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Su-57 Over Damascus; Why Russia Deployed its Most Advanced Air Superiority Fighter to Syria

February 22nd - 2018

Reports have emerged alongside footage and photos of the Russian Air Force deploying Su-57 fifth generation air superiority fighters to Syria. The advanced fighter platforms were seen flying alongside Su-35 platforms in Syria's Latakia province near Russia's Khmeimim Airbase. A pair of Su-57s were reportedly deployed alongside four Su-35 air superiority fighters and four Su-25 attack platforms - as well as an A-50U Mainstay AWACS system.

The Su-57 is Russia's first fifth generation platform, and the country's equivalent to the United States Air Force's F-22 Raptor. It allegedly surpasses the F-22 in its combat capabilities, and was designed specifically to outperform the Raptor. This makes the platform likely the most capable air superiority fighter in service anywhere in the world today, though as development is not yet complete current fighters lack several next generation technologies including fifth generation Izdeliye 30 engines and K-77 air to air missiles. The fighter's deployment to Syria comes amid growing tensions with the Western bloc and increasingly frequent allegations from Russia that the West is actively supporting terrorist groups in the country. With the United States frequently deploying F-22 Raptors over the country, a small contingent of which are based in the United Arab Emirates, Russia's deployment of its own fifth generation air superiority platform sends a strong message to the U.S. military. While the ability of the F-22 to contend with Russia's Su-35, an air superiority platform already deployed to Syria which the Raptor has in the past failed to even detect at long ranges, the deployment of the Su-57 further erodes the United States' numerical advantage.

There can be little doubt that the deployment of the Su-57 is aimed more at deterring the Western bloc than it is at combatting Islamist insurgent forces. The role of the platform as an air superiority fighter means it is if anything less suited to an air to ground role than other platforms such as the Su-34 already deployed to Syria. With Islamist forces all but defeated and Russia overall reducing its military presence in Syria, further deployments are primarily prompted by the capabilities of near peer state actors rather than ground based insurgent groups. While Russia has deployed some of its most advanced weapons systems to Syria to protect air superiority over its military faculties there, including its Su-30 and Su-35 fighters and S-400 and S-300VM air defence systems. Despite this Russian forces remain at risk as while they do hold a technological advantage, they are deployed to an overwhelmingly Western aligned region surrounded by Western military facilities and Western aligned states such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan. This puts the relatively small Russian contingent deployed to Syria, fielding approximately 20 air superiority and multirole fighters, at serious risk of being overwhelmed. Deployment of the Su-57, aside from the benefits of combat testing in a war zone, is an effective means of strengthening the qualitative advantage of Russian forces deployed to the country - increasing the risks inherent to openly threatening the Russian military at a time of growing tensions. With Russia fielding less than 15 Su-57 fighters, the majority of which are prototypes unsuited to combat operations, the deployment of even two fighters to the Syrian theatre demonstrated the importance of the conflict to Russian interests and Moscow's resolve to protect both its own forces and those of Damascus.

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