The Russian effort to create and mass produce a fifth-generation stealth fighter continues to encounter obstacles and delays. In mid-2019, Russia officially placed an order for 76 production model Su-57s. Russia already had 16 Su-57s on order, but the official reason for the larger order was that the manufacturer cut the price 20 percent contingent on a larger order. Then the situation gets more complicated. In December 2019, another Su-57 prototype crashed during a test flight. In the aftermath of the accident investigation, the government initially insisted the 76 aircraft order was going to proceed. Then came the news that there was interest in making a major change in the Su-57 to reduce maintenance costs. This would involve replacing hydraulic systems with electromechanical ones. A test aircraft is being modified in this respect but won’t be ready for testing until 2022. It would make sense to delay the production of the 76 Su-57s until it was determined if the electromechanical version worked as expected. After all, money is a major consideration when it comes to the Su-57 and maintenance costs are a major part of that. Russia is broke and that condition continues to get worse because of low oil prices, covid19 economic disruptions and continued economic sanctions on Russia for its continued aggression against Ukraine and lesser mischief elsewhere.
Despite all the technical and financial problems, Russia is still intent on having a fifth-generation fighter, in part because the first ones in service, the American F-22 and F-35 are performing so well. Russia tries to downplay the American success but that is difficult when Israeli F-35s, the first once to undertake combat missions, are doing so on a regular basis. There are reports of Israeli F-35s quietly evading Russian air defense and EW (Electronic Warfare) systems in Syria. Iran also calls the F-35 a fraud while internally the Iranian government is very upset about reports, from Iranian sources, of Israeli F-35 missions over Iran. Worse, hundreds of foreign pilots of export F-35s are praising the capabilities of the latest stealth fighter. The F-22 was never exported and the F-35 is a more advanced stealth warplane. American, and the few foreign, pilots who have experience in both the F-22 and F-35 point out that while the more expensive F-22 might have a bit more stealth than the F-35, the more recent stealth fighter has a lot more new features that no other fighters can match. That’s what bothers the Russians and Chinese most.
China is having problems with its own J-20 stealth fighter but agrees the F-35 is a success and that the Su-57 is at best a good fourth-generation fighter. That criticism stings because it is valid. Russia has still not completed implementing all the planned stealth features of the Su-57. Then there are the powerful engines the Su-57 was designed to use. These new engines have been constantly delayed. For the moment the Su-57 is, in terms of actual capabilities, a fourth-generation warplane.
China also points out that the best new Russian fighter, the Su-35 is indeed excellent even if only fourth-generation. Introduced in 2014, about 150 are in service or on order. China bought some Su-35s, the better to closely study them for possible reverse-engineering and production of an improved Chinese version. China sees nothing worth copying in the Su-57 and admits its own J-20 stealth fighter is having problems but that China is making better progress fixing those problems than the Russians are doing with the Su-57.
Despite all this Russia remains determined to get the Su-57 into service, even if only in small numbers like the very expensive F-22. A dozen new Su-57s are supposed to be delivered in 2020 but that is now in doubt.
The first production Su-57 was supposed to arrive in 2019 but that won’t happen because the specified engine, the Saturn Izdeliye 30, was (and is) still in development. The current delivery date of that engine, which will enable the Su-57 to perform as specified, is not expected until 2030 or so. Production models of the Su-57 are arriving with the less powerful AL-41F1 engine, although an upgrade for this engine is in the works. The 76 aircraft order specifies deliveries ending in 2028. The way Russian military procurement has worked since the 1990s is that orders for new items are always aspirational, as in what Russia would like to buy, rather than based on a realistic expectation of delivery. This is especially true with the troubled Su-57.
All nations have problems meeting delivery dates for weapons that incorporate a lot of new technologies. Along with that comes problems keeping the costs of developing these new technologies under control. Russia has set new standards for aspirational production orders. In short, post-1990s Russia rarely meets these aspirational goals. Compared to other nations, Russian delivery dates always tend to be very optimistic, which is why the term “aspirational” is used.
When it comes to fifth-generation fighters Russia is very much in third place behind the United States and China. There is an element of the aspirational even with that third-place status. The U.S. and China already have fifth-generation aircraft in service. Well at least the Americans do and the Chinese J-20 is a lot more operational than the Su-57. One reason for all the contrived optimism over the Su-57 becoming operational is that Russia needs export customers. That has been difficult because the Su-57 as described on the spec sheet won’t be available until the mid-2020s at the earliest. The spec sheet Su-57 is a stealthy, single-seat, twin-engine multirole fifth-generation fighter aircraft developed for air superiority and attack operations. This is the first Russian aircraft in military service to use stealth technology. The Su-57 also has supercruise (going supersonic without the afterburner) capability and advanced avionics capable of dealing with older warplane electronics as well as ground and naval air defense systems.
Russia developed the Su-57 as a successor to its Cold War era MiG-29 and Su-27/30 fighters. But the Su-57 is so expensive, and the Russian Air Force budget so small (and shrinking), that Russia cannot afford many of these stealth fighters. Moreover, it is essential to obtain export sales to make mass production possible at all, not to mention profitable. The recent Russian claim that the manufacturer cut the price 20 percent is also aspirational because a growing number of Russian defense firms are sliding towards bankruptcy. Orders for new equipment have been scaled back since 2014 because of a contracting economy. Russia likes to describe its economic growth as stalled but the reality is that entire categories of proposed (before 2014) new weapons purchases are being slowly eliminated. Efforts to hide all this, especially the continued decline of the Russian ability to develop and manufacture new weapons, has become less successful as the missed production and “in service” goals increase.
The Su-57 is a prime example of how a system of constantly shifting goals and missed deadlines works. The Su-57 began development in 2002 and the first of ten flyable prototypes flew in 2010. Four non-flying prototypes were also built for ground tests and such. From the beginning, there were problems perfecting the high-performance engines. For example, the first two flight prototypes had to use a less capable variant of the AL-31 engine that was already used by the Su-27 aircraft. The other flyable prototypes used a more powerful AL-41F1S engine, which was also used in the Su-35, the most advanced (so far) Su-27 variant. Flight testing soon made it clear that even the AL-41F1 was not powerful enough for the spec sheet Su-57. This meant that the Izdeliye 30 variant of the Al-F41, originally designed for the Su-57, had to be perfected before the Su-57 could enter production as an export aircraft. The Izdeliye 30 possessed increased thrust and fuel efficiency as well as 3D thrust vectoring nozzles. At the end of 2017, the tenth flight prototype was equipped with Izdeliye 30 engines and demonstrated its superior performance, including supercruise. However, the Izdeliye 30 was still not reliable enough for sustained use, so mass production of this essential Su-57 engine was delayed. Russia proposed shipping production models of the Su-57 with an Al-F41 variant that enables the aircraft to get the most out of its stealth and high-performance electronics but without the promised supercruise and thrust vectoring maneuverability features. Potential customers, including the Russian Air Force, were not interested in purchasing a “developmental aircraft” because that’s what the Su-57 was without the fully functional Izdeliye 30 engines.
India, which agreed in 2010 to invest $6 billion for development and production of the Su-57, pulled out of that deal in 2018 because of the many missed deadlines and attempts by Russia to hide the degree to which Su-57 development was aspirational. Russia was providing aspirational data when India was demanding realistic updates on where Su-57 development was. India originally planned on purchasing 214 slightly modified (for Indian use) Su-57s. That is now gone and Russia is unlikely to get it back because too much of existing Su-57 progress is still more aspirational than reality.
Development got off to a bad start as Russia encountered unexpected (or just unwanted) technical complications that, by 2012, caused India to reduce its planned purchase to 144 fighters. Development problems persisted, as did the unreliability of progress reports and in early 2018 India pulled out of the Su-57 project. India noted the Su-57 was way behind in completing the development of the stealth technology as well as the advanced electronics. Russia disagreed but without Indian development money and initial aircraft purchases proceeding as planned, the Su-57 faced cancellation. Instead, Russia came up with a plan to continue development but with significantly reduced performance goals. To demonstrate the feasibility of this approach in February 2018 two Su-57 prototypes were sent to Syria to demonstrate the existing capabilities of the aircraft as it performed various types of missions during a major air support operation for ground forces clearing rebels from a Damascus suburb. This lasted until April and the Su-57s successfully completed an operational testing program that included combat trials. The capabilities of multiple Su-57 weapon systems were tested during ten flights. The most significant test was when a Su-57 fired a Kh-59MK2 cruise missile against an Islamic terrorist target. Russia concluded that, although the intent and purpose of the Su-57 program had changed since development began, the aircraft represented a significant advance in Russian military aircraft performance and was a worthy competitor to American and Chinese stealth designs, but only if the Su-57 got its specified engine and stealth capabilities.
The reality was that the Su-57s sent to Syria were mainly carrying out promotional stunts. Those two aircraft had little of the promised “fifth-generation” capabilities and the Americans and Israelis were able to monitor the Su-57 performance closely and in great detail. That confirmed the Indian complaints, their belief that the Su-57 development was still in trouble the prognosis was grim.
Russia now justifies the expensive Su-57 because it could serve up to 35 years and be used in smaller quantities as a special mission aircraft. That means the Su-57 would only be used for specific missions that require the unique capabilities of the aircraft. This would include developing an anti-ship missile that would not compromise Su-57 stealth qualities. The Su-57 could also be used for SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses). Earlier in 2019, the Russian Air Force placed an order for 15 Su-57s to be used for developing weapons and tactics for these especial missions. The order was rolled into the later one because 76 is more impressive than 61.
All this is basically in support of attracting export customers for the Su-57. The Su-57 has to pay its own way because most of the Russian aircraft procurement budget is needed to purchase Su-34 and Su-35 aircraft to replace the Cold War era Su-27 and MiG-29 aircraft that are too old and worn out to be useful any longer. The Russian Air Force is receiving fewer and fewer new aircraft each year.
Unlike India, China was never seen as a major export customer for Su-57 aircraft but Su-57 tech is another matter because the Chinese fifth-generation stealth fighter, the J-20A, is experiencing developmental delays. The reason is more technical problems than expected. This has delayed J20 entry into service. A key technical challenge is that the J-20A lacks a locally developed high-performance engine and, like the Su-57, continues to rely on older Russian engine models that are almost powerful enough but also reliable enough for sustained service. China developed its military jet engine industry with Russian help and is encountering some of the same performance and reliability problems the Russians still endures. By continuing to buy Russian high-performance engines China can monitor Russian progress in overcoming development and production problems that have been a major problem for stealth and high-performance military aircraft in general. This is not unusual and has been the trend when you view how each “generation” of new warplanes was developed and performed.
Getting from generation to generation of combat aircraft has become a lot more expensive with the last two generations. The “generation” reference is mainly about the emergence of jet fighters and much other new tech during and after World War II. The first generation was developed during and right after World War II (German Me-262, British Meteor, U.S. F-80, and Russian MiG-15). Actually, the first jet-powered aircraft (a German He 178) flew in August 1939. The first jet aircraft were, even by the standards of the time, difficult to fly and unreliable. especially the engines. The 2nd generation (1950s) included more reliable but still dangerous to operate aircraft like the F-104 and MiG-21. The 3rd generation (1960s) included F-4s and MiG-23s. The 4th generation (1970s) included F-16s and MiG-29s.
Each generation has been about twice as expensive (on average, in constant dollars) as the previous one. But each generation is also about twice as safe to fly and somewhat cheaper to operate. Naturally, each generation is more than twice as effective as the previous one. Increasingly it looks like the 6th generation may well be pilotless aircraft. That’s because producing fifth-generation fighters has proved difficult as well as very expensive. So far only the United States has managed to get 5th gen fighters (F-22 and F-35) into service. The Russians are still trying as are the Chinese, though one of the latter's stealth fighter designs (J-20) is technically in service, J-20 production has been suspended after less than a dozen were produced.
The Russians have said they will keep working on their 5th generation Su-57, although some of the derivatives of their Su-27 are at least generation 4.5. One of the reasons the Soviet Union collapsed was the realization that they were unable to develop 5th generation warplanes to stay competitive with America. The Russians had a lot of interesting stuff on the drawing board and in development but the bankruptcy of most of their military aviation industry during the 1990s left them scrambling to put it back together. At the moment the Russians are thinking of making a run for the 6th generation warplanes, which will likely be unmanned and largely robotic. As of now, they don’t have many options and those options are gradually fading into the “not likely” zone as Russian military and financial resources continue to diminish.