India may eye Su-57 to counter China’s J-20 – ex-IAF officer

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A commentary by former IAF marshal Anil Chopra – The Indian Air Force [IAF] is the fourth largest air force in the world. It is also one of the most powerful. Despite working on the Sukhoi/HAL Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft [FGFA] project, based on the Russian Sukhoi Su-57, the IAF does not yet have a fifth-generation fighter. 

Photo credit: Dzen

The FGFA was planned to have 43 improvements over the Su-57, including better sensors, enhanced networking, and advanced combat avionics. The Indian model was designed to be a two-seater with a pilot and a weapon systems operator [WSO]. Although India left the FGFA program in 2018, it might join again in the future. 

Meanwhile, a few Russian Su-57 Felon jets have seen action in places like Syria and Ukraine. On the other hand, China is quickly growing its fleet of J-20 fighters, with almost 250 units in service. These J-20s have been spotted at air bases along the Line of Actual Control [LAC] in Xinjiang and Tibet. 

Photo credit: Russian MoD

India is working on its own fifth-generation fighter, the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft [AMCA]. Still, the Su-57 remains an option for them. However, India can’t get the F-35 due to its purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system. If India thinks about getting a few Su-57s temporarily, comparing the Felon to the J-20 Mighty Dragon becomes more relevant.

The ‘Felon’

The Sukhoi Su-57 is a twin-engine stealth fighter aircraft that started development in 1999 with the code name T-50. It was the first stealth aircraft designed for the Russian military. 

Photo credit: Sukhoi

In 2009, the design was officially approved, and its first flight took place on January 29, 2010. By July 2017, it was renamed Su-57. The aircraft entered service with the Russian Aerospace Forces in 2020. As of now, 32 units have been built, including 10 test models and 22 production units. 

The Su-57 is designed for air superiority missions and can also attack surface and sea targets. It features stealth technology, high maneuverability, the ability to cruise at high speeds without afterburners, advanced avionics, and a large payload capacity. It’s intended to replace the MiG-29 and Su-27 and is also offered for export. However, the project has faced some technological and funding issues. During initial tests, prototypes showed early structural cracks, indicating that the airframe needed a redesign.

What Su-57 has?

Photo credit: Defense Express

The aircraft has a unique design with a wide, blended wing body and engines that are far apart. It features moving horizontal and vertical stabilizers. This design uses a lot of composite materials, making it lighter and stronger. Composites make up 22-26% of its structure and about 70% of the outer surface. 

Efforts have been made to reduce the radar cross-section [RCS] and infrared [IR] signatures to improve stealth. The aircraft canopy is treated with metal oxide layers to absorb radar waves, focusing on frontal stealth. However, the back part of the fuselage is not as stealthy as some American designs.

The ‘Integrated Modular Avionics Combat Systems’ uses advanced fiber optic channels. It includes a main nose-mounted radar with 1,514 T/R modules and two side-looking radars with 404 T/R modules each. These are placed on the forward fuselage cheeks to improve coverage. 

Photo by Artyom Anikeev

The nose antenna is angled backward to enhance stealth. It also has an L-band array on the front edges. Advanced onboard computers manage both radar signals, significantly improving information processing. 

The aircraft includes a night vision and tracking system, a countermeasure system to defend against infrared missiles, and sensors that can detect missile launches. It also has a thermal camera for low-altitude flights and landings, as well as a navigation and targeting system. 

It can release flares and radar decoys to confuse enemy missiles. The Su-57 also tests advanced AI and technology that teams manned and unmanned aircraft. 

Photo credit: Twitter

The Su-57 is powered by two NPO Lyulka-Saturn AL-41F1 engines. These engines produce 88.3 kN of thrust without afterburners and can go up to 142.2 kN with afterburners, reaching 147.1 kN in emergencies. The plane uses thrust vector control [TVC], similar to the Su-30MKI, which makes it more agile. 

The Su-57 has advanced weapon bays with two main internal bays measuring about 4.4 meters long and 0.9 meters wide. There are also two side weapon bays under the fuselage near the wings. These bays can hold up to four beyond-visual-range [BVR] missiles [R-37M] and two short-range missiles [upgraded R-74]. Additionally, the main bays can carry bombs and surface-attack missiles.

When stealth isn’t crucial, the Su-57 can use its six external mounting points. These points can hold different weapons, including the fast Kh-47M2 Kinzhal missile. 

Photo by Alexey Kudenko

The fighter has a large fuel tank, giving it a range of over 1,500 km at high speeds—more than twice that of the Su-27. It also has a refueling probe to extend this range even more.


Back in 2011, Russia’s Ministry of Defense [MoD] planned to evaluate the first 10 aircraft and then acquire 60 more by 2015. This plan changed, aiming for 52 aircraft by 2020 and another 150-160 by 2025. 

Photo credit: UEC

By June 2018, a new order for 12 aircraft was made. Deliveries faced delays until 2019, and a solid contract for 76 aircraft was signed, setting deliveries by 2028. Serial production started in July 2019, but delays meant they had to use more Su-35 variants. 

With a new production line in 2022, 12 Su-57s might be delivered to the Russian Air Force by the end of 2023. Another 20 aircraft are expected in 2024, making the Su-57 a significant jet fighter for Russia.

Su-57 deployments

Photo credit: UK MoD

In 2018, Russia deployed two Su-57s to the Khmeimim air base in Syria. This deployment also included four Sukhoi Su-35 fighters, four Sukhoi Su-25s, and one Beriev A-50 AEW&C aircraft. A Su-57 reportedly fired a cruise missile, likely a Kh-59MK2, during combat operations and flew around 10 missions in Syria. 

The 23rd Guards Fighter Aviation Regiment, located in Dzyomgi in the Eastern Military District, is the first unit to use the Su-57. Deliveries started in 2023, with all 24 aircraft expected to be delivered by 2025.

Reports say that Russia has been using Su-57 fighters to hit targets in Ukraine from a distance, staying away from Ukrainian air defenses. These fighters have also been used to disable enemy air defenses. Some reports claim that the Su-57’s low radar visibility was effective in combat, successfully engaging both air and ground targets, including shooting down a Ukrainian Su-27 with a long-range R-37 missile. 

Photo credit: UAC

By May 2024, Ukrainian sources reported more frequent use of Su-57 fighters to strike targets within Ukraine. On June 9, 2024, Ukraine’s Main Directorate of Intelligence shared satellite images showing a damaged Su-57 at Akhtubinsk Airfield after a Ukrainian drone strike. This base is 600 kilometers from the border.

Future of Su-57

Sanctions from the Ukraine War initially slowed down the import of semiconductors and high-tech equipment from the European Union. Despite this, the United Aircraft Corporation [UAC] reported that the upgraded Su-57 aircraft made its first flight on October 21, 2022. 

Photo credit: Getty Images

This new Su-57M model will have a more advanced engine, called AL-51F-1, with a thrust of 107.9 kN and 167 kN with an afterburner. It features glass-fiber plastic parts and a specially designed-nozzle to reduce radar and infrared detection.

Efforts are ongoing to add the Okhotnik UCAV into a ‘loyal wingman’ role for working with manned aircraft. A carrier-based version of the Su-57 is also being developed. Additionally, it’s been reported that an experiment was conducted using a group of Su-35s, with a Su-57 acting as the command and control aircraft.

China’s J-20 fighter

Photo credit: Global Times

The Chengdu J-20 “Mighty Dragon” is China’s advanced stealth fighter jet. It has three versions: the original J-20A, the J-20B with better maneuverability, and the two-seat J-20S for teamwork. This jet first flew in January 2011 and started active service in February 2018. This achievement made China the second country in the world and the first in Asia to have an operational stealth aircraft, with almost 250 jets made so far. 

The J-20 features a sleek design with a sharp nose and a smooth canopy. It has special air intakes and movable surfaces to help with supersonic speeds and turning quickly. This also makes landing easier. The back of the J-20 includes two angled fins, short vertical fins, and either regular or stealthy engine exhausts.

Reports indicate that the aircraft uses the Type 1475 [KLJ-5] radar system, which has advanced technology with over 1,800 modules. Some experts believe it might have between 2,000 and 2,200 modules. The J-20 also has six sensors called the Distributed Aperture System, giving the pilot complete coverage. This system combines radar and infrared images to improve situational awareness.

Photo credit: EurAsian Times

Experts believe the aircraft’s fins and rear areas might be easy to detect by radar, yet its overall stealth design is still very effective and better than the Russian PAK-FA. At first, Russian AL-31FM2 engines were used for test flights. Now, it uses Chinese WS-10C engines with 142-147 kN thrust, improved by special nozzles for better stealth. Eventually, the goal is to use Shenyang WS-15 engines providing 180 kN thrust, which is crucial for higher speed and better maneuverability.

The main weapon bay holds long-range air-to-air missiles [AAMs like the PL-12, PL-15, and PL-21] and precision-guided munitions. The two smaller side weapon bays, located behind the air inlets, are for short-range AAMs like the PL-10. The Pentagon says China plans to upgrade the weapons bay to hold six missiles. The aircraft also has four external hard points for non-stealth missions or ferry flights. 

In 2022, China produced about 40 to 50 airframes per year, and this is expected to increase to 100 to 120 per year by 2023. Right now, the PLA Air Force [PLAAF] has around 240 aircraft. The goal is to counter the growing number of F-35 fighters operated by the United States in the Western Pacific. By the early 2030s, the J-20 fleet could reach up to 1,000 aircraft.

Photo credit: ADN

Chinese media recently noted that the J-20S, a new version of their advanced fighter jet, is being developed for bombing, electronic warfare, and carrier strike missions. This makes the J-20S the world’s first twin-seat stealth fighter. 

The extra seat allows a co-pilot to help with attacks, manage missions, and control unmanned combat aerial vehicles [UCAVs] using “loyal wingman” systems and advanced sensors. Additionally, China is working on the AVIC Dark Sword and stealth Hongdu GJ-11 UCAVs to support these roles.

Notably, about ten brigades have switched to the new fighter platform. J-20s are now conducting regular patrols in the South China Sea. However, it’s important to note that the J-20 has not yet left Chinese territory, even for air shows or joint exercises with other countries. These jets have also been seen at airbases along the India-China border.

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The J-20 shows that China has moved from using Russian technology to developing its own advanced sensors and weapons. While the Su-57 has been used in combat in Syria and Ukraine, the J-20 has not left China. 

India is Russia’s top potential customer, but it’s working on its own Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft [AMCA]. After the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft [FGFA] project, India knows the limitations of the Su-57. It doesn’t want to rely too much on Russian weapons. However, if the AMCA gets delayed and Pakistan gets a fifth-generation fighter, India might rethink its position. 

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Chinese and Russian aircraft will compete in markets across Africa, West Asia, and Southeast Asia, where their affordability will be a big advantage. On December 27, 2019, Algeria signed a deal for 14 Su-57 aircraft as part of a larger military package that includes Su-34 and Su-35 fighters. Algeria is expected to get its first Su-57E by 2028. There are rumors that Vietnam might buy the Su-57. Russia has also offered Su-57E fighters to the United Arab Emirates, and Iraq has shown interest too. However, no Su-57 fighters have been exported yet.

China is quickly expanding its fleet of J-20 stealth fighters, and Pakistan is interested in the Chinese FC-31 stealth fighter. India must act fast. Since the AMCA is still being developed, India needs a temporary solution. The US F-35 would be perfect, but it’s not an option right now. The Indian Air Force [IAF] might look at the Su-57 or the new Su-75 Checkmate from Russia. India is considering all its options!


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