matter is that the Su-57 is very much a work in progress because the final goals for the program are extremely ambitious - moreso that the Raptor ever was. While the jet is ready for combat, and if put to the field would surpass all other Russian fighters in an air superiority role, the Su-57 fighters will continue to improve rapidly by the year. The Su-57 program is very much a sixth generation air superiority fighter program, one which at early stages can serve as a high end fifth generation aircraft comparable to the American Raptor - as in the case of the 12 initial production production variants ordered by the Air Force, but ultimately the Russian military began the program with a greater end in mind.
The end goal of the Su-57 is to be able to go head to head with the American sixth generation air superiority fighter currently being developed to replace the Raptor under the F/A-XX next generation air dominance fighter - a target which it will likely take at least a decade more to reach. Fifth generation Su-57 fighters will enter service in small numbers the interim, and export orders for a fifth generation heavy fighter may well start to be taken, but it will be some years before the aircraft reaches a sufficient level of sophistication for Russia to begin to induct it in considerable numbers. Further enhancements to electronic warfare capabilities and radar jamming, stealth, next generation engines, the use of hypersonic and energy weapons and the deployment of defensive missile blinding lasers are among the systems which a completed sixth generation variant of the Su-57 is likely to deploy. Russia doesn’t need a massive Su-57 fifth generation fleet to protect itself or maintain parity with the Western Bloc at present, but it will in the not too distant future have considerable need for a sixth generation air superiority fighter capable of matching the upcoming American platform which the U.S. Air Force and its military and civilian leadership appear to be putting a great deal of faith in. Technologies from the Su-57, including AESA radars and K-77 air to air missiles, can meanwhile be integrated onto other fighters such as the MiG-35 to further close the gap between the American fifth generation and Russians ‘4++ generation’ in the interim.
Russia is confident in the capabilities of its ‘4++ generation’ to engage the American fifth generation, a slight disadvantage which comes as a result of the lag in military technological development in the post Cold War years. It is imperative for Russia however that it is not left facing an American sixth generation with its own ‘4++ generation’ or even Raptor equivalent fifth generation fighters. By aiming high and focusing resources on developing the Su-57 into a sixth generation fighter as quickly as possible, Russia can go from a state of near parity with the United States today to full parity once the sixth generation arrives. Indeed, the United States for its part appears to have adopted a similar strategy - in that while calls to restart the F-22 program have been widespread a key pretext for shelving further Raptor production was to concentrate resources onto the fifth generation. Unlike the Su-57, the F-22 is a purely fifth generation fighter and has seen little invested in its modernisation. More F-22’s or fifth generation level Su-57 fighters will not be a game changer for either side, and it appears that both parties understand this. What will be a game changer however is developing the next sixth generation fighter, one which will have a considerable advantage over both the Raptor and the early production Su-57 as it stands today. Russia has therefore, much like the United States sacrificed its fifth generation for the far more important sixth generation. The Russian case however appears far more extreme, not only because it has less need for a fifth generation fighter than the U.S. due to its advanced ‘4++ generation’ technologies, but also due to its more strained finances.
Inducting initial Su-57 variants of the fighter serves to provide manufacturers with further funds, confirm the viability of the jet as a fifth generation fighter for its potential export customers, and familiarise the Russian Air Force with operating the airframe, including training pilots and carrying out maintenance. Serving actively in the Russian Air Force, it remains a symbol of the country’s technological parity with the Western Bloc in the air, even if lacking quantitively, and operational experience with the Air Force can be used to further refine the design as it continues to evolve. Ultimately the Su-57 isn’t a fighter designed to revolutionise Russia’s aerial warfare capabilities at present, but it does serve a number of invaluable roles for which the induction of a dozen jets, at least for now, will be more than sufficient.