No, Russia's Su-57 Stealth Fighter Program Isn't Dead, At Least Not Yet

Moscow is deferring mass production of the fighter for a number of possible reasons, but it hasn't canceled the program outright. 

Dmitry Terekhov/Wikicommons

Russia has no plans to put its vexing but also often misunderstood Su-57 stealth fighter aircraft into large-scale production at present and will continue to produce only small numbers of planes to fulfill one existing contract. The Kremlin insists it could decide to place bigger orders for the aircraft in the future, but it is unclear when and if the country will have the necessary resources to truly reboot the project and whether the jets will still be relevant by the time it does.

Yuri Borisov, Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister, made the Kremlin's plans for the Su-57 during an interview with the state-owned Russia 24 television network on July 2, 2018. The Kremlin finally placed its first order for low-rate production aircraft, 12 in total, in June 2018, nearly a decade after the program began, but there is no indication that there will be any additional purchases in the near future.

“You know that today the Su-57 is considered to be one of the best aircrafts [sic] produced in the world,” Borisov boasted, despite the reality being much more nuanced, which you can read about in depth here. “Consequently, it does not make sense to speed up work on mass-producing the fifth-generation aircraft.”

His logic is that the Russian military’s most advanced fourth generation fighter jets, such as the MiG-29SMT Fulcrum and Su-35S Flanker-E, are more than capable of fulfilling the country’s air combat needs. When that is no longer the case, the Kremlin would then order the Su-57 into full-scale production.

 Alex Beltyukov via Wikimedia

A Russian Air Force MiG-29SMT

In the meantime, Russia will still take delivery of the dozen jets it has on order, with the first pair of early production examples set to arrive in 2019. These aircraft will, not surprisingly, go to Lipetsk Air Center, home of the 4th Center of Combat Application and Conversion of Frontline Aviation, which runs Russia's analog to the U.S. Navy’s Topgun program. It is likely that at least some of these aircraft will support the continued development of the aircraft and new aerial munitions, as well as work on advanced air combat tactics, techniques, and procedures.

It's not clear how long it will take for the other 10 to reach the Russian Air Force. If production levels stay where they are now, Sukhoi could build two a year through 2024. Between the jet’s first flight in January 2010 and January 2018, Russia has managed to take delivery of less than a dozen flyable pre-production aircraft. The original goal was to have 150 of the stealthy planes in service by 2020.

It is “our trump [card], which we can always play when the aircrafts [sic] of previous generations will start to lag behind in capabilities when compared to similar aircraft from the world’s leading countries,” Borisov continued. Taken by itself, there is something to be said for this argument.

To be sure, stealth fighter programs are expensive and time-consuming affairs. Russia has a host of competing defense spending priorities, including a raft of costly and complex strategic weapons projects. If it doesn’t need to build dozens of Su-57s, then it would seem to make sense not to do so – but that's a truism that one can say about almost anything.

Even setting aside whether Russia can truly afford to delay the large-scale introduction of a fifth-generation fighter in a world where it is only increasingly lagging behind potential opponents who either operate such aircraft already or are moving in that direction, Borisov’s comments did not come in a vacuum. The most immediate issue actually seems to be that the aircraft is not ready for mass production due to long-standing engine problems that might not be solved for years.

The Russians seem to have finally arrived at the conclusion that the Saturn AL-41F turbofan simply isn’t powerful enough for the Su-57. In December 2017, a Su-57 flew for the first time with the more capable Saturn Izdeliye 30.

The video below shows a flight test of a pre-production Su-57 with on AL-41F and one Izdeliye 30.

Saturn says the Izdeliye 30 could be ready for serial production by 2019, but other sources suggest that it might not be able to pass the required state testing regimen before 2020. Mishaps in the past have called the company's overall quality control into question, too. 

There could be a number of other outstanding issues with the design as well and further testing of the pre-production and limited production Su-57s could expose new problems. Developmental issues with sensors and other mission systems, sensor fusion, software, low observable structures, and systems integration have all plagued other stealth programs, including in the United States.

As such, it makes a good amount of financial sense for the Russians to hold off on large-scale production until they can be certain they have resolved any major issues with the design. Otherwise, they could easily run the risk of ending up in a "concurrency" situation whereby they take delivery of dozens of aircraft with limited functional capability pending major and potentially costly upgrades. Considering it is debatable if Russia can afford large numbers of the new jets at all, building them with major defects that need to be rectified certainly isn't an attractive option.

In February 2017, Deputy Defense Minister Borisov himself acknowledged that it was very likely that the Kremlin would only begin allocating the necessary funding for larger scale Su-57 production in the 2018-2025 State Armament Plan. "We are not in a hurry," Borisov said at the time, echoing his more recent comments.

"We are holding an operational evaluation and have purchased limited batches. We’ll see how they will operate in practice," Borisov continued, according to state-run outlet TASS. "We are now revealing all drawbacks and making changes to ensure that we purchase practically proven examples when [the] time comes."

Evgeny Biyatov/Sputnik  via AP

A pair of Su-57s fly over the annual Victory Day parade in Moscow in May 2018.

Still, it’s not entirely clear if the new turbofan will provide the added power and efficiency the jet truly needs, as the AL-41F and the Izdeliye 30 are both derivatives of the AL-31F. The Russians, or any prospective foreign customers, may still demand further improvements to the design in the future, too.

The Kremlin’s only partner on the program so far, India, was apparently not convinced that the Su-57 was moving in the right direction, at least per its own requirements, with regards to both the aircraft's engines and its stealth characteristics. In April 2018, they pulled out of the project, removing a critical source of outside funding and production scalability and throwing the entire effort into uncertainty.

Russia has since made it clear that they are still interested in attracting international customers and potential foreign partners for the program. The Kremlin hopes the Su-57’s low price can undercut sales of other fifth-generation aircraft. The Russians claim the jets cost approximately $45 million each, around half the price of an F-35A Joint Strike Fighter. 

In July 2018, Vladimir Gutenev, a member of Russia’s parliament, or Duma, reiterated that Russia’s Air Force did not have a need for a large number of Su-57s in an interview with the newspaper Interfax. “[It] has a wonderful export potential, many countries would like to buy it,” he added.

This seems optimistic, though, since this price tag would be comparable to existing fourth-generation Russian aircraft. Also, if it’s not ready for serial production for the Russians, it may be hard to pitch it to anyone else, as well. 

Without a fresh influx of cash, it might be hard for the Kremlin to keep the program on its existing schedule, This could create a negative cyclical effect where unit cost skyrockets due to low production numbers. This is often referred to as a fiscal 'death spiral.' This could result in a situation in which Russia can’t afford to make the Su-57 attractive to the foreign buyers it needs to push the program along.

Russia itself has already seen two successive years of significant defense budget cuts, which have led to the cancellation of two nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile projects. At the same time, the country has put other major defense projects, such as new nuclear-powered destroyers and aircraft carriers, on hold. 

If the Su-57 production line only produces a very small number of the jets each year, or goes cold entirely, it could be difficult, if not fiscally impossible to quickly ramp up production in the 2020s. The labor and physical space necessary to increase the turnout might be already in use on other projects. Experience in any specialized production processes necessary for the stealthy design may also wither in the interim and it could take years to establish an adequate supply chain for certain long-lead materials and mission systems.

The Russians are experiencing the same issues already with the Tu-160M2 bomber project, the first of which appears to be a rebuilt airframe that had been sitting in storage for decades. Since the Kremlin first announced that program in 2015, it has pushed back the scheduled start date of serial production of those aircraft from 2021 to 2023. 

Even if the Russians do begin taking larger deliveries of Su-57s in 2027, it’s not clear how relevant the design will necessarily be by the time it reaches a true full operational capability. Russia is reportedly already working on a supposedly sixth-generation design, which could be pilot optional, and plans to begin flight tests of the “Okhotnik,” or hunter, a stealthy unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV), by the end of 2018. The country is also continuing work on the "Skat," or manta ray, another UCAV. 

On top of that, in 2017, Russian officials, including Deputy Defense Minister Borisov, claimed that Russia had at least two new fighter jet programs in the works, one to replace the MiG-31 long-range interceptor and a new carrier fighter. It’s not clear if these will be derivatives of existing fourth generation designs, part of a long-standing plan to develop subvariants of the Su-57, or entirely new and potentially more advanced developments, or if they’ll ever come to fruition at all.

So, even if one accepts Borisov’s arguments at face value, by the time the Russians might be in any position to decide to put the Su-57 into large-scale production, they may well have moved on to more contemporary alternatives. Similarly, the Kremlin could have otherwise decided the design no longer meets the demands of the country’s military, or at least in any significant quantities.

Sukhoi

An infographic showing a number of proposed variants of what was originally known as the PAK-FA stealth fighter, none of which have so far materialized.

All in all, it may look as if the Su-57 program isn't officially dead just yet, but this all may be just be a formality. Russia seems to have little choice but to defer the project until there are sufficient numbers of the new Izdeliye 30 engine and adequate resources to support the program overall. Not to mention solving other potential deficiencies in the design. 

The Su-57s the Russians have and will receive from the present order will almost certainly continue on as valuable research and development tools. They might even represent a viable "silver bullet" type force for major contingencies if the Kremlin adds a small number of additional aircraft to the fleet in the coming years. But This could create its own challenges, since small fleets of aircraft are, by their nature, typically very expensive to operate and sustain. This is even more pronounced when it comes to particularly advanced designs.

But by the time the Kremlin find itself ready to consider additional and larger Su-57s orders, we may well be talking about the state of an entirely different Russian advanced fighter jet or UCAV program.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com