Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to order nearly five times as many fifth-generation Su-57 stealth fighters as originally planned to replace older fighters, strengthen Russian airpower, and give Russia a fighting chance in competition with its rivals.
“The 2028 arms program stipulated the purchase of 16 such jets,” Putin said during last week’s defense meeting before announcing that the Russian military had “agreed to purchase 76 such fighters without the increase in prices in the same period of time.”
The Russian president said a 20% reduction in cost had made the purchase of additional fifth-gen fighters possible. Improvements in the production process are also reportedly behind Putin’s decision to order more of the aircraft.
He added that a contract would be signed in the near future for the fighters, which he said would be armed with “modern weapons of destruction,” according to Russia’s state-run TASS News Agency. Such weapons could include the R-37M long-range hypersonic air-to-ar missile, an advanced standoff weapon with a range of more than 300 kilometers, or about 186 miles, Russian media reported.
Russian R-37M long-range hypersonic air-to-ar missile.
(Photo by Vitaly V. Kuzmin)
The new Su-57s are expected to be delivered to three aviation regiments. Those units, the Russian outlet Izvestia reported May 20, 2019, include regiments in the three main strategic regions in the northwest, southwest, and far east. The report said only the best pilots would be trained on the aircraft.
Seventy-six of these fighters is a particularly tall order for the Russian military, which has had to cut orders for various programs, such as the T-14 Armata main battle tank, over funding shortages. Right now, Russia has only 10 Su-57 prototypes, and fighter development has been moving much slower than expected.
The Su-57’s chief developer argued late last year that the Su-57 was superior to US stealth fighter jets, a claim met with skepticism by most independent experts.
Su-57 stealth fighter at the MAKS 2011 air show.
Russia’s Su-57 fighters, as they are right now, largely rely on older fourth-generation engines, and they lack the kind of low-observable stealth capabilities characteristic of true fifth-generation fighters, such as Lockheed Martin’s highly capable F-22 Raptor or F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter.
That is not to say the Russian fighter does not have its own advantageous features, such as the side-facing radar that gives it the ability to trick the radar on US stealth fighters. And it is possible, even likely, that the Russian military will make improvements to the aircraft going forward.
Should Russia follow through in purchasing 76 Su-57s, its military would still trail far behind those of the US and its partners with respect to fifth-generation airpower. As of February 2019, there were 360 F-35s operating from 16 bases in 10 countries, according to Bloomberg. The US also possesses 187 F-22s, arguably the best aircraft in the world.
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