Russia recently grabbed a bunch of publicity for its new Su-57 fifth-generation jet by sending a pair of the supposedly stealth fighters to practice dropping bombs in Syria — but it looks like the F-35 could squash the program in its infancy.
Multiple experts recently told Business Insider that Russia’s program to acquire and field the Su-57 desperately needs an infusion of cash from an international investor, like India.
Initially, India was a partner in the Su-57 program, and intended to help develop, build, and, eventually, buy scores of the advanced fighter jet pitched as a rival to the US F-22 and F-35, but those talks soured and Russia never saw the money.
Also read: Russia’s new Su-57 ‘stealth’ fighter hasn’t even been delivered yet — and it’s already a disappointment
Experts now allege that Russia’s deployment of the underdeveloped, underpowered fighters to Syria, a combat zone where they’re hardly relevant as air-superiority fighters not facing any real air threats, was a marketing ploy to get more investment.
But while Russia rushes off the Su-57s for a deployment that lasts mere days and demonstrates only that the supposedly next-generation fighters can drop bombs, the US has made real inroads selling the F-35 to countries that might have looked at the Su-57.
The US sent F-35s to the Singapore Air Show in February 2018 as part of an international sales pitch. President Donald Trump’s administration has loosened up regulations on who the US can sell weapons to, and the F-35, once a troubled program, finally seems to have hit its stride.
“The Russian economy is a mess,” retired US Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula, now head of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, told Business Insider. “One of the things they can actually get money for is the advanced tech in their weapons systems.”
More: These are the 11 Russian military aircraft in Syria right now
But with the Su-57 seeming like a long shot with trouble ahead, and the F-35 now ready to buy, the Trump administration’s expressed strategy of punishing the Kremlin’s cash flow with military sales might bear fruit.
Asked if the F-35’s export to countries like India posed a threat to Russia’s Su-57 program, Deptula gave a short answer: “Yes.”
The Su-57’s death blow could fall in a boardroom in New Delhi
Japan and South Korea are both thinking about buying more F-35s, but most importantly, The Diplomat rounded up several reports indicating that India’s Air Force formally requested a classified briefing on the F-35A, and it may buy up to 126 of the jets.
At around $100 million per airframe, such a purchase would likely leave little room in the budget for India to buy Su-57s, which would require vastly different support infrastructure than the US jet.
Related: The Navy’s first-ever F-35 carrier just deployed in the Pacific
“Having been to India and met with their Air Force leadership, while they are a neutral country, their culture is one that fits very well with English-speaking nations around the world,” said Deptula, who said the US trying to sell F-35s to India would be “worthwhile.”
If India decided to buy F-35s, or really any Western jet, Russia would have its struggling Su-57 and one fewer customer for it. Meanwhile, Russia has only ordered 12 of the Su-57s, not even enough for a full squadron.
So, while jet enthusiasts have long debated who would win in a fight between the F-35 and the Su-57, we may never find out.
The US’s F-35 is a real jet — three real jets, actually — that has significant money behind it to keep it flying in air forces around the globe for decades to come. Russia’s Su-57 has no such security.