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Eastern Europe and Central Asia , Aircraft and Anti-Aircraft

Russia Claims its Su-57 Has Potential to be Upgraded into One of the World's First Sixth Generation Fighters

November 02nd - 2017

Russia's first fifth generation fighter, the Su-57 air superiority platform, is set to enter service in the country's Air Force in 2018. The fighter has, as with its predecessor the Su-27, been designed to incorporate extensive upgrades and enhancements in future based on the same airframe. According to former head of the Russian Aerospace Force and now now chairman of the Federation Council Defense and Security Committee, Viktor Bondarev, the fighter's ability to incorporate upgrades will allow it to be upgraded to a sixth generation platform in future once the necessary technologies are developed. Bondarev stated: "This is actually a splendid plane and it can embrace both fifth-and sixth-generation features. It has huge modernization potential... Importantly, it is the best among the existing versions by its stealth characteristics. It incorporates all the best that is available in modern aviation science both in Russia and in the world."

Several Russian defence officials have already reported that sixth generation hardware has been tested on the Su-57 prototype. These include navigation and flight systems and next generation electronic warfare and radar systems. While Russia claims that its first sixth generation prototype could see its first flight tests in 2020, the fact that the Su-57 is being designed specifically to incorporate sixth generation upgrades in future will mean that investments in the fifth generation fighter will not soon find themselves outdated. The Su-57 would hardly be the first fighter able to incorporate next generation upgrades to its design to significantly enhance its capabilities. The American designed F-5 second generation light fighter, still widely in service today, remains a viable combat platform in many ways comparable to the early fourth generation F-16, according to many operators, because it was able to easily incorporate upgrades that allow it to compete to some extent even in the 21st century well over 50 years after it first entered service. The case was similar for the MiG-21, which has outlived the third generation MiG-23 it in its usefulness due to its superiority ability to incorporate next generation upgrades. Russia's previous air superiority fighter, the Su-27, has also similarly incorporated numerous next generation upgrades to its airframe culminating in the advanced Su-35 and Su-34 fighters and Su-37 prototype.

As a highly complex advanced program, the Su-57's entry into service will be gradual and measured. According to Bodarek it will take time for the new aircraft to be introduced into service. He noted on November 1st: "In the first year, the Aerospace Force won't get 20 or 15 planes. It will get only two or three and so on." There are expected to be 11 prototypes in service by the end of 2017 - more than the eight prototypes the US built for its own F-22 program.

One key issue faced by Russia's air superiority fighter developers has been the design of the Su-57's engines. Prototypes for the fifth generation platform have so far been equipped with advanced derivatives of the Su-35 4+ generation fighter's Saturn AL-41F1S engines - known as the AL-41F1. While potent, the fighter is set to incorporate its own more advanced fifth generation engine, the Saturn Izdeliye 30, which reportedly will take until 2020 to enter service. The result will be that early batches of the Su-57 will use engines that are significantly less effective than those which are inducted after the induction of the Saturn izdeliye 30. Though it will enter service in 2018, the Su-57 will continue to undergo experimental design work until 2019. When production enters full swing in the 2020s however, it could well be the world's most potent air superiority platform - one likely to remain widely in service at least into the 2050s. Designing the fighter to incorporate sixth generation technologies remains a significant asset to its longevity, and will make it a more attractive platform on export markets.

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