The Cold War may be over, but there’s still a bit of a army arms race between the West and Russia. Especially now that the fighters of the fifth generation are going into battle. Entered service in the United States and other air weapons, the F-35B Lightning II is one of the most advanced fighter aircraft in the world. It joins the likes of the F-22 Raptor and Eurofighter Typhoon as a very capable and advanced fighting machine. However, Russia is now also using its own fifth-generation fighter.
Some people may recognize this plane as it starred in the main enemy fighter in the recent Top Gun: Maverick movie, though it didn’t get a name right away. That’s the Sukhoi Su-57 Falon. A Russian twin-engined versatile fighter with stealth capabilities that hadn’t exactly been the easiest during development and testing. The aircraft first flew in January 2010, but did not enter service with the Russian Air Force until December 2020, more than 10 years since that first flight. But Russia hopes it will last at least 35 years and become the most powerful aircraft in its arsenal.
Origin and development of the Su-57
Amazingly, the origins of the Su-57 go back to 1979. This was when the Soviet Union outlined the need for a new, next-generation fighter for the 1990s. The idea was that the new aircraft would eventually replace the MiG-29 and the Su-27. Mikoyan was initially selected to develop the new Multifunctional Frontline Fighter, or MFI, but that took nine years and first flew in the year 2000. Sukhoi had already started developing their own technologies for a next-gen fighter, despite not being directly involved with the MFI. And as such, Sukhoi was thus chosen over Mikoyan in 2002 to produce the new fighter after the Mikoyan MiG 1.44/1.42 project (pictured above) was subsequently canceled.
Development of the then-named Tu-50 would begin soon, with existing Sukhoi airframes used to test subsystems and concepts. The aircraft’s design and shape were formally approved in December 2004, and there were hopes that the first three flying Tu-50 prototypes would be ready in 2009. However, this was already a delay from the first scheduled flight in 2007 and problems with the engine and technical research hampered the project. The first flight of the Tu-50 finally took place on January 29, 2010†
The Su-57 was plagued with problems during testing
Sukhoi would build ten flying prototypes for the aircraft. However, the original number would initially be only six aircraft. However, testing revealed major problems in the airframes, where the prototypes did not have sufficient fatigue life and early structural cracks would form in the airframe. A massive redesign was now required for the sixth prototype, which saw an elongated tailstitch and large wingspan and reinforced airframe, just some of the changes made to the Tu-50.
The various technical issues with the aircraft meant that plans to actually supply the numbers to the Russian military were reduced significantly as the program progressed. An initial order of 60 standard aircraft was then reduced to 52 aircraft. In 2015, plans were massively scaled back, including Western sanctions against Russia after the annexation of Crimea. The use of the jet was also pushed back from 2015, from 2015, to 2017, 2018 and 2019, before the now Su-57 was actually put into use at the end of 2020. The aircraft is now in service, but the Su-57 is not having a great time yet.
The Su-57 enters service
As of May 2022, only five Su-57s have been in service due to the various issues surrounding the project. Now, Russia’s aerospace forces are expected to have some 76 Su-57s by 2028, thanks to negotiations that cut the price of the aircraft and equipment by 20%. The Su-57 promises a lot. Its two Saturn AL-41F1 after turbofan burns should propel it to a speed of 1327 mph or Mach 2, and it has a range of 2200 miles when flying subsonic. Its low radar cross-section gives it stealth capabilities like the F-22 Raptor, and it has a very sophisticated radar system.
The Uncertain Future of the Su-57
It is not yet entirely clear how effective the Su-57 will be. At least it is now in service, albeit in small numbers. The aircraft reportedly had some use during phases of the current invasion of Ukraine, although it was beyond the range of Ukrainian air defenses. Furthermore, the first full regiment of 24 Su-57s is now expected to be fully equipped by 2025, but this is some time after the aircraft’s original planned production. Whether the Su-57 will be as capable as the F-35 is a question that still needs an answer.
Sources: YouTube, Military Today, FlightGlobal, The Aviation Geek Club