How Russia and China's stealth planes match up to the US'

There have been a few developments in the stealth world in February 2018 with Russia deploying its Su-57 to Syria and China announcing its J-20 is combat ready.

With more countries now fielding and trying to market stealth jets, Business Insider spoke to Michael Kofman, a senior research scientist at the thinktank CNA and fellow at the Wilson Center focusing on Russia’s military and defense, about how the Su-57 and the J-20 match up with the US’s stealth planes.

The partial transcript below has been edited for length and clarity.

Daniel Brown: What are your general thoughts on the recent deployment of the Su-57 to Syria?

Michael Kofman: They deployed them to Syria really for two reasons. One is to change the narrative that’s been going on in Syria for the last couple weeks and take a lot of media attention to the Su-57. And second is to actually demo it in the hope that there might be interested buyers, as they have deployed a number of weapons systems to Syria.

They’re always looking for more investors in that technology. Fifth-generation aircraft are expensive.

Also read: Russia’s new Su-57 ‘stealth’ fighter hasn’t even been delivered yet — and it’s already a disappointment

Brown: What do you think overall of the Su-57?

Kofman: I think it’s a stealthier aircraft than your typical fourth-generation design. I don’t think it matches the stealth capability of the F-22 or F-35, nor does it match the price tag of them. I think it’s a poor man’s stealth aircraft. I think it’ll be a very capable platform. I don’t think it’ll match or compete in the low-observation rules that US aircraft do.

On the other hand, it will definitely be a step above a fourth-generation aircraft — in terms of how maneuverable it is, Russian aircraft are always very capable, very maneuverable.

The F-22 is actually really good in maneuverability, too. The F-35 not so much, but the F-22 is actually a brilliant aircraft. We still have a lot of them. But the Su-57 is not meant to be a direct competitor to the F-22 or F-35.


The F-22. (US Air Force)

Brown: That’s how Russia seems to be marketing it.

Kofman: Yeah, I’m sure some guy thinks his Honda Civic is better than my BMW.

Here’s the thing you’ve got to understand: There is a fifth-generation market out there. Where can you go to get a fifth-generation aircraft? The US is very tight on technology with the F-35. The only other people that have one in development is the Chinese.

So, here’s the real question: Is the Su-57 better than the J-20?

Related: How China’s stealthy new J-20 fighter jet compares to the US’s F-22 and F-35

Brown: Is the Su-57 better than the J-20?

Kofman: Well, it’s certainly far — if not further — along in technology design.

Here’s what it’s important: At the core of every plane is the engine — it’s all about the engine. Everything else is super cool, but it’s all about the engine.

The Su-57 is not in serial production because they’ve not finished the engine for it. It is flying on an upgraded engine from the Su-35S, so it cannot be a fifth-generation aircraft yet.

Now, is it low-observable relative to the Su-35? Yes. Is it low-observable relative to F-35? No. But you know what, if it was, probably no one would be able to afford it, least of all Russia. Don’t let the best be the enemy of the affordable.

j-20 china

China’s J-20. (YouTube screenshot via user hindu judaic)

Brown: What do you think about the J-20 compared to the F-22 or the Su-57? Where does it stand?

Kofman: I suspect that the J-20 probably has great avionics and software but, as always, has terrible engine design. In fact, early Chinese low-observation aircraft designs are all based on ancient Russian Klimov engines because the Chinese can’t make an engine.

That’s where I think it stands. In terms of observation, when I look at it, I suspect it also has a lot of stealth issues.

More: F-22s are refining their roles as combat dogfighters

Brown: They recently said it was combat ready, didn’t they?

Kofman: Yeah, I’m very skeptical.

I’m also puzzled by its design. You see how huge it is? It’s got so many surfaces, and a lot of them look pretty reflective, too. I’m pretty skeptical of the stealth on that aircraft.

Brown: So you’d take the Su-57 over the J-20?

Kofman: I’d take any Russian-designed plane with Russian-designed engines in it over any Chinese-designed plane with older Russian engines in it.

I would not get into any Chinese plane with Chinese engines in it.