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Su-57 Contingent in Syria Doubles in Size; How Deployments of Fifth Generation Fighters to Combat Zones Can Facilitate Major Export Successes for the Russian Platform

February 25th - 2018

On February 22nd 2018 the Russian Air Force in a surprising move deployed two Su-57 fifth generation air superiority fighters to Hmeymim Airbase in Syria's Latakia province. As Russia's first ever fifth generation fighter, the platform was expected to enter full service near the end of 2018 and active deployments to a war zone such as Syria came far earlier than anticipated. The deployment came amid growing tensions between Russia and the Western bloc in Syria, and frequent clashes between Syrian and Israeli forces simultaneously. It followed regular flyovers by the U.S. Air Force's own fifth generation air superiority fighters, F-22 Raptors, and several strikes on Syrian forces in their own territory by Western fighter jets. According to Russian lawmaker Vladimir Gutenov the presence of the Su-57s was to send a political message to deter "aircraft from neighboring states which periodically fly into" Syrian airspace uninvited. Whether this was in reference to Western or Israeli platforms was uncertain, but considering Russia's lack of hostilities with Israel and the Israeli Air Force's reliance on far older aircraft relative to the United States, platforms which would pose little threat even to older Russian fighters such as the Su-35 and Su-30, it is likely that the deployment of fifth generation fighters was primarily carried out with the capabilities of the U.S. led Western bloc in mind.

Two days after the first deployment of Su-57 fighters, Russia has doubled the size of its contingent to four fifth generation heavy fighters. This came as an even greater surprise given that the Air Force was not thought to have so many combat ready fighters in service - with the vast majority of fighters displayed having been prototypes rather than combat platforms. The fifth generation fighters were reportedly escorted by two '4+' generation Su-30SM heavy fighters. Syria could prove an ideal staging ground for combat tests, with the fighters able to make use of their advanced NO36 radar systems on surrounding air, ground and naval targets. With Islamist forces fielding and making extensive use of attack drones, small low flying platforms which at times prove difficult to target, the new fighter could also potentially gain experience operating its new air to air missile systems such as the K-77.

With Russia seeking to export its Su-57, likely the first fifth generation air superiority platform to ever be made available for export depending on China's policy regarding exports of their J-20, deploying four fighters to Syria could prove an excellent means to demonstrate their capabilities. With China having proven far more conservative in the exports of its advanced combat aircraft, it is likely that Russia will enjoy a monopoly on the export of fifth generation air superiority fighters - possibly indefinitely. Russian military equipment has notably seen a significant rise in demand, particularly from Middle Eastern clients, as a result of its successful performance in the Syrian conflict. India too, with its FGFA program for a jointly developed fifth generation platform with Russia currently stalling, could well take deployment of the Su-57 to a war zone as a sign of Moscow's faith in the fighter and be more likely to pursue a joint fifth generation program as a result. Sales to Middle Eastern states, Western aligned or otherwise, could meanwhile lead to purchases across the region and something of an arms race. For example should Iran, a longstanding Russian defence partner, acquire even a small contingent of the fighters - Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates would be forced to acquire the very same fighter to maintain technological parity.

Russia's monopoly over fifth generation air superiority fighters, with U.S. unable to supply an equivalent platform due to export bans on the F-22 and cancelled production of the Raptor, could see it supply both sides of a regional arms race and benefit from ludicrous sales. Such a situation would hardly be unprecedented. In the 1990s, as a result of the United States' unwillingness to export its fourth generation air superiority platforms to all but its three closest allies, Russia enjoyed a near monopoly on the export such platforms similar to that it is set to gain in the fifth generation. The Su-27 and its more advanced variants, Russia's fourth generation equivalents of the Su-57, was sought out on both sides of numerous conflicts as they were the only platforms of their kind available for export in the world, and as a result saw service on opposing sides on several occasions. China's acquisition of the platform led India to invest in acquiring more advanced derivatives itself, the Su-30MKI, and China since acquired further more advanced variants itself such as the SU-30 and Su-35. Pakistan too has entered negotiations to acquire the Su-35, and all parties in any potential South Asian conflict today would rely heavily on Russian fighters for air superiority as a result of the country's effective monopoly. Another key example was in East Africa, where both Ethiopia and Eritrea were forced to purchase the Su-27 from Russia to match the other's acquisitions during their war in the 1990s. Despite their small economies, the importance of air superiority and the lack of any alternative suppliers led to acquisition in large numbers. Each state needed the fighter to counter balance the other, and neither could afford not to acquire it. Neighbouring Uganda and Sudan have since acquired the Su-30 and Su-35 respectively, and the East African arms race for air superiority has thus proven highly profitable for Russia as a result of its effective monopoly on exports of such platforms.

The Middle East, with military expenditures orders of magnitude greater than those of East Africa an and an ongoing arms race, could prove a ludicrous market for Russia's Su-57 and see use on both sides of the Gulf, with no party being able to afford not to acquire the platform and each needing to maintain parity with the other. Russian air defence systems, armoured vehicles and even fighter jets have been ordered in large numbers by opposing sides in the Gulf already, with Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Iran all relying on S-300 or S-400 platforms for air defence and Bahrain currently considering a similar acquisition. A platform with capabilities as distinct, as strategically critical and as far ahead of competitors as the Su-57 would have a greater potential to spark an arms race to acquire next generation heavy fighters by all sides - in much the same way as the Su-27 and its derivatives did in East Africa. Indeed, the cancellation of the F-22 program and the United States' export ban has presented Russia's defence industry with an excellent opportunity which deployment of the Su-57 to Syria brings it closer to realising.

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