Reports say Russia has deployed the Su-57 stealth combat jet to Syria, the first time the aircraft has displayed in an operational mode, although so far the Pentagon has not confirmed the story. However, video of two Su-57’s have appeared, providing some powerful evidence.
The Su-57 is still a development aircraft and very few have been manufactured, similar to the United States that typically produces low rate initial production (LRIP) models that are integrated into combat units to assess how they perform and what further changes are needed. This is precisely the stage of the US F-35 stealth tactical fighter. Most of the F-35 LRIP platforms will eventually either be overhauled or replaced with improved models. One supposes that is the same story as the Su-57, which is using an “interim” engine set, the AL-31F.
The Su-57 derives from what was called in Russia the PAK FA T-50, or T-50 for short. (PAK is the Russian acronym for Future Integrated Aircraft and FA is for Front Line Aviation.) As seen in various air shows, the T-50 performed impressively showing off its maneuverability when compared to US stealth models including the F-22 and F-35.
However the Russians have had trouble marketing the Su-57, most notably in India where the two sides are in conflict over performance and aircraft features issue.
The US has already deployed F-22’s in Syria. Last December two F-22’s intercepted two old Su-25’s which crossed the Euphrates river and were outside what both sides have agreed is the deconfliction zone. The Su-25’s turned back and there was no challenge (in fact the F-22’s wanted to be visible for the intercept). The Su-25 has an inferior radar and a poor radar warning system, so this exercise had meaning only to show off the F-22. More recently the F-22’s were used along with other aircraft for bombing missions against irregular forces, including Russian mercenaries at Deir ez-Zor where the irregular forces suffered very high casualties. No Syrian or Russian aircraft intervened, thus making speculation that the Su-57 deployment is related to that battle quite unlikely.
The Russian Air Force has so far been somewhat hesitant about the Su-57 only ordering a dozen prototypes partly because many of the aircraft’s capabilities are far from fully functional, especially all the electronics. Not much is known about how well different weapons have been integrated, especially longer range air to air missiles. But the Russian government and of course the Sukhoi design bureau are anxious to show off the Su-57 and attract buyers for it, especially India which definitely has a need for an effective stealth platform to counter China’s capabilities. A successful tour in a combat zone would help make the case for the plane, provided there are no obvious problems.
The Russians have tested many new weapons in Syria, both to better understand combat tactics and to market them to foreign customers.
In the larger picture, after the Chinese put their Chengdu J-20 into action in the South China Sea and made it operational in other combat units thus for political reasons the Russians had to keep pace. While the Chinese J-20 is not supposed to be for sale, the upcoming Shenyang J-31 tactical stealth fighter is regarded as an export model. In short, what is emerging is a global competition by three major powers to not only deploy but to market at least some model of a stealth fighter.
In another dimension, the presence of the Su-57 might appear to be a deterrent not only to the United States but also to Israel that now has F-35 operational units. But to a large degree this aspect should be discounted. No one knows if the Su-57 is actually ready for meaningful combat duties, and certainly none of the parties want to see any conflict at all for any reason with their top aircraft.