In times of war, new weapons are often rushed to the front and pressed into service before they have been properly tested. There is little choice, and any operational edge can be critical on the battlefield. The Russian Federation, however, is not fighting a war at present – just a low-intensity conflict in Syria, where its aircraft are indiscriminately bombing rebel enclaves, killing hundreds of civilians weekly. It is beating them into submission so the ground forces of its protégé, President Bashar Assad, and his proxy allies can eventually regain territory.
There is no military justification for Russia to deploy its most advanced and – so far at least – nonoperational stealth fighter jet to Syria. And yet last week Russia sent four Sukhoi Su-57s to its Khmeimim air base in Syria.
The Su-57 first flew eight years ago, in January 2010. And just like other new weapons systems, its development has been long and arduous. From all available information, only 10 flyable prototypes have been produced so far, and deliveries to Sukhoi’s main customer – the Russian Air Force – have yet to take place. With an aerodynamic shape and coated in radar-absorbent materials that greatly reduce its radar cross-section, it is intended to be the first stealth fighter in Russian service.
So why has Moscow taken the unprecedented step of sending four of its valuable prototypes to Syria, disrupting the flight-test program, even before the Su-57 reached initial operational capability (IOC)?
There is simply no military justification for the deployment. Like other stealth fighters, the Su-57 carries its weapons load within internal bays to minimize its radar signature. This limits the number of air-to-ground munitions it can carry (since it will be carrying air-to-air missiles for self-defense), making it ineffective for bombing runs over eastern Ghouta and Idlib.
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On an airstrike mission, stealth fighters are optimized to take out high-value targets defended by multiple anti-aircraft batteries, utilizing their evasive features to penetrate defenses and carry out precision strikes. All these advanced capabilities are superfluous on a routine Russian sortie over Syria, which consists of dropping tons of explosives on hospitals and bakeries.
Rebel groups in Syria have little in the way of anti-aircraft defenses. The best they can muster is a handful of Soviet-era, Strela shoulder-launched missiles with which they have scored some successes against low-flying regime and Russian aircraft. But this has hardly deterred the Russians, who usually bomb from altitudes well beyond the Strela’s range. The Su-57 is hardly necessary against such puny resistance.
Some experts have advanced the explanation that the Su-57 is being deployed in order to train air and maintenance crews, and provide them with combat experience on the new jet. But this hardly makes sense at this stage in the aircraft’s development, before it has even been supplied to squadrons back in Russia. They still lack the most basic knowledge of stealth operations and will need many months, if not years, to acquire the know-how to use these aircraft efficiently overseas.
Another theory raised in recent days – that the Su-57s are to counter another U.S. airstrike against Russian mercenaries in eastern Syria, such as the one earlier this month where as many as 200 of them are reported to have been killed – is even more outlandish. The United States, should it be confronted, has far superior forces to bear in the region, including its own stealth F-22 fighters; four prototypes, never tested in real-life scenarios, will be no match. The last thing the Kremlin is planning is to risk the humiliation of its most advanced jet being shot down over Syria.
Deploying nearly half of Sukhoi’s prototypes to Syria will not only cause months of delay in the test program, as the flights taking place there will be of little use since they won’t be carried out in the necessary conditions and with calibrated telemetry instruments. It also risks exposing some of the aircraft’s unique capabilities. Every radar system within 400 kilometers (about 250 miles) range of Khmeimim – there are a lot of them, and you can be certain that more were flown out there by NATO over the weekend – will be focused on detecting the Su-57 and acquiring readings of its radar and sensors signatures.
The Su-57 deployment to Syria smacks of the same kind of motivation that made the Russians send their single aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, to the Mediterranean in November 2016. The Russians boasted that in the short time it sailed off the Syrian coast, its aircraft attacked “a thousand targets.” However, Western intelligence services tracking the operation believe the fighter jets on the Kuznetsov’s decks lacked even the range to carry out a single full carrier-based mission – launching from the ship with a bombload and returning there after completion. It was an exercise in public relations with scant military value, and at the cost of two fighter jets that crashed into the sea.
But at least the Kuznetsov is a veteran vessel that should be put through its paces at sea. The Su-57 is still brand new, and exposing it to harm in Syria makes less sense. That is, until you check out Russia’s domestic political calendar.
The Syrian campaign is losing popularity back home and in three weeks the Russians will vote in a presidential election. There’s no way President Vladimir Putin will lose – he has no serious challengers, anyway. But the campaign itself needs rousing images to deliver not just victory but a resounding landslide and a chorus of nationalism befitting a czar. And what better image than Russia’s newest jet bombing the enemy to oblivion?
There is no other conceivable reason to send the Su-57 to Syria other than for Putin’s greater glory. The family in east Ghouta buried alive by the shock wave released by one of its bombs will never know they were the first-ever civilian target of a stealth fighter – but at least they’ll have provided action footage for Russian television.