Combat Debut Of Su-57: Will Russia Risk Using Its Stealth Jets Against Ukraine As Su-34s Get Decimated?

The Ukrainian Air Force announced on March 4 that a Su-34 Fullback fighter bomber had been shot down. With that, more than a dozen Fullback bomber jets are alleged to have been brought down by Ukraine in just over two weeks. 

As the Ukrainian strike continues unabated, several military observers have pointed out that Russia must rethink its battlefield tactics. While the Kremlin has not confirmed the number of Su-34s it has lost recently, it is believed to be ‘extraordinary’ even by conservative standards.

The Su-34 is considered to be Russia’s best fighter bomber. It fires long-range missiles and smart bombs on designated Ukrainian targets. However, the aircraft has struggled to escape Western air defense systems, such as the Patriots.

As Russia continues to lose its combat aircraft over Ukraine, observers have questioned the absence of the fifth-generation Su-57 aircraft, which is reportedly stealthy and can evade air defense radars.

Moscow claims that its Su-57 is the most sophisticated combat jet in its inventory but is yet to deploy it amid Patriot ‘havoc.’

This becomes even more intriguing given that the Russian Air Force has sought to — but struggled — achieve air superiority over Ukraine. Military experts keenly following the Ukraine war have noted that Russia could have deployed its stealth aircraft capable of skirting radars and evading hostile air defenses to launch strikes and gain (at least) localized air superiority.

Russia has deployed the Su-57 stealth aircraft in the so-called ‘special military operation’ zone, albeit sparingly, to conduct crucial combat patrols. According to reports, the aircraft has also launched stand-off attacks using long-range missiles from Russian airspace where Ukrainian surface-to-air missiles cannot reach them.

In an August interview, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu stated that the “aircraft has shown itself brilliantly.” However, the aircraft was never dispatched to fly a mission over Ukraine. No verified sightings of Su-57 aircraft over Ukraine have been reported so far.

In an earlier intelligence update, the UK Ministry of Defense (MoD) said, “Russia is highly likely prioritizing avoiding the reputational damage, reduced export prospects, and the compromise of sensitive technology which would come from any loss.” This assertion has been widely endorsed by military watchers and war experts globally.

The Su-57, characterized as a fifth-generation multirole fighter with twin engines, is portrayed by Russia as a powerful counterpart to the Lockheed Martin F-35, a fighter jet widely used by the United States and its allies throughout Europe and Asia.

Su-57: Missing From Action

Moscow projects the Su-57 as a stealth aircraft designed to detect and eliminate air, surface, and ground targets using guided and unguided weapons. It can also serve as a command post to coordinate “network-oriented actions of mixed groups of aircraft.”

It can be equipped with Kh-59MK2 cruise missiles, which are meant to strike ground targets, and R-77M air-to-air missiles, which are meant to take out long-range aerial targets. As Russian state-owned conglomerate Rostec disclosed late last year, the most modern second-stage engine, the Izdeliye 30, was installed specially on the Su-57 fighter jets.

Some analysts have gone so far as to say that a Russian Su-34 flying 100 kilometers behind the Ukrainian frontline could be picked up by the US Patriot air defense system’s AN/MPQ-65 search radar. In comparison, a Su-57 operating even 25 kilometers behind the front would be impossible for the US radar to pick up.

Military analyst and Indian Air Force veteran Vijainder K. Thakur argued in a previous EurAsian Times article that “the Su-57 will detect radio emissions from the AN/MPQ-65 well before the AN/MPQ-65 detects the reflected emissions from the Su-57, even when the US radar is operating in low probability of interception (LPI) mode.”

“As soon as the Su-57 detects the radar emissions, the radar’s coordinates would be transmitted over a secure data link to a Kh-31P anti-radiation missile-armed Su-35S or Su-34, operating well behind the battlefront, out of the detection range of the AN/MPQ-65.”

“As a result, the AN/MPQ-65 will be destroyed well before the Patriot system gets a chance to launch its PAC-3 interceptor missile at the Su-57.”

Nonetheless, no Su-57 has been entrusted with the responsibility of carrying out any of the aerial or ground strikes on Ukraine yet. This has given the impression that the Russian Air Force does not place enough trust in its stealth capability and has calculated the short—and long-term risks if the aircraft was shot down or seized by opponents.

For instance, the claimed interception and shooting down of Russia’s Kinzhal and Zircon hypersonic missiles, which were projected to be invincible and indestructible, has left the Russian leadership red-faced. The prevalent opinion among watchers is that the Kremlin would not want that for its vaunted stealth aircraft, especially as it is believed to be a challenger to the American F-35 and F-22 stealth jets.

When asked why Russia was reluctant to deploy the aircraft, retired Group Captain Johnson Chacko told EurAsian Times: “Su 57 is the state-of-the-art fighter that Russians have. Is there a need for its use? Is the target worth risking Su 57s? Is a sledgehammer needed to kill a fly? Stealth does not mean that it is immune to detection by all radars in the full spectrum of frequencies and modes of operation.  The use of Su 57s operationally will reveal its systems and potential. That will be of use to NATO later.”

“Using any weapon system that transmits EM radiation reveals the characteristics of such radiations, which the enemy can use to make the system ineffective. Using Su 57 now may make it ineffective in a larger war with NATO,” he added.

The US, for one, has consistently refuted Russian claims about developing an operational stealth aircraft. For instance, some Western commentators have noted the technical problems plaguing the Su-57, one of which is Russia’s inability to install body panels on the fighter jet close enough to reduce radar signature. They have frequently reiterated that the aircraft is also devoid of stealth-capable engines.

File Image: Su-57. Via Wikipedia

Some reports have also noted that the Su-57 has a radar cross section (RCS) of approximately 5 square meters, which is 5,000 times larger than the F-22 Raptor and almost equivalent to a fourth-generation F/A-18 Super Hornet flying without ammunition. It is important to mention that the Super Hornet is not stealthy.

Abhijit Iyer-Mitra, a senior fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS), said, “They won’t deploy because the plane is useless, which is why India walked out of that program. Russians don’t do holistic signal-masking that implies stealth, but even if you look at radar stealth, which is the most basic form of stealth, the aircraft does not have it. Having a round IRST (Infra Red Search and Track) in front of the cockpit, not having frequency-selective glass on the cockpit, having the air intake ducts that directly lead into the engine without any masking, having completely unshielded outlets for engine exhausts and extremely bad design is all anti-stealth.”

He further added, “The Russians are trying to prevent the Su-57’s inadequacies from being displayed on the battlefield because the last thing they need is bad publicity for the aircraft in the market.”

The Su-57’s absence from combat aircraft has also been somewhat attributed to its limited numbers. Indian Air Force veteran and Director-General of the Center for Air Power Studies, New Delhi, former Air Marshal Anil Chopra, told the EurAsian Times: “The Su-57 is still pretty much under development. Information from OSINT (Open Source Intelligence) sources reveals that they have just 32 aircraft, of which 10 have been earmarked for flight testing. So, they have just one squadron of Su-57 jets then.”

“The first aircraft was delivered in 2019 and is still evolving, so Russia may think it would be premature to deploy the aircraft for air strikes in Ukraine.”

“Explaining the possible rationale behind withholding the aircraft, Chopra said, “There is a clear air denial in Ukraine, something that Russia is unlikely to overcome even in the future unless it neutralizes all air defenses on the battlefield, and that may not be possible. Air defenses could be hidden in plain sight, or soldiers with MANPADS could be ready to strike the Russian jets flying overhead. Russia has stopped exposing its Su-35s to these air defenses, it is not an overreach to assume this is why it is not employing the Su-57. As for the stealth component, it is never foolproof and is not a panacea for any air force. The stealth performance could only be confirmed once the aircraft is deployed.”

There are reports that in addition to the 22 Su-57 in service, 15 additional fighters will be added in 2024, which essentially means that the number of fighters available for operational deployment will increase rapidly.

Some Russian military experts believe that the Su-57 aircraft will make its debut in Ukraine once the service has enough numbers and some much-needed technical upgrades are complete.