The Sukhoi Su-57 And The Race To The Fifth Generation [Opinion]

Pavel GolovkinAP

This past week the Russian Air Force unveiled the official denomination for its newest fighter jet, Russia Today reported. The Sukhoi Su-57, previously known under the project acronym PAK FA (from the Russian for Perspective Airborne Complex for Frontline Aviation) is part of what is usually known as the fifth generation of jet fighters.

Such aircraft are usually associated with high performance, advanced sensor suites and sensor fusion, and also stealth capabilities, the latter giving these aircraft the denomination they are usually associated with in most media: ‘stealth fighters’.

The Su-57 made it first flight back in January 2010, half a decade after the famous F-22 Raptor had entered service. At the time, the revitalization of the Russian military complex was already part of Vladimir Putin’s plans, and the Sukhoi jet was one of the flagships of such endeavor.

At the same time, the People’s Republic of China was also developing its own stealth fighter, the Chengdu J-20, which flew just one year after its Russian counterpart. These developments signal an attempt from the countries with stronger military-industrial complexes to develop and field their own advanced combat aircraft.

It is a race that has started a few decades ago, and which is only growing fiercer as new participants, and new realities, step into the field.

F-22 stealth fighter makes a pass over the Siauliai airbase in Lithuania.
[Image by Mindaugas Kulbis/AP Images]Featured image credit: Mindaugas KulbisAP

According to the book Superfighters: The Next Generation Of Combat Aircraft, edited by Mel Williams, the U.S. Air Force started research on the what would become the current generation of jet fighters back in 1981, under the auspices of the Advanced Tactical Fighter program. This initiative, and others that followed, would paint the picture of what a next-generation fighter should be like.

One of the main conclusions of these studies was that future aircraft would need to boast high-performance in terms of maneuverability, speed and supercruise, the latter being the ability to remain supersonic without using after-burners. This parameter was important because the capacity to maneuver in and out of a fight, while also accelerating and maintaining aerodynamic energy, remains quite important in the modern battlefield.

Moreover, it was also established that newer combat aircraft should implement low-observability features. This means that the shape and the materials used in the aircraft should combine to reduce the radar signature, thus providing stealth features. This does not mean that an aircraft is invisible, but that enemy radars require more time to perceive it as a threat and to gain a radar lock.

These new airplanes should also carry powerful radars and more versatile sensors, like electro-optical targeting systems. The input from these sensors would be fused together to increase the pilot’s situational awareness. At the same time, datalink systems would allow different aircraft to share sensor input and increase their detection capabilities and targeting.

The combination of all of these factors forms what was dubbed as the fifth-generation fighter jet.

The F-22 was developed by Lockheed-Martin, the same company that had previously worked on the F-117 stealth fighter-bomber. When it entered service in 2005, it was the most advanced air superiority fighter ever developed. It was also the most expensive, and only 195 were built.

F-35 stealth fighter in the 2017 Paris Air Show.
[Image by Michel Euler/AP Images]Featured image credit: Michel EulerAP

In an attempt to procure more stealth fighters, the U.S. developed the F-35 Lightning II, also manufactured by Lockheed-Martin. The idea was to improve on the concepts behind the F-22, but making them cheaper. Unfortunately, what began as a stealthy interdiction aircraft mutated into a multi-role fighter supposed to serve in the Air Force, Navy and the Marines in three distinct versions.

The F-35 became a controversial project, soaking over 1.5 trillion dollars and raising concerns about its true capabilities. More than 200 units have been built thus far.

Nevertheless, the qualities of a fifth-generation aircraft should not be underestimated. The ability to strike first is a great factor in the warfighting doctrine of any nation. To remain at the head of the curve, or at least to remain relevant, other nations started developing their own responses to the F-22.

The Su-57 was the first one to take to the skies. It clearly took cues from the ubiquitous Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker, the previous success of the Russian manufacturer. Like the Flanker, the Su-57 seems tailored for supermaneuvrability. Although built with stealth in mind, its general shape appears to be less optimized when compared to its American counterpart.

Additionally, the Su-57 is also a rare bird. Russia has only placed a firm order for a dozen of them, which means that the Russian Air Force will maintain the previous generation aircraft as its mainstays, the same issue that will plague the U.S. Air Force until more F-35s are made operational.

The Su-57 was also supposed to be part of a program to equip the Indian Air Force with stealth fighters adapted to the local needs, dubbed FGFA. However, the rising costs led to many delays and New Delhi and Moscow are still negotiating the terms of the program.

India has not given up on the production of a locally-designed fifth-generation fighter, though. Starting on 2008, the Indians began the development of a medium-weight stealth fighter-bomber, for now known only as the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft. It is expected that a technology demonstrator will be available in 2019, but the AMCA itself will only fly in 2025, two decades after the F-22 became operational.

Chinese J-20 stealth fighter making a low pass.
[Image by Alert5 (Own Work) | Wikimedia Commons | Cropped and Resized | CC BY-SA 4.0]Featured image credit: Alert5 (Own Work)Wikimedia Commons

The concerns with the Indian version of the Su-57 mean that the AMCA may become more important than originally envisioned. The older generation jets forming the country’s current fleet will remain operational for many years, and the delays in the native light jet, the HAL Tejas, mean that many may only be replaced in the long run by the AMCA itself.

As the current crisis in Doklam demonstrates, India faces strong competition from the People’s Republic of China, which has been rapidly modernizing its own air force.

According to Jane’s, the first Chinese stealth fighter, the Chengdu J-20, has been deemed operational by Beijing in March of this year. Unlike other fifth-generation fighters, the J-20 is a long, delta-winged machine, which some suspect to have been designed as a fast interdiction jet, able to carry a heavy payload to attack American aircraft carriers.

The Chinese are also developing another stealth fighter, a smaller model roughly equivalent to the American F-35, known as the J-31.

Because of the perceived capabilities of the fifth-generation jet fighters, several other nations are scrambling to attempt to produce their own, like Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Turkey and Sweden. This indicates that aircraft similar to the F-22 will probably become the backbone of the future air forces.

However, these aircraft have also proven to be too expensive to develop and produce, which brings another problem to the table. In realistic terms, just how many of them will these countries be able to operate? The importance of this factor relies on the fact that in any military engagement volume of units is paramount.

While a small number of combat aircraft may be enough to drop bombs over insurgent camps, a hypothetical conflict against other advanced air forces is quite different. It requires the players to be able to sustain losses and keep fighting. With just a few dozens of aircraft in service it becomes impossible to do that. As stated above, stealth fighters are not invisible, and sensor technology keeps improving.

So, faced with these issues, what are the solutions? There is a notion that a high-low approach to the construction of an air force would be preferred. The Chinese seem to be doing exactly that by developing fifth-generation jets while also producing J-10s and J-11s, aircraft of more traditional design, but cheaper and more numerous.

It is worth noting that this approach has proved to be effective in the past. For example, the parallel use of F-16s and F-15s in the U.S. Air Force is an example of this, with the relatively cheap but numerous F-16s being the ‘low’ element, while the more expensive and powerful F-15s represent the ‘high’ side of this approach.

At the same time technology keeps moving forward. The U.S., and apparently France and Germany too, are already thinking about the sixth generation, which will push further the ideas behind the fifth.

Of course, few people truly expect, or desire, a war among highly industrialized countries. But in a world as unpredictable as ours military forces have an important deterrence role. Advanced jet fighters are a significant way to earn the respect of one’s opponents, and to push nations to negotiate before any shots are fired.

One can assume that the window to develop and field fifth-generation jet fighters before they become surpassed by newer developments may not last for much longer. Thus, the race to the fifth generation goes on.

[Featured Image by Pavel Golovkin/AP Images]