The world seems to be witnessing fierce competition among fifth-generation stealth fighter jets. Most recently, a claim has been made about the superiority of the Russian Su-57 over its US counterparts – the F-22 and F-35.
There are currently only four operational 5th-generation fighters in the world. American defense and aerospace giant Lockheed Martin leads with not one, but two 5th gen aircraft under its name- the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II. China’s Chengdu J-20 and Russia’s Su-57 are the other two warplanes in this category.
The F-22 Raptor is the first 5th-generation warplane. What distinguishes this aircraft from the previous ones is primarily stealth. This feature is an intrinsic part of the aircraft design of all fifth-generation jets.
Other notable features of these aircraft are the highly integrated computer systems and advanced avionics that are capable of communicating with other networked assets, a high-performance airframe that can successfully serve in a multi-role capacity, and a very high degree of situational awareness that is absent in older platforms.
Other than these, supersonic afterburning- which refers to the ability to sustain supersonic speeds without the use of afterburners, low infrared signature, maneuverability, and short take-offs are also seen as necessary features in any 5th generation fighter aircraft.
The Superiority Claim
Last Thursday, TASS quoted military expert Alexei Leonkov as saying that Russia’s Sukhoi Su-57 fifth-generation fighter aircraft outperforms its US rivals in weapon systems, robotics, radars, and electronic warfare equipment.
The media outlet noted that Leonkov was commenting on some Western media’s claims that Russian aircraft are lagging behind the USA’s F-22 and F-35 warplanes.
“The Su-57 outshines them by now in terms of the amount and diversity of armament. On top of that, the latest solutions, such as the second pilot as a system that facilitates aircraft control and combat operations, a spherical all-around radar that ‘sees’ everything and cutting-edge electronic warfare systems aboard the Su-57 leave the US rival far behind,” the expert added.
“For a long time, it had been believed that only F-22 and F-35 planes can be referred to as fifth-generation but these aircraft lack low radar signature and therefore can be shot down,” Leonkov emphasized.
These don’t seem to be the only criteria for purporting the Su-57 as a stealth jet that outperforms its peers. The EurAsian Times had earlier reported that Moscow has plans to start the production of the upgraded version of the Su-57 in 2025.
“In the upgraded version of the fighter as part of the Megapolis research and development project, a completely upgraded cockpit with the most advanced avionics will be installed.
In addition, the aircraft will be equipped with a second-stage power unit. It is planned that mass production of the upgraded Su-57 will start from 2025, Russian news agency TASS had quoted a military-industrial sector official back then.
The same expert had then clarified that the new Su-57 fighter would be made in a single-seat version as well. Reportedly, plans are also afoot to design the Su-57 with a two-seat modification in order to allow the second pilot to control a swarm of heavy Okhotnik combat drones.
Pertinent to note that there are no two-seater stealth fighters built so far as stretching out a stealth jet while maintaining low-radar-observable geometry is quite difficult and costly. Therefore, a two-seater Su-57B could potentially become the first of its kind in service. This would indeed be an innovation that puts the Russian 5th gen jet a step ahead of the rest.
The two-seat Su-57 is also preferred by smaller air forces as they can do double duty as trainers, This will undoubtedly make the fighter quite viable in terms of export. It has been claimed that five Southeast Asian countries have already inquired about purchasing Su-57s. This could give the Su-57 the ability to compete with the large market share of the F-35s.
However, these claims of potential superiority haven’t gone uncontested.
While it is indeed true that the Su-57 supports a daunting suite of air-to-air and anti-ship missiles, Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightning II stealth jet doesn’t lag behind its Russian counterpart in this department.
In fact, the F-35 beats the Su-57 in terms of the number of unique weapons options available to both fighters. This is especially true of the F-35’s Block IV revision, which will be capable of integrating a variety of new bomb and missile choices, including the B61-12 nuclear gravity bombs.
Contrary to what the Russian expert has claimed, the F-35 has among the lowest radar-cross sections (RCS) of any fighter in service today. It flaunts a frontal RCS that is comparable to that of a metal golf ball. This implies class-leading stealth performance.
There is also the problem of quantity with the Russian stealth jets. Moscow has so far only received 12 Su-57 fighter jets. Reports have stated that Russia has already placed an order for 76 of these warplanes. Moreover, state defense conglomerate Rostec has claimed that the production of the aircraft is moving forward.
However, even with these numbers in mind, it is very clear that the F-35 stealth fighter jets that are operated by several militaries can easily outnumber the Russian fighter jets.
Lastly, the claims regarding the Russian stealth fighter aircraft working in tandem with the Okhotnik-B stealth drone have been forecast for multiple years now. This emphasis seems to showcase how swiftly Moscow is attempting to integrate combat drones into service.
But it is also equally true that the nation has been lagging behind in this domain for years. The country’s first armed drones are being delivered to operational units in 2021.
However, since drone-control is increasingly becoming a standard feature in sixth-generation fighter concepts like the Tempest, the FCAS, and the NGAD programs, there’s still a chance for Su-57 to gain that edge as a 5th gen fighter itself.