The second serial Su-57 Felon, Russian 5th generation fighter jet, will be delivered by the end of the year. Yet, operational capability is still far away.
On November 2, 2020, the news agency TASS quoted an unnamed Russian Defense ministry official who said that the second serial example of the Su-57 will be received by the ministry in December. The mass production of the jet began in 2019, but the first aircraft crashed during factory trials.
Such a start may seem slow, but it was intended – in 2018 Sukhoi received a contract to deliver two serial examples in two subsequent years. A deal to produce further 76 jets was signed later, with a deadline in 2027.
Now, the steps of reaching that deadline were revealed. According to TASS, four Su-57s will be delivered in 2021, after which point production capabilities will be increased to up to 15 planes a year. The delivery of the final plane is pushed to 2028 though, and there is little certainty about the engines.
All the pre-production examples, as well as the current production ones, are equipped with the AL-41F1 engines, a heavily upgraded version of the AL-31 developed for the Su-27 Flanker in the 70s. However, it is seen as an interim measure as another engine – so far codenamed Izdeliye 30 (Product 30) – is being developed for the fighter from ground-up.
First prototypes of the new power plant reportedly were completed in 2015. Although there were plans to mount them on Felons by late 2017, delays came. Finally, photos of a Su-57 prototype flight testing one Izdeliye 30 emerged in early 2020.
New engines are supposed to be more powerful, more efficient and cheaper than current ones, with some impressive characteristics. Yet, there is still a long way before they will be ready. Initial plans saw the mass production of Izdeliye 30 beginning in the mid-2020s. According to TASS, the first operational examples are to be delivered in 2022. All serial Su-57s before that – and possibly some even after that – will be carrying the old AL-41F1.
Nevertheless, even with outdated engines, the Felon is a formidable fighter jet and it seems to have left the bumpy start behind. That is, if the plans – that have been met by Sukhoy with relative stability for the past two years – will be followed.
But even with them there will be no more than a couple of squadrons operating the new jet at least for half a decade, and no possibility of meaningful export production for the same period. The latter might not be a problem, as all potential international partners have resigned one by one – India exiting the program first, Turkey denying its involvement and Algeria’s alleged plans remaining unclear while the country is locked in a bitter political crisis.
For a comparison, in a timeframe between the Su-57 first flight and the first production example, China managed to test, put into service and build dozens of the J-20 aircraft. Arguably, first 6th generation fighter jets may pop up before the Felon reaches operational capability. Meaning, that although the Su-57 is steadily on track and is not likely to die off, it may be destined to remain a novelty gadget only for Russian Air Force for a while.