Russia Now Claims It Will Buy 76 Su-57 Advanced Fighter Jets By 2028

The cost estimates raise immediate red flags and, whatever the final price tag, the first of these production jets will remain underpowered.

Dmitry Terekhov/Wikicommons

Less than a year after the Kremlin publicly announced that it would be deferring large-scale production of the Su-57 advanced fighter jet indefinitely, President Vladimir Putin has announced plans to buy 76 of the aircraft through 2028. The purchase order has an estimated value of more than $2.6 billion, which would make it the single largest aviation contract in Russian Air Force history, but is also a questionably low figure. Significant questions also remain as to how capable of the new planes will be, given that the first batches will still use underperforming engines, and whether Russia has the resources to keep everything on schedule at all.

Putin revealed that the large order of Su-57s would be included in the country’s next upcoming armament procurement plan during a meeting on May 15, 2019. The day before, six of the jets, approximately half of the flyable examples of the type that Russia has now, had escorted the Russian President as he flew to visit the Russian Air Force’s 929th Chkalov State Flight-Test Center. The Kremlin does have another dozen of the jets on order and had previously expected to buy just 16 more by 2028.

The Russian President said that a 20 percent reduction in unspecified costs allowed for this significant increase. On May 16, 2019, the Kommersant newspaper in Russia reported, citing an unnamed defense industry source, that this was the result of an unexplained change in the aircraft’s internal layout, as well as improvements to the production process due to lessons learned with the beginning of limited serial production.

In addition, the Russian government has capped the profit margin for defense procurement programs at between three and five percent. Kommersant’s source was quick to note that while this limited the profitability of the contract, the deal would ensure that United Aircraft Corporation’s (UAC) Komsomolsk-on-Amur production line would be working at or near full capacity for the next decade.

UAC is a state-owned enterprise that includes the Sukhoi company. Komsomolsk-on-Amur, situated in Russia’s Far East region, is also responsible for the production of other Sukhoi fighter jets, including the latest model of the popular Flanker family, the Su-35 Flanker-E.

Though Putin has announced the planned purchases, the Kremlin has yet to sign a formal contract. This official agreement could easily come at Russia’s annual MAKS airshow, which is set to run from Aug. 27 to Sept. 1, 2019, at the Zhukovsky International Airport outside Moscow. The full estimated cost, around $2.63 billion, also includes additional associated items, including infrastructure upgrades, to support the new aircraft.

But there are serious questions up front about how realistic this price tag is. If the $2.63 billion cost is accurate and covers the 76 Su-57s and more, this would equate to a unit price of less than $34 million per jet. This is less than the estimated unit cost of the Su-30MKK Flankers Russia sold to China nearly two decades ago. It seems hard to see how any production line improvements or changes to the aircraft's configuration could lead to such a dramatic price reduction and anywhere near that low of unit price overall.

On top of that, Putin seemed to suggest in his comments at the meeting that the cost reductions would make the order for 76 Su-57 no more expensive than the previously planned purchase of just 16 aircraft. It is very difficult to see how it could be possible to buy nearly five times as many planes for the same price with just a 20 percent decrease in costs.

UAC

One of the pre-production Su-57s.

It seems more likely that the $2.63 billion would be for an initial batch of Su-57s as part of the full planned procurement program. It is also possible that Kommersant's source simply had incorrect information about the total cost. 

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitri Peskov, seemingly aware of how improbable Putin's own comments sounded, subsequently said that the President had merely meant that the overall defense budget would not change, but that it could be necessary to reallocate funds to the Su-57 program to pay for the increased purchases. "This is not about a simple mathematical formula, it’s about the fact that, in general, the budget of the Ministry [of defense], the procurement budget will not increase, but some internal redistribution is, of course, possible and permissible," he noted.

But beyond questions about the actual cost of the aircraft, there are is also the matter of the aircraft's actual capabilities. The development of suitable engines for jets has been a particularly persistent issue since the program began in the late 2000s.

Sukhoi originally planned to use an advanced derivative of the Saturn AL-31F engine, found on its Flankers, for the Su-57. The advanced fighter jet would have two of these new AL-41F-1 engines. It has since become apparent that these engines do not meet the performance targets the Kremlin has outlined for the Su-57. Saturn is already working on a new, more powerful design, known as the Izdeliye 30, or “Product 30.”

NPO Saturn

A briefing slide from Saturn and its partners showing the progression of the AL-31/AL-41F design leading to the Product 30 engine at the far right.

The problem is that the Product 30 has run into its own developmental issues, as well as questions about the overall quality control at Saturn, and the company now does not expect to be able to begin mass producing the engine until some time in the 2020s. Kommersant’s source also made it clear that the first batches of Su-57s that the Russian Air Force will receive will still have the AL-41F-1 engines. This can only limit the capability of the initial production Su-57s and could lead to additional costs for Russia down the road in order to refit these aircraft with Product 30 engines.

The video below shows a flight test of a pre-production Su-57 with on AL-41F-1 and one Izdeliye 30.

There are also no specific details available yet about whether or not the changes to the jet’s internal configuration to keep costs down have had an impact on its advertised capabilities. The War Zone has previously examined the Su-57's reported and often misunderstood design features, and the capabilities they offer, in depth.

The Russians already appear to be moving toward pairing the Su-57 with advanced unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAV) in the future, which would help offset some of its existing limitations. A picture of a pre-production Su-57 emerged earlier this year showing markings that suggested the aircraft could be acting as a UCAV surrogate or as a platform for evaluating future manned-unmanned teaming concepts.

Sukhoi itself is actively pursuing the development of advanced unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAV), with pictures appearing online just earlier this year of the S-70 Okhotnik-B UCAV prototype. The Russians may have decided that these future operational concepts also outright obviated the need for certain existing or planned features on the Su-57, at least in the near term.

Russian social media

A picture of the S-70 Okhotnik-B prototype.

On top of all of this remains the ever-present question about whether or not Russia will be able to afford the increased purchases of Su-57s in context of other defense priorities, especially a significant number of new strategic nuclear weapon systems, or at all, no matter what the final configuration or price point is. The official statements from Russian officials in 2018 about deferring production of the advanced fighter jets in favor of the latest models of existing fourth-generation types, such as the Flanker-E, indicated that cost was the driving factor. The Kremlin has similarly decided to curtail production of its new T-14 Armata tank, another high-priced procurement program, and focus instead on major upgrades to its existing fleets.

It’s also worth remembering that even if the all of Su-57 purchases Russia has planned now go ahead, the Russian Air Force will have around 100 examples of the type by the end of the next decade, including the pre-production jets. The Kremlin previously planned to have 150 of these aircraft in service by 2020.

UAC

Another one of Russia's existing pre-production Su-57s.

It is also possible that the Kremlin and UAC are, at least in part, betting heavily on finding new international customers for the Su-57 in the near future. This could help spread out the cost burdens and also support the development of future upgrades, such the Product 30 engines, and new weapons.

Just recently, Russia notably made a very public offer of the jets to Turkey recently as an option for that country should the United States expel it from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program over planned purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system. There are also reports that Russia is courting China as another potential buyer. India had been a partner in the Su-57 program, but reportedly gave up on the project last year, saying the design no longer met their particular requirements. The Indians have developed particularly close ties to the United States in recent years and there have been a series of reports that the country is looking to eventually join the F-35 program.

Putin's announcement of the Kremlin's plans to reinvigorate the Su-57 program and significantly increase the planned purchases of the aircraft for the Russian Air Force is well in line with a broader strategy to promote the sale of the planes abroad. It can only serve as a signal to prospective foreign buyers that the program is successfully managing risks and is finally on its way out of development purgatory.

Between Putin’s announcement and his arrival at the Cahkalov State Flight-Test Center flanked by Su-57s, there is clearly renewed interest in the aircraft and in acquiring more of them within the Kremlin, at least. Whether or not Russia will be able to acquire as many of the jets as it wants or whether they will be as capable as advertised remains to be seen.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com