Let’s Talk About The Rumors That Russia’s Su-57 Is Participating In The War In Ukraine

After previous combat trials in Syria, a new report suggests the Su-57 Felon has been operating over Ukraine.

byThomas NewdickMay 20, 2022 1:24 PM
Su-57 fighter Russia Ukraine
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A report in the Russian media states that the new-generation Su-57 Felon fighter has been employed in combat in the Kremlin’s ongoing war in Ukraine, a conflict that’s now in its 86th day. While the Su-57 program has suffered its fair share of problems, and the aircraft is still not in full operational service, the Felon has previously undertaken at least a limited combat evaluation in Syria, and further exposure to a real-world conflict would not be entirely surprising.

“The use of Su-57 aircraft in Ukraine began two to three weeks after the start of the special operation,” an unnamed "defense industry source" told the state-run TASS news agency. “The aircraft operate outside the zone of active destruction by enemy air defense systems, using missile weapons,” they added.

A pre-production Sukhoi Su-57 Felon new-generation fighter jet. Vladislav06112019/Wikimedia Commons

TASS states that it has “no official information on this matter” and the claim should certainly be taken as very much unconfirmed at this point. With the fighters reportedly operating outside of Ukrainian air defenses, we’re much less likely to see imagery that would confirm their involvement there. We also have no details as to where these Su-57s might have been operating from, when they supposedly started flying missions as part of the conflict, or if they are still reputedly involved in the fighting.

In March, at least one unverified video did emerge online that some suggested showed a Su-57 flying over Ukraine. However, the quality of this footage is too poor to make a firm judgment and others suggested that the video actually showed a Su-24 Fencer swing-wing strike jet, with its wings swept back, or perhaps even a Sukhoi Flanker variant.

The fact that the claim states that the Felons have been flying outside the range of Ukrainian air defenses is itself interesting. It points to the very real threat that ground-based air defenses pose to Russian aircraft, as well as the Russians’ continued inability to gain more than localized air superiority against the Ukrainian Air Force.

On the other hand, these tactics would also fit in with what we do know about the activities of Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) counter-air fighters during the war so far. Accounts from the Ukrainian Air Force indicate that not only are the Russian fighters generally unwilling to engage in aerial combat unless they enjoy significant numerical superiority, but also that they frequently operate close to the border, if not actually outside Ukrainian airspace.

Any loss of aircraft to Ukrainian defenses will be keenly felt by the VKS, which has already been hit hard in the war, as well as being a significant propaganda win for the Ukrainian side. With that in mind, Russia may be especially hesitant to commit Su-57s to Ukrainian airspace, where a potential loss would not only provide Ukraine with a huge PR gain but also again bring into question the supposed stealth characteristics of the Felon. Even losing a Su-57 over Ukraine to a technical malfunction or mechanical issue would be particularly embarrassing.

For the Su-57, providing it was employed in the air-to-air role, operating outside of Ukraine’s borders would not necessarily be a big impediment, however. Even the basic R-77-1 (AA-12 Adder) air-to-air missile, also carried by Su-35S Flanker fighters in the Ukraine war, has a reported range of 68 miles. The improved K-77M, which is known to at least be under test on the Su-57, is thought to have around double the range of the R-77.

A formation of Su-57s, with the second aircraft apparently armed with new variants of the R-77 missile. RUSSIAN MINISTRY OF DEFENSE SCREENCAP

Then there is the very long-range izdeliye 810 missile, a development of the R-37M (AA-13 Axehead) that features modifications for internal carriage in the Su-57’s weapons bay. The status of the izdeliye 810 is unclear, but it’s possible that the missile is at least being tested about the Felon. According to data from the manufacturer, the basic R-37M, at least in its RVV-BD export form, can defeat “some types” of aerial targets at a range of up to 124 miles.

A Su-35S launching an R-37M missile. RUSSIAN MINISTRY OF DEFENSE SCREENCAP

It’s also possible that the Su-57 has been used for air-to-ground missions over Ukraine, which would allow the VKS to conduct combat trials of some of the new munitions that have been developed for the Felon. These include the Kh-69 (also known as the Kh-59MK2) cruise missile, intended to destroy small, hardened targets at distances of over 180 miles.

There is also the Kh-58UShK anti-radiation missile that’s also scaled to fit inside the Su-57’s internal bay and the ‘modular’ Kh-38M air-to-ground missile that can be fitted with alternative semi-active laser, imaging infrared, or active-radar seekers. Any of these weapons, and more, could have potential applications in the Ukraine war, including striking targets after launch from outside Ukraine’s borders.

With repeated reports suggesting that the Russians are running low on precision weapons of any kind, including air-to-ground missiles, there is also a possibility that the Su-57 is now being employed from standoff ranges, using its own bespoke munitions, simply because stockpiles of useful munitions are otherwise becoming exhausted.

Ultimately, however, the Su-57 was designed as an air superiority fighter and, currently, it’s the highest-end fighter of its type in VKS service. That would suggest the Felon is actually the ideal candidate for taking the air war to Ukraine, taking out fighters and Soviet-era air defense systems — flying in its intended role. Faced by technologically inferior fighter opposition, the Su-57 should be able to get into the heart of the Ukrainian air defense bubble and wreak havoc. Why apparently very different tactics are being used is unclear.

As well as providing an opportunity to further test the capabilities of the Su-57 and its new weapons and sensors in a real-world combat environment, trials of the Felon in Ukraine could be intended to help boost the fighter’s fortunes both on the export market and in the bid to win local orders. Most notably, a previous plan to co-produce a Su-57 derivative with India collapsed amid concerns over the project’s progress and the aircraft’s capabilities.

A Su-57 prototype suffers a compressor stall at the MAKS airshow in August 2011. The development of the so-called second stage engine for the Su-57 has experienced significant delays. Author Rulexip/Wikimedia Commons

Exposing the Su-57 to combat in Ukraine would, of course, only help boost the fighter’s reputation if it were to be made public, and that’s still a possibility. After all, it was only after initial reports that the Felon had been deployed to Syria for combat trials that the Russian Ministry of Defense confirmed that fact and provided more details. 

So far, the Kremlin has ordered just 76 series-production Su-57s and, so far, only four examples have actually been handed over, the two latest examples in February this year. These jets are assigned to the 929th State Flight Test Center and are based at Akhtubinsk, where they are involved in the state acceptance trials. At the same base are also examples of the pre-production aircraft and prototypes, collectively known by the T-50 designation.

The Su-57’s previous combat evaluation came in 2018 during Russia’s campaign in Syria. Here, new Russian aircraft and other military equipment has appeared on occasions, normally only for brief periods, for testing in combat conditions and to help their export prospects. You can read our original assessment of that episode here.

Official Russian Ministry of Defense video showing Su-57 combat trials in Syria in 2018:

The two Felons that were briefly deployed to Khmeimim Air Base in Syria were later prototypes, T-50-9 and T-50-11, and the Russian Ministry of Defense said that performed “more than ten flights” there. Official video released subsequently suggests that the Su-57s released at least one example of the new Kh-59MK2 tactical air-to-ground missile.

There is also the chance that the Su-57 is being committed to the conflict in Ukraine at this point in response to higher than expected attrition of older platforms and to try and bolster their flagging position. It may not be a coincidence that, of late, we have been seeing more high-end equipment used by the Russians in Ukraine, including T-90M tanks and the purported deployment of a new anti-drone laser weapon.

For the time being, we still don’t have any confirmation that Su-57s have actually been involved in combat operations in Ukraine. What we can say is that, based on the previous appearance of the type in Syria, it wouldn’t be completely implausible for these fighters to have been involved in some capacity and we will continue to follow this story carefully and report on any further developments.

Contact the author: thomas@thedrive.com

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