The Collateral Benefits of Deploying Su-57 Aircraft to Ukraine: Russia’s Potential Plan

The Su-57's sophisticated capabilities could turn it into a highly prized asset in Ukraine. It would become the first fighter of its generation to achieve a beyond visual range air-to-air victory even with a kill against an uncrewed aircraft

By Girish Linganna

Opinion

First came the reports of Russia’s Su-57 next-generation fighter operating in support of the country’s war effort in Ukraine. Then came news of sightings of the stealth fighter over the city of Zhytomyr starting in the second week of March. The sightings then led to widespread speculation as to what the fighter’s possible mission may have been. It is known that Russia has been forced to rely heavily on older aircraft such as the Su-34 strike platform and Su-35 air superiority fighter in this war. This is because the Russian Air Force has only one understaffed squadron- a test unit at the 929th State Flight Test Centre- operating the more modern Su-57.

However, given the Su-57’s superior capabilities, and in particular, the advantages of testing the fighter in a conflict area, the war in Ukraine has provided an excellent opportunity to advance the programme. In light of this, the Russian state media outlet TASS confirmed on May 20 that Su-57s had been deployed to the theatre of operations beginning “two to three weeks” after the war started, with the fighters “operating using missiles from outside the area of active destruction of enemy air defence systems.”

Based on its unique capabilities and the stage the programme has reached, some possible missions that the Su-57 is likely to be carrying out in Ukrainian airspace can be surmised.

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Six electronically scanned array radars spread across the airframe of the Su-57 operate in various bands. They are highly optimised to obstruct enemy communications and blind air defences, and thought to give this fighter the most effective electronic warfare capabilities of any fighter in the Russian service. The “Himalayas” electronic warfare system, integrated into the Su-57, is distributed throughout the airframe, including in the wings, to more effectively obstruct enemy targeting systems.

The Su-57 can track up to sixty targets at once, courtesy of its six radars- the highest number of any other fighter plane in the world. The fighter’s deployment to Ukraine might enable it to evaluate its situational awareness and more quickly enhance its sensor suite as the serial production of this model keeps growing

Given these capabilities, the fighter may be used in an electronic attack role aimed at weakening enemy air defences, reducing situational awareness, and acting as a force multiplier for other units. Even a minimal number of the older aircraft could potentially have an impact on the battlefield if just one Su-57 accompanied their unit.

The Su-57 can track up to sixty targets at once, courtesy of its six radars- the highest number of any other fighter plane in the world. The fighter’s deployment to Ukraine might enable it to evaluate its situational awareness and more quickly enhance its sensor suite as the serial production of this model keeps growing.

The theatre could offer one of the best simulations of a complex battlefield environment to fine-tune the Su-57’s sensors, especially with Ukraine deploying sizable ground forces. These include Europe’s biggest tank force, as well as a much depleted but still flying fighter force, and dozens of drones. The fighter’s ability to work with other Russian resources, such as ageing Su-34 strike fighter units and S-400 missile systems in Belarus that have supported the war effort, could also be put to the test. This could be especially helpful for developing Russia’s data links and next-generation network-centric warfare capabilities- two areas where it has long lagged behind China and the US in terms of technological advancement. This may also be tested with the fighter sharing information from its more potent sensor suite to act as a force multiplier for Su-35 units. After all, the Su-57 was designed to serve as a command aircraft for older Su-35 fighters!

The Su-57 programme was largely developed with export in mind. Like most post-Cold War tactical weapons systems, and with a number of customers having expressed a keen interest, the fighter’s deployments to Syria and, more recently, Ukraine, were long theorised to be intended to increase foreign interest and demonstrate Russian confidence in the design.

The Su-57 is a brand-new airframe design that the Russian Military has only limited experience operating. Thus, its presence in a war zone against a state adversary will be a crucial sign of confidence, even though it is unlikely that it will score multiple air-to-air kills as Su-35 units have 

The Su-57 is a brand-new airframe design that the Russian Military has only limited experience operating. Thus, its presence in a war zone against a state adversary will be a crucial sign of confidence, even though it is unlikely that it will score multiple air-to-air kills as Su-35 units have.

It is well-known that Algeria has already ordered a unit of Su-57s. However, reports have also suggested that there are many other top prospective customers, including India, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Kazakhstan. Long programme delays have prevented exports, and the Russian Air Force has yet to field a single squadron at full strength despite having initially expected to field 200 airframes by 2025. In order to win back the trust of potential customers, combat deployments of serial production airframes may partially make up for this.

Due to the significant technological gap between the Su-57 and earlier fighter classes, transitioning Russian pilots and maintenance teams to operating the Su-57 is likely to be a difficult process, much like the US Air Force’s transition to operating fifth generation F-35 fighters. Su-57 deployments to Ukraine could be seen as a way to give operational experience to a sizable pool of personnel using the next-generation fighter. This is reminiscent of Russian Air Force pilots and other personnel being rotated through the theatre in Syria to give the highest number of them experience under combat conditions. Another advantage is that user input could help the aircraft improve further.

The Su-57 is likely to have used new standoff weapons to neutralise Ukrainian targets from safe distances, primarily for testing purposes but also to support the war effort. This is a tactic known to have precedent in the Syria case when prototypes were actively deployed in the conflcit-torn regions 

The Su-57 is likely to have used new standoff weapons to neutralise Ukrainian targets from safe distances, primarily for testing purposes but also to support the war effort. This is a tactic known to have precedent in the Syria case when prototypes were actively deployed in the conflcit-torn regions.

Despite its extremely low numbers, the Su-57’s sophisticated capabilities could turn it into a highly prized asset in Ukraine. Although older, less expensive standoff weapons are anticipated to be preferred in the majority of circumstances, Su-57s may launch such missile strikes frequently due to the additional benefit of testing the missile in combat. While the Su-57 has some of the most effective AAMs of any fighter, which is a notable advantage over its Chinese and American rivals, there aren’t many crewed aircraft still flying in Ukraine. For now, it is less likely that these will be put to the test. However, the Su-57 would become the first fighter of its generation to achieve a beyond visual range air-to-air victory even with a kill against an uncrewed aircraft.

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