Fact check: How many Sukhoi Su-57 fighter jets does Russia have?
The Sukhoi Su-57 Felon, both the latest and the only operational fifth-generation fighter jet in Russia’s possession, became even more prominent following the start of the country’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
At the same time, the Felon received additional popularity after it was portrayed in the wildly popular Top Gun: Maverick action film, while the Russian Air Force continued to receive new jets of this type and talk about expanding its production.
Meanwhile, accounts about just how many aircraft of the model are currently in Russia’s possession appear to vary significantly. Some claimed three or less Su-57s are actually operational, while others said their number was slightly over a dozen.
But which figure is closer to the truth? And how many operational Su-57s does Russia have? Let’s check the available facts.
Problems with serial production
While there are several ways to find out the answer, none of these are 100% certain and, as expected, the development of the country’s top-of-the-line jet is quite secretive.
The only thing we can state with a high degree of certainty is that the number of serially produced Su-57s currently in the possession of Russian Aerospace Forces is in the single digits.
While initial plans aimed for the aircraft to enter service in 2017, by 2019 only one production Su-57 had rolled off the assembly line. As the aircraft was being tested, it crashed in December 2019, before ever reaching the Air Force.
It was only in December 2022 that the Russian Aerospace Forces were able to get its hands on its first Felon. In January 2022 the second batch of Su-57s was delivered, consisting of two more aircraft. Then, in May 2022, a further two were spotted in an airbase near Novosibirsk. Some reports claim the aircraft were later delivered to the Air Force, constituting the third batch of deliveries. However, there was no official announcement in that regard.
This brings the total number of serially built Su-57s serving with the Russian Aerospace Forces to either three or five, depending on whether the last pair of fighters had been delivered or if they are still being tested.
However, there is some contradictory information about these deliveries.
In mid-August 2022, the CEO of United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) Yury Slyusar offered another figure for the Su-57s.
"Under a state contract with the Russian Defense Ministry for the serial production of Su-57s, four aircraft have been built as of today,” Slyusar is quoted as saying by Russia’s state news agency TASS.
But where did this number come from?
Well, there are two ways to interpret this figure. One is to think that Slyusar counted only the first two batches of Su-57s, including the aircraft that crashed, and disregarded the third batch as it had not been delivered.
Another way is to exclude the serially made Felons that could have been refurbished prototypes. Between 2004 and the start of serial production in 2019 Russia built 13 more Su-57s. The aircraft were prototypes. Three were intended for static tests, and 10 were flyable.
The first batch of flyable prototypes, with numbers between T-50-1 and T-50-6, displayed a host of problems with their airframes and engines. At least one of the aircraft, the T-50-2, was later turned into a flying laboratory for testing the Izdeliye 30, a new engine intended for equipping all Su-57s by the end of the decade.
Two more, T-50-5 and T-50-6, caught fire but were reassembled to make them flightworthy again. They became the first so-called second-stage prototypes, with reinforced airframes and other improvements. Four more second-stage prototypes, numbered between T-50-8 and T-50-11, were manufactured from scratch.
Either two or four second-stage prototypes were deployed to Syria in 2018, displaying at least some combat capability.
This means that Russia has at least six more operational Su-57s. Some first-stage prototypes are also operational, although their exact number is unclear, and their combat potential is debatable.
In theory, this could bring the number of operational Su-57s to 11 or more. However, there are reports that some of the serially made Felons are second-stage prototypes brought up to serial production standard. In particular, one of the Su-57s, spotted in May 2022 as a part of the third batch of serial deliveries, was identified as a repainted T-50-11, the 10th flyable prototype.
This could explain Slyusar’s remark. Of six serially made Su-57s, two could have been modified prototypes, with only four built by UAC from the ground-up.
So, how many operational Su-57s does Russia actually have? The short answer is between three and 15, depending on how we count.
Three are serially made examples that have been delivered to the Russian Air Force. Two further aircraft were manufactured but, as of late August 2022, may not have been delivered yet. In addition, there are 10 flyable prototypes. Of the six first-stage ones, only one is likely to be operational. Two more were rebuilt into second-stage prototypes. Four more second-stage prototypes were produced, which brings the likely count of combat-capable prototypes to six.
However, it is possible that up to two of those prototypes were further modified and delivered as serially made Felons, bringing the total number of combat-capable prototypes down to four, and the total number of Su-57s available to the Russian Air Force to nine.
Is your head spinning from all these numbers? Here is a handy visual to organize these Felons.
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