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How Affordable is the Su-57 Stealth Fighter; A Look Into Russian Claims the Aircraft Will be Cheaper than America’s F-35

July 07th - 2018

With the Russian Air Force set to induct a dozen fifth generation Su-57 air superiority fighters in the near future, twin engine stealth platforms analogous in their role to the U.S. F-22 Raptor, the affordability of the fighter program has repeatedly been called into question by a number of analysts. The Raptor remains today by far the most costly fighter ever produced, of which the U.S. Air Force was forced to terminate 75% of its orders, and it was widely predicted by Western analysts that acquiring a similar fighter in considerable numbers would be beyond Russia's capabilities. Early production variants of the Su-57 are being manufactured in relatively small numbers, with the program aiming primarily to develop a sixth generation fighter in the late 2020s to match the U.S. F-X air dominance fighter, and while relatively basic and unsophisticated relative to the aircraft planned for entry into service in the next decade, the early fighters are nevertheless by far the most advanced to enter service outside China or the United States. With the U.S. F-22 Raptor costing well over $200 million per unit to procure, and early production variants of the lighter F-35 fifth generation single engine fighter coming at a similar price, the affordability of a Russian stealth fighter fielding similar technologies has long been speculated.

Russian fighter jets have consistently been developed at a significantly lower prices than their American analogues, a result of a more efficient defence industry and vastly different purchasing power between the two economies. Maintenance costs for Russian jets have also been considerably lower. The fourth generation predecessors of the F-22 and Su-57, the American F-15C and Soviet Su-27, saw the Russian jet cost approximately half as much as its U.S. counterpart to procure despite fielding considerably superior capabilities in combat. Despite this, the immense acquisition and operational costs of a fifth generation air superiority fighter mean that the Su-57 will almost certainly be the most costly fighter ever produced by Russia by a considerable margin - even the relatively basic early production variants. While the Su-35 ‘4++ generation’ fighter costing approximately $50 million to acquire, the early Su-57 variants are estimated to cost approximately $90 million per aircraft - possibly much more.

Regarding the cost of the Su-57, prominent Russian lawmaker Vladimir Gutenev, a member of State Duma's expert panel on the aviation industry, stated "The fifth generation fighter jets are undoubtedly competing with U.S. F-22s and F-35s, but it is considerably cheaper even though it has similar characteristics, while in some aspects, for example, manoeuvrability, it does better than the U.S. jets.” The lawmaker further stated regarding the fighters’ service in Syria: “The time our four Su-57 aircraft spent in Syria definitely allowed us to get additional information on this aircraft's ability to detect [using communications systems] U.S. F-22 and F-35 aircraft which are operating in the same airspace.” This was in reference to the United States’ deployment of Raptors and Israel’s deployment of its F-35I jets over Syrian airspace. Monitoring stealth fighters' transponders has long been a key means for U.S. adversaries to track its most advanced combat aircraft  - an issue recently highlighted by the U.S. military. While these claims are regarding the F-22 highly likely to be true given the historical price competitiveness of Russian fighters, and the strong precedent set by the Su-27 relative to the F-15C, whether the Su-57 will be cheaper than the F-35 remains questionable.

While the F-35 is the most expensive weapons program in world history, costing over $1.6 trillion in total, it is also set to become the cheapest modern Western fighter in service as a result of both its light weight and the massive scale on which it is produced. With over 3000 aircraft planned the burden of research and development costs will be shared between far more units than European jets such as the Eurofighter Typhoon or Gripen E, which though considerably less sophisticated cost far more than the F-35A. Indeed, the cost of an F-35 jet has more than halved, and the price is expected to stabilise and approximately $80 million per fighter - making it extremely cost effective and threatening to squeeze European competitors out of the market entirely. Despite Russian military aviation generally being considerably more efficient than its Western counterparts, the Su-57 is still likely to cost much more than the F-35A to acquire. While the Russian fighter cost considerably less to develop, it is being produced in far smaller numbers, with under 50 expected to enter service in the Russian Air Force by 2025 and planned orders for the 2020s numbering a few hundred at most. Not only does it lack the F-35 program's economies of scale, but the jet was designed not as a single engine light multirole fighter like the American platform - but rather as a twin engine high end air superiority fighter like the F-22. This is strongly reflected in the Su-57’s significantly superior combat capabilities relative to the F-35 - but this superiority and an advanced specialised heavy design come at a cost - even if this cost is just a fraction of that of the F-22.

Ultimately the Su-57 is unlikely to cost less per unit to acquire than the U.S. Air Force’s F-35A. That being said, there may well be something to the claims of the Russian lawmakers that the jet will be less costly. The F-35B, a specialised variant of the U.S. jet with highly complex short takeoff an vertical landing (STOVL) capabilities, costs well over $120 million per unit - and with only a few hundred of the fighters planned this price is not set to fall significantly. The F-35C, a carrier based variant, is also expected to cost well over $110 million per unit even in full production - thus making these two fighters very likely more costly than the Russian Su-57 despite their far lighter weights, lack of combat specialisation and overall inferior combat capabilities. The Russian Lawmaker may also have been comparing the Su-57 cost to the cost of initial production variants of the light American jet, which at over $200 million would make the heavier Russian platform less than half the price. The current price of the F-35A, which has yet to enter full production, at approximately $90 per fighter, is also comparable to the Su-57. The Russian Air Force has also notably prioritised low maintenance requirements on all its new fighters, which combined with the F-35’s own persistent maintenance issues and extreme operational costs are likely to make the Russian jet less costly to operate - again despite its use of twin engines and its heavier weight.

While the acquisition cost of the F-35A is likely to be slightly lower than that of the Su-57, the fact that the twin engine Russian jet’s price is even comparable to that of the American signal engine light fighter, one designed with a light weight and lacking high end combat capabilities of jets like the Raptor to prioritise a low cost, is an achievement in itself. It says a great deal about the efficiency of Russian producers that the Su-57, as Russia’s foremost and most costly modern fighter, is comparable to the lightest and least costly modern Western jet - and combined with its impressive combat capabilities, comparable to those of the elite F-22 Raptor, the Su-57 can be considered a considerably more cost effective jet - one which is likely to enjoy export success in future. 

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