On December 24, Russia’s Sukhoi-57 (Su-57) fighter jet crashed in the country’s Far East during a test flight. The fighter, believed to be the first one serially produced from a program in development since 2002, is considered by Moscow to be a key part of its arms export industry. The crash took place amid speculation about whether the fighter could be completed by its 2027 deadline, whether it is destined to fail, or perhaps merged into a sixth-generation fighter program.
The crash highlights the continued problems this jet has faced and could continue to face in the foreseeable future. Regardless, Moscow, through Rostec’s Rosboronexport, has courted potential customers, particularly those looking for an alternative to the U.S. F-35 or F-22 Raptor. Although Moscow has aggressively promoted the Su-57, the delays in its development and decreasing interest from customers will mean a significant purchase order is increasingly unlikely.
The Su-57 has flanked Vladimir Putin’s presidential plane, was tested on at least two occasions in Syria, and was paraded over Moscow during Victory Day celebrations, but none of this means that the plane is close to mass production. In 2018, the Ministry of Defence announced that it would not yet mass-produce the Su-57, but then Putin announced in 2019 that 76 Su-57s would be heading to the Russian Air Force by 2028. The uncertain pricing of a single unit, ranging from US$35mn to over US$54mn, twinned with these mixed messages from the Kremlin add to the confusion about the viability of the Su-57.
Potential Su-57 Customers
A number of potential buyers have been floated, but none of them appear likely to purchase the Su-57 anytime soon.
The most recent buzz was in late December 2019 when multiple media outlets reported that Algeria had concluded a contract for Su-57s. But these reports can be considered doubtful. The claims emerged three days after the crash, and details varied with some sources stating that Algeria would acquire at least 14 models, while others reported that negotiations were simply underway. An existing Algerian law requires arms be tested in the country before purchase, adding another wrinkle to this story as Moscow is unlikely to allow Algeria to test the Su-57. Finally, the lack of a Russian or Algerian statement confirming the contract suggests that the stories are false.
Moscow has continued to court India as a customer due to its role in the initial development of the aircraft. India and Sukhoi jointly agreed to develop the aircraft in 2007, though disagreements in 2012 over technology and financing transfers led to delays. Eventually, India withdrew from its co-developer role over funding issues and Moscow’s reluctance to share codes crucial to the fighter’s computer software, which would have forced India to rely on Moscow for future upgrades to the aircraft. Despite India’s backing out, Moscow still has tried to bring it back into the fold. India plans to develop its own fifth-generation fighter, HAL AMCA; it is still in very early stages of development. Nevertheless, India is not likely to purchase any Su-57s from Russia.
Another potential buyer is China as it has a long history of buying aircraft from Russia. China was the first foreign buyer of the Su-35. Rostec has stated that it is interested in selling Su-57s to China, but any purchase is unlikely because Beijing already has its own fifth-generation fighter program, the J-20 series. Therefore, any purchase would be small and only to gain technology. Recent criticism in Chinese media makes clear that some in China consider the Su-57 subpar to its rivals, particularly in terms of its stealth ability.
In recent months, Moscow has aggressively promoted the Su-57 to Turkey, likely out of opportunism in the changing relationship between Ankara and Washington. The likelihood of exports to Turkey is slim, though Moscow will continue promoting the fighter as a purchase by Ankara would be a major win in its competition with the United States for influence in the Middle East—as seen by the four Su-57s which flew during the MAKS air show in Russia when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was in attendance. Importantly, Turkey is excluded from the U.S. F-35 program following its purchase of Russia’s S-400 air defense system. It is more likely that Turkey would acquire Su-35s because talks have focused on that, and not the Su-57. There is little motivation to wait for the Su-57 when Ankara could acquire less expensive Su-35s. Su-57s and F-35s were built for different purposes, so buying the former after getting boxed out of the latter doesn’t make much sense.
Moscow will continue to ignore these setbacks and aggressively promote the Su-57 abroad, particularly to markets that are considering an alternative to the F-35. The production and marketing of the Su-57 does underline Moscow’s role as a major player in global arms exports. While Moscow has tried to grow a potential customer base, there are no clear indications that any of them will place a significant purchase order for the Su-57, or show any genuine interest in it, unlike air defense systems, such as the S-300 or S-400. The absence of any major order for the Su-57, therefore, is unlikely to affect Russia’s role as a global arms exporter soon, but in the long term what Russia chooses to learn from problems in the fighter jet’s development could prove crucial to the reputation of its export industry in the future.