NewsRussian 'super aircraft' exposed: Su-57 programme falters with drone hits

Russian 'super aircraft' exposed: Su‑57 programme falters with drone hits

The satellite images show two damaged Su-57s
The satellite images show two damaged Su-57s
Images source: © Wikipedia

16 June 2024 19:58

Within a few seconds, the Russians lost £240 million. That's how much two Su-57 aircraft, which were seriously damaged 600 kilometres from the front line, cost. Financial losses are not everything. It turned out that Russia's air defence system is highly overrated.

The exorbitantly high production cost and potential reputational risk in case of destruction are the main reasons why the Russians used the Su-57 sparingly in the war in Ukraine. They used them only a few times. Extensive caution, however, did not protect the machines: they were hit in a drone attack at the Akhtubinsk airfield in the Astrakhan region.

The first reports spoke of one seriously damaged Sukhoi. It was only Andriy Yusov, spokesman for the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine, who announced that not one but two Russian Su-57s were hit.

"As for the (location) of the Su-57 hit on the aggressor state's territory, it is almost 600 kilometres from our border. We have not officially commented on whose operation it was, but analysts can make their own assumptions. We can say that one Su-57 is seriously damaged. The other is less damaged and will probably be repaired in a shorter time," Yusov said.

When the repair will be completed and, most importantly, whether it will happen at all—this is unknown. Especially since the production of the Su-57 is still at a handcrafted level.

"Super aircraft" the Russian way

The Sukhoi Su-57, until recently called T-50 PAK-FA, is a fifth-generation fighter that was supposed to represent a significant qualitative leap in the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. The Russians boasted that their aircraft was a counterweight to the American F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II. Words are words, and the facts are that the Su-57 program has faltered from the beginning, and the machine does not fully meet the requirements.

The aircraft made its maiden flight on 29 January 2010. Serial production was planned to start three years later. By the end of 2014, the Russian military command announced that by 2020, the Air Force would receive 55 units. The declarations proved to be overstated. Production began only at the end of 2019, and so far, 10 prototypes for flight testing and only 22 serial machines have been produced.

The meagre production results are largely due to Russia's dependence on Western electronics. As one anonymous Russian Armed Forces officer said, all avionics used in the Su-57 are imported mainly from France and Germany. Currently, because of sanctions, it is difficult for Russia to obtain components from Europe, and the price of one aircraft has already reached £120 million.

Initially, there were problems with Saturn-Lyulka AL-41F1 engines. In 2011, the T-50-2, the second Sukhoi prototype, had to abort takeoff because of an engine failure. Four years later, the fifth prototype, the T-50-5, caught fire during landing at the Zhukovsky airfield, about 40 kilometres from Moscow.

At that time, Sukhoi representatives reported that the fire was localised and quickly extinguished. Soon after, photographs appeared showing burnt engine covers. The serial machines have new Phase II engines installed. However, they still do not provide the expected power.

There is also a problem with "invisibility" to radar. The Su-57 gives off the same radar echo as the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighter-attack aircraft without heavy attachments and a much larger one than the F-22 Raptor. In this data, it outperforms only the Su-27: it gives an echo more than 30 times smaller than that old machine. But that wasn’t the point—to beat old Russian machines, but new American ones.

Su-57 debuted in combat actions in 2018. It was over Syria in an environment devoid of air defences. It performed quite well, which wasn't a big challenge in that context. The Su-57 did not fly over Ukraine. It was assessed that the threat of being shot down was too great.

"Anti-access bubbles" burst

Of course, the destruction of aircraft at an airfield is not the fault of the machines but of the entire air defence system. Su-57s set up at an airfield are like sitting ducks. They were first detected by satellite surveillance, then a strike was planned, and a drone was sent. This drone flew unchallenged over the front line and then penetrated Russian anti-aircraft defences, including short-range ones directly protecting the airfield.

Thus, the Russian "anti-access bubbles," about which Kremlin propagandists said were so developed and modern that no potential opponent would be able to strike Russian installations, burst with a bang.

Meanwhile, it turns out that the Russian anti-aircraft system is more holey than Swiss cheese. Ukrainians have been attacking Russia's oil and energy industries almost with impunity for months. Now, they have again shown that they can effectively attack bases, airfields, and ports.

This is a big problem for the Russians, who already had to withdraw strategic bombers beyond the reach of Ukrainian drones. They are moving some frontline aviation to rear airfields. Frontline airfields are left only as staging bases, where aircraft receive only necessary technical support.

The destruction of the Su-57 will not significantly reduce Russia's capabilities. They were used minimally, anyway. However, it is a powerful image blow, painful primarily for Vladimir Putin's ego.

Related content