Warplanes: Red Phoenix Is Trying


May 8, 2019: Russian development of  fifth-generation fighter aircraft has not gone well. Russia is in third place behind the United States and China. Both of these nations already have fifth generation aircraft in service. Russia recently received its first production model Su-57 aircraft and is now seeking export customers. The 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. The Russians developed the Su-57 to succeed 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 that Russia cannot afford many of these stealth fighters. Moreover, it is essential to obtain export sales to make mass production possible at all.

Before the production model entered service, 14 prototypes were built. Four were used for static and integration testing rather than flight with a further ten for flight testing. There were problems perfecting the high-performance engines so the first two flight prototypes substituted less capable variant of the AL-31 engine used by the Su-27 aircraft. The other eight flyable prototypes used a more powerful AL-41F1S engine, which was also used in the most modern Su-27 variant, the Su-35. Flight testing made it clear that even the AL-41F1 was not powerful enough for the 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 without fuel-guzzling afterburners. However, the Izdeliye 30 was still not reliable enough for sustained use, so mass production Su-57 engine with the intended engine won’t start until 2019 or later. Until then production models of the Su-57 will be shipped 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.

Development of the Su-57 got as far as it has because India agreed in 2010 to jointly develop and then purchase production models. The original deal was based on the initial Su-57 design and each country investing $6 billion over 8-10 years to achieve a production model. India planned on purchasing 214 slightly modified (for Indian use) Su-57s.

Development got off to a bad start as it encountered unexpected technical complications that, by 2012, caused India to reduce its planned purchase to 144 fighters. Development problems persisted and in early 2018 India pulled out of the Su-57 project. India noted the Su-57 was way behind in completing 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 four 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.

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. To demonstrate its confidence in this new plan the Russian Air Force recently placed an order for 15 aircraft. In addition, Russia is actively seeking export customers for the Su-57. Russia needs these export sales to keep Su-57 development and production going. The Su-57 has to pay its own way because most of the aircraft 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. Russia has had to cut defense spending more than 25 percent since 2014 because of low oil prices, sanctions and an economic recession. This has meant less money for aircraft development and production. Export orders, in general, are essential to keep the Russian aviation industry going. The Russian Air Force received around 200 new and upgraded aircraft in 2017 and 100 more aircraft in 2018 and is having a difficult time avoiding further reductions during and after 2019.

Russia is apparently planning to offer China an export model of the Su-57 (Su-57E) which will be presented as a logical next step to the 24 Su-35 aircraft China recently received and is apparently pleased with. The Su-57E is expected to be unveiled at the Dubai Air Show in November 2019. Within the next two years, China will make a decision to either procure additional Su-35s, build the Su-35 in China, or buy the Su-57E. China is certainly interested in the Su-57 as its first fifth-generation stealth fighter, the J-20A, experienced development issues and reportedly has encountered numerous technical problems that have delayed 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 encounter. 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.

Meanwhile, Russia will produce the Su-57 aircraft in limited quantities as a fifth-generation multirole stealth fighter aircraft capable of attacking well defended ground targets as well as high-performance combat aircraft. Compared to its predecessors, the Su-57 combines the use of stealth composite materials and innovative technologies while leveraging the fighter’s aerodynamic configuration to provide a low level of radar and infrared signature. The production of the reduced (from original goals) capability Su-57 still represents a significant achievement as it does provide Russia with a next generation of combat aircraft that surpasses the late Cold War era MiG-29 and Su-27 designs. While not as capable as the latest Western models, the Russian warplanes proved capable enough to be a real threat, especially when flown by experienced pilots. Where Russia still lags badly is in developing stealth fighters that are much easier to fly, like the F-35. This American stealth aircraft is revolutionary because its integrated sensors and highly adaptive flight control software create striking new capabilities. While Russia is not catching up, it is still a competitor– Ryan Schinault




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