With the Russian Air Force having expressed considerable confidence in the ability of its advanced fourth generation fighter and interceptor fleets and multi layered air defence network, making use of platform dubbed ”˜4+ generation’ such as the MiG-35, Su-30 and Su-35 air superiority fighters, to retain parity with and protect it interests against the Western Bloc, the military has decided to delay the entry of the Su-57 next generation air superiority fighter into mass production. While Russia as of yet has little need for a fifth generation air superiority fighter, development is continuing apace to develop the Su-57 into a sixth generation air superiority fighter in little over a decade to contend with upcoming U.S. platforms currently being developed under the F-X Air Dominance Program - against which exiting Russian assets would be insufficient to retain parity. As a result, the Su-57 will enter service only in very limited numbers as a fifth generation fighter until the late 2020s or early 2030s - and mass production will begin only when the airframe achieves sixth generation capabilities which are considered sufficiently superior to those of exiting ”˜4++ generation’ fighters.
While Russia’s Air Force has little need for a fifth generation fighter at present, the country’s naval aviation is in a far poorer state and has considerably greater need for a new aircraft. The Russian Navy is currently planning to induct four new amphibious assault ships, two of which are set to displace approximately 40,000 tons fully loaded, and these new warships are likely to deploy specialised combat aircraft with short takeoff vertical landing (STOVL) or vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) capabilities. Variants of the Yak-141, a highly sophisticated Soviet VTOL fighter which reached a late prototype stage at the time of the Soviet Union's dissolution, modernised with next generation technologies, remain a likely option. With Russia currently planning to induct large carrier warships, possibly supercarriers based on the SHTORM concept, the country’s navy could have much need for conventional fixed wing fighters in the near future. Unlike the Air Force the Russian Navy’s prime air superiority fighter, the Su-33, has seen relatively little modernisation since its entry into service in the 1990s and lacks the capabilities to contend with leading rival platforms such as the Chinese J-15 or U.S. F-18E Block 3. With the Su-33 poorly suited to deploying from the country’s sole serving carrier the Admiral Kuznetsov, a role for which the heavy fighter was never intended, and with the jets set to be retired in the near future, Russia’s ability to contest air superiority at sea against near peer adversaries using carrier based fighters will be further undermined.
While a future Russian supercarrier may deploy enhanced Flanker jets based on the Su-33 design, but integrating advanced technologies since developed for the Su-35 and MiG-35 and making use of the warship’s electromagnetic propulsion system to function more effectively, the country’s defence planners appear to be inclined towards a fifth generation air superiority fighter. Indeed, considering that a carrier based Su-57 will remain viable for longer than a Flanker variant and has more room to incorporate future upgrades, this could well be a more cost effective investment rather than acquiring enhanced Su-33 jets and replacing them a few years later. Fielding considerably superior combat capabilities, inducting the Su-57 could allow the Russian Navy to commission a smaller contingent of the fighters should it choose the Su-57 - and this could in turn facilitate a lighter but more efficient carrier. Russia may move to induct a new carrier in the 2020s which, considering the testing currently being carried out for new systems such as electromagnetic catapults and the country’s renewed military focus on the strategically critical Pacific theatre, where carriers are a particularly prized asset, remains a considerable possibility. With plans for a new carrier in mind, United Aircraft Corporation chief designer Sergey Korotkov noted that the defence aerospace manufacturer was ready to begin development of a carrier variant of the Su-57 - emphasising the importance both of an electromagnetic launch system and of tailoring the fighter to operate effectively making full use of such systems. Use of such a catapult system combined with the fighter’s long range, cutting edge next generation avionics, air superiority airframe and advanced standoff capabilities - from the K-77 and R-37M air to air missiles to the Kh-38M and Kh-36 air to ground missiles - makes for a combination which will surpass all carrier based competitors by a significant margin.
Ultimately Russia’s Navy may have urgent need for a new carrier based air superiority fighter should it induct a new full sized warship - whereas the Russian Air Force will likely not need the Su-57 in significantly numbers for well over a decade to come. The result is that, should the carrier program go ahead, a carrier based variant of the Su-57, likely named Su-57K, Su-63, or some similar derivative mark, could well enter mass production well before the conventional ground based variant does. While the Su-35, and other advanced Flanker variants, are set to remain the mainstay of the Russian Air Force’s fighter fleet for some year to come, the Navy could see a fifth generation Su-57 enter service as its prime fighter at a much earlier date.