Quietly over the holidays, the Russians made a key decision regarding the Sukhoi Su-57. This is Russia’s fifth- generation aircraft that will enter service in 2019 and eventually be an important near peer adversary to American planes like the F-35. The plane promises that it will be just stealthy enough to force adversary stealth aircraft to come closer and detect it. This would in turn expose the opposing planes to the superior systems of the Su-57 such as its higher cruising speed, better kinetic abilities, and weapons and electronic sensors that makes it a superior omnirole platform.
This all sounds great on paper for the Russians and scary for their adversaries; it generates clicks for articles and gives Putin ammunition for press conferences. For example, just this week Putin bragged about his “invincible” hypersonic missiles that move 20 times the speed of sound. (I almost wrote the speed of light, which would be something Putin might say to exaggerate the headlines.) These missiles would be part of that advantage in weapons systems that the Su-57 will have.
But there are major problems with this view. The news over the holidays is that they are not mass-producing the plane. They have a total of 10 fighters in service as of late 2018. That means that their impressive propaganda video in which 4 Su-57 fighters perform dazzling aerial maneuvers and simulated missile launches were almost half of their entire fleet. As Americans know well with the F-35, there are likely to be numerous teething issues for the planes such as the complex sensors and various technical aspects. Unless the plane is mass-produced, they will remain incredibly expensive, and they will be outnumbered by American procurement.
The U.S. military spent almost 400 billion in the last half decade acquiring 2,300 of their fifth-generation fighters and 60 billion acquiring 180 F-22s. Russia has a much smaller economy, and the fighters they have received are part of an unprecedented increase in spending. They entered a small group of nations spending more than 5 percent of their GDP on the military budget. But all of this spending only provided them with about 200 aircraft in 2018, and again, only 10 to 12 of the fifth-generation fighters. By comparison, the largely sequestered U.S. military budget still supplied 400 planes in the same year.
The Su-57 sounds really great on paper and makes a dazzling propaganda video. But history is littered with the literal hulks of super machines that weren’t properly employed or built in large numbers. The Japanese super battleships were largely kept out of conflicts until late in the war when it didn’t matter. The battleships ended up being destroyed by larger numbers of better-trained seamen on “normal” battleships. Both the battleships and the German King Tiger tanks needed prodigious amounts of fuel for nations that had limited supplies. The King Tiger tank had abysmal weight-to-thrust ratio which led to numerous engine problems that limited its use on the battlefield. The Su-57 sounds great, but they literally measure in the dozens compared to hundreds and thousands of F-22s and F-35s possessed by their American opponents. And that is before we compare how they overcome technical issues and perform in combat, which are both likely to be over-matched by both the skill and numbers of American pilots and planes.