12 Su-57 prototypes entered service – a Greek army veteran says

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How many fifth-generation stealth fighters are currently in service with the Russian Aerospace Forces [VKS]? The answer remains a mystery as Russia fiercely conceals the exact number of its active stealth planes. Notably, when either Rostec or UAC announces a new delivery, the phrase typically used in press releases and among Russian journalists is “…a new batch was delivered”

Photo credit: Naked Science

Often, assumptions about the “new batch” are made based on the images circulated to the media by these two Russian companies. However, if only one plane is shown in the picture, can we conclude that only one aircraft was delivered? Conceivably, and it seems highly likely, the Kremlin is deliberately obscuring the accurate number in a bid to mask any deficiencies in their production capabilities. This strategy is particularly noteworthy in the current climate, wherein Russia is in conflict with Ukraine, and maintaining a positive “army and public morale” is of utmost importance. 

Expert estimates currently suggest that the VKS has enlisted 32 Su-57 fighters into service. A critical point of clarification here- this figure of 32 commissioned fighters, as earlier publications indicated, includes the 12 prototypes developed by UAC before the first serial Su-57 rolled off the production line. Reports from late last year appeared to validate the existence of these 20 production Su-57s.

Photo credit: Getty Images

The 12 “warriors”

Greek army veteran Stavros Atlamazoglou wrote in his article for The National Interest that in 2018, “the Russian Ministry of Defense decided to put into service the first 12 fighter prototypes.” As the expert says, this is quite an unconventional move—not to mention risky. But why is that so? 

One of the main concerns is the lack of thorough testing. Usually, prototypes are employed to identify and rectify design faults before mass production begins. If these aircraft are put into service prematurely, any existing defects may not be fully resolved. This could potentially lead to damage in combat situations. 

Photo credit: Twitter

Another significant issue is the safety of pilots and crew members. Prototypes are typically not exposed to the same stringent safety standards as production models. Furthermore, the use of prototypes could also affect the reliability of the aircraft. Prototypes are often equipped with experimental or unproven technologies that may not perform as expected under real-world conditions. 

From a financial standpoint, the deployment of prototypes can also pose a risk. The cost of producing a prototype is usually higher than that of a production model due to the research and development involved. Consequently, if a prototype is lost or damaged, it represents a substantial financial loss.

Production risk

When considering future mass production, rushing the deployment of prototypes can potentially have notable impacts. If issues surface after the aircraft has been commissioned, expensive recalls or modifications might occur. Moreover, if the prototype proves ineffective or unreliable, it could result in a loss of trust in the aircraft. This could further negatively influence future sales and production. 

Lastly, service prototyping may also carry political and strategic implications. If a prototype is either captured or destroyed by an enemy, it might expose sensitive technology or design features. Such a scenario could potentially compromise the safety and efficiency of future production models.

Fast work

If we explore the history of the Su-57 over the last five or six years, we can ascertain the validity of our previous statements. Both Stavros Atlamazoglou and we can pinpoint the 12 fighters as stealth Felon’s Achilles heel. 

Photo credit: TASS

Primarily, the Su-57 is engineered to house highly effective and impactful weapons. The Vympel R-77 air-to-air missile is one such example. The snag lies in the fact that Russian engineers didn’t anticipate firing this missile from a domestic missile range. In other words, this missile can be fitted to one of the outer points under the Su-57’s wings. However, the moment the missile is installed there, the Su-57’s stealth capabilities cease to exist. 

Furthermore, the Su-57 has been equipped with an advanced communication system five years after the Russian Ministry of Defense commissioned the 12 prototypes. The new system offers enhanced protection against interference and eavesdropping, operating at high and ultra-high frequencies. Reports suggest that the system was being tested five years ago but wasn’t integrated. The lingering question is: which Su-57 prototype yielded the expected results? Can the other 11 prototypes incorporate this system? Missteps like these could have been averted if the 12 prototypes were simply used as “test rigs”

There’s more

That’s not all. Only at the end of the previous year did the Su-57 receive an engine upgrade, qualifying it as a fifth-generation aircraft. Would changes in the design and engine settings of the Su-57 over the past five years permit the 12 aircraft to also receive this upgrade? 

What’s the status of the flat engine nozzles? The F-22 Raptor has utilized them for years, while the Su-57 continues to test them out. Will these be congruous with the prototypes, which can fly into enemy territories with limited performance? The question also arises about the wing bolts on the Su-57, which were used on the first prototypes. Have they been replaced with rivets? Because it is well known that a bolt on a stealth fighter disqualifies it from being stealth. 

And let’s not forget about the stealth cover. The 12 prototypes were likely tested under multiple stealth cover configurations using different component paints. However, it’s unclear if these assorted paints, that were possibly used on the 12 prototypes, might impact the aircraft’s performance today.

Photo credit: Dzen.ru

The intentions

Russia’s intentions are clear – faster commissioning of even prototypes. However, this is a short-term solution that could potentially hinder the Su-57 in the long term, drawing a parallel with what is currently happening to the F-35. A single mistake can ground the entire fleet until a solution is found. The difference is that the F-35 fleet is mass-produced, making the correction more efficient, quicker, and less painful. Conversely, having 12 prototypes within Russia’s combat fleet equates to 12 different and unresolved aircraft.

The Russian army, on the other hand, aims for the aircraft to replace the MiG-29 Fulcrum and Su-27 Flanker fighters. Like its predecessors, the Su-57 Felon is capable of carrying a wide assortment of air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions. This includes R-73 heat-guided air-to-air missiles, R-27 radar-guided air-to-air missiles, as well as cruise missiles, planning bombs, conventional bombs, and missiles. It also features a robust 30mm Gryazev-Shipunov GSh-30-1 gun for close-quarter combat.

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