Russia’s Su-57 fifth-generation fighter, missing in Ukraine – another Putin fiasco?

Much has been said in recent years about fifth-generation fighters, of which the American F-35 and F-22 are today’s leading exponents, and about their Russian opponent, the “powerful” SU-57 (Felon in NATO terminology), a fighter aircraft sold by the Kremlin with great fanfare and which even in the recent film “Top Gun Maverick” inspired so much fear in American pilots. In practice, however, it has hardly been seen in the skies and even less in real missions, beyond a few tests in Syria.

In fact, everyone expected the Russian Air Force to have demonstrated its air superiority from the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine and to have shown its Su-57, among the many other modern aircraft it claims to have, in action. However, so far, little or nothing is known about it.

According to reports in the Kremlin-controlled media, the Su-57 is flying missions against Ukraine, but it is possible that so far it is only firing from outside the range of the Ukrainian anti-aircraft defenses so as not to expose itself to being shot down, so that it would not be so stealthy or so invisible.

The fact is that, militarily speaking, its absence is a great disappointment after Russia had touted time and again the advanced technology of its fighter which, they claimed, could outperform (so far only on paper) the F-22 and F-35 of the United States, the latter having been tested in action numerous times and, in the case of the latter, also in service in other countries.

What would be the main problem? Well, they exist, but there would be less than a dozen in the entire Russian fleet, but they are still in the testing phase and, faced with such a scenario, they prefer not to risk them. The plans for mass production were foreseen for later and, when they wanted to accelerate them in view of the invasion of Ukraine, the lack of Western supplies due to the embargo would have made it impossible to increase the manufacturing speed as Moscow would have wished.

Although the Russian aircraft could theoretically surpass the aforementioned USAF fighters, when it comes down to it, the assembly line is encountering more problems than expected. First of all, it would have been intended that the most advanced version of the Su-57 would incorporate the Izdeliye-30 engines (initially planned for 2025), but it seems that haste has led to problems with the fit and the designers have reverted to the old Saturn AL-41F1.

The Su-57 has had a chequered history, just like the U.S. F-35, whose development was fraught with cost increases and delays. Thus, it has presented equipment failures, faulty engines, delays, cost overruns, one of the prototypes suffered an engine fire in 2014 and another Su-57 crashed in 2019 in eastern Russia, which led to the Sukhoi CEO resigning after the incident, delaying the entire program.

Be that as it may, what is certain is that the Su-57 offers on paper a few innovations accounts, such as the electronic scanning system located on the aircraft’s “cheeks” to give the pilot better situational awareness; an infrared search and track system that helps target missiles and makes it less vulnerable to enemy interference; its ability to “blind” the bogeys of enemy-fired heat-seeking missiles with a “modulated laser beam”.

In this situation, it is normal for Russia to hide them like gold and not expose them to Ukrainian surface-to-air missiles, given that more and more sophisticated weapons are coming to them from the West. A downing of an Su-57 on “enemy” soil would not only be a terrible blow to Russia’s image, but would also expose its technology to the West and its war enterprises. In fact, just this week a Ukrainian missile shot down in the Kharkiv area an Su-34 fighter-bomber, another of Russia’s crown jewels.

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