Russia is hoping that its sophisticated Su-57 fighter jet, its answer to the US F-35, and Chinese J-20 Mighty Dragon, which has proven itself to be very lethal, could prompt the Indian Air Force (IAF) to have a relook at the stealth fighter.
India and Russia had once joined hands to develop the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) together under a contract signed in 2007. Under the agreement, it was envisaged that the Indian aerospace maker Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) will collaborate with the Russian Sukhoi Design Bureau to develop an improved variant of the Su-57 stealth fighter.
However, the project fell through the cracks over the years.
In 2018, the US $8.63 billion deal was formally put to rest after the Indian government conveyed its decision to its Russian counterpart. The Russians were asked to proceed alone with the mammoth project, and India might join the project at a later stage or buy the fully developed fighter jet once it enters the Russian Air Force.
Also known as the T-50 or the PAK FA, that stealth fighter was supposed to serve as the basis for the Indian jet. The reports suggest that the cost and technical issues made the deal kaput.
Sputnik News, headquartered in Moscow, recently wrote on its X handle: “Lethal Increase in Su-57 capabilities could prompt IAF to relook. Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation published a patent for a multifunctional two-seat stealth aircraft, appearing to be a variant of the 5th-generation heavy fighter, Su-57.”
The Su-57 is the first new fighter jet to be produced by Russia since the end of the Cold War. Despite being in development for nearly two decades, it is unlikely to be produced in huge numbers in the near future as the invasion of Ukraine puts a great strain on the Russian economy.
As reported by the Eurasian Times earlier, a cornered Russia has found a friend in India that recognizes the historic ties with Moscow. Unable to pay in dollars, the two found a way to pay for Russian hardware in Rupees, and then Russia used those Rupees to invest back in the Indian economy.
A serving IAF official who did not wish to be quoted said that despite India moving away from Su-57s, India still needs a capable, fifth-gen fighter aircraft that can match our regional competitors. Not only Su-57 but even Su-75 Checkmate could be a serious contender for IAF. And if Indian money gets reinvested into the Indian economy, buying Russian weapons would make a lot of economic sense.
Indian aerospace experts who have been advocating for the induction of a fifth-generation fighter jet in the IAF advise caution when it comes to Su-57. Air Marshal Anil Chopra (retired) said: “India has already been in the FGFA program for some time and is well aware of the technology and work share levels, which are not at all favorable. The Su-57 program has moved very slowly for various technology issues.”
Chopra is a veteran fighter test pilot and is currently the Director-General of the Center for Air Power Studies in New Delhi. He adds: “With limited flying, the teething problems may take longer to be seen. The sanctions on semiconductor supply would impact Russian avionics and weapons. For all these reasons, the Su-57 option may not be good.”
Meanwhile, retired IAF fighter pilot Vujainder K Thakur believes that the lethal increase in Su-57 capabilities, accruing from the addition of a second cockpit, should be hard to ignore for the IAF, which didn’t discard the FGFA project, just adopted a wait-and-see approach. Conceptually, in many ways, the new Su-57 variant may be compared to the US B-21 raider. The new Su-57 variant would be less capable but much more affordable and practical.
The Su-57’s Firepower
The Sukhoi Su-57 is designed to destroy all types of air, ground, and naval targets. It has increased stealth due to the broad use of composite materials and is capable of reaching a supersonic cruising speed. It is said to be equipped with the most advanced onboard radio-electronic equipment, including a powerful onboard computer (the so-called electronic second pilot). Its radar system is spread across its body, and its armament is placed inside its fuselage.
The Su-57 AI system assumes some of the pilot’s functions, including piloting and preparations for the use of weapons.
In terms of arms, the Su-57 will be armed with beyond-visual-range missiles and two short-range missiles for air-to-air combat missions. The active radar-homing K-77M (Izdeliye 180) missile is the primary medium-range missile of the fighter. An upgraded version of the R-77 medium-range missile, the K-77M is a beyond visual range (BVR) radar-guided missile equipped with an active electronically scanned array radar seeker. Russia is also planning to add the new R-37M long-range hypersonic missiles to the aircraft’s firepower.
For ground strike capability, the Su-57 is fitted with the Kh-38 tactical air-to-ground missile and a range of KAB family precision-guided bombs. They can also carry anti-radiation missiles for targeting ground-based radars, electro-optical guided bombs, and anti-ship missiles. The aircraft can carry weapons externally on its wings and fuselage if stealth is not a concern.
The Su-57 is a flatter, more angular airframe than earlier jets, with a blended wing and body configuration to give it built-in stealth.
Russia is also looking to field the S-70 Okhotnik (Hunter-B) strike drone alongside the Su-57 as a ‘loyal wingman’ to the stealth fighter jet. UAC CEO Yury Slyusar said earlier that the Su-57 fifth-generation jet was a step toward the sixth-generation aircraft and will be used to develop the family.
There have been reports about Russia working on the use of an unpiloted mode in Su-57 during tests.
Felon’s Long Flight To Development
The ‘Felon’ was first unveiled to the world in 2010 and was dubbed an aircraft capable of both air-to-air and air-to-ground missions while evading the adversaries’ radars.
The aircraft is still far from fully operational, even though it was sent to Syria in 2018 and 2019 for “real-world missions and tests.” But it reportedly did not carry out any combat missions.
In January 2023, reports came where Russia insisted that the Felon jets have been “brilliant” for its war effort in Ukraine as these fighter jets successfully disabled Ukrainian air defense systems, among other missions.
However, the UK’s Ministry of Defense sobered down the euphoria around the aircraft, saying that although it was highly likely Su-57 aircraft were operating over Ukraine, the missions were probably completed in Russian territory.
The UK Ministry of Defense said that the Kremlin might be “risk averse” to sending their state-of-the-art aircraft to Ukraine, fearing “the compromise of sensitive technology.”
The first Su-57 crashed in eastern Russia in 2019 while executing a fight test. This was the first total loss of a Su-57, although one of the type’s T-50 prototypes was severely damaged due to an engine fire in 2014.
The accident delayed the aircraft’s entry into the Russian Aerospace Force Service. Hence, when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, its aircraft deployment included Sukhoi Su-30SM and Su-35 fighters, Su-34 strike aircraft, and Su-25 close air support jets, but not any of the Su-57s.
Flight International’s 2022 World Air Forces lists just one Su-57 in service with the Russian Aerospace Forces. The Russian State news agency TASS had earlier reported that the Russian air force would receive 22 aircraft by the end of 2024, bumping this figure to 76 by 2027-28. The Ukraine war, however, has thrown a spanner in the Kremlin’s fighter jet production plan.
- Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology.
- She can be reached at ritu.sharma (at) mail.com
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