The Sukhoi Su-57 is a stealth, single-seat, twin-engine multirole fifth-generation jet fighter being developed since 2002 for air superiority and attack operations. Credit: Handout.

The late US Senator John McCain once said, “Russia is a gas station masquerading as a country.”

Appearing on CNN’s State of the Union, he added, “It’s kleptocracy. It’s corruption. It’s a nation that’s really only dependent upon oil and gas for their economy …”

True or not, they do know how to make efficient and capable jet fighters, and, they don’t need to steal the technology, either. The problem is, can they afford to make very many of them?

According to Russian news outlet RT, the Russian military has received a very special early Christmas present from the Sukhoi aircraft maker, with the first mass-produced Su-57 finally joining its ranks.

It joins the 10 pre-production jets already in service — some of which have already seen actual combat.

The manufacturing process of the new fighters is expected to accelerate in the months to come and, by the late 2020s, according to RT, Moscow will have at least 76 in its inventory.

A somewhat optimistic number, considering all the other “game day” military projects President Vladimir Putin is funding, or at least, is trying to fund.

Some analysts believe Putin will have to “Rob Peter, to pay Paul” to achieve that many state-of-the-art jet fighters.

The good news is, The Kremlin has made major strides in recent years to drive down the Su-57’s cost, making it easier to mass-produce and allowing Russia’s defense sector to export it at a more competitive price, The National Interest reported.

At a rough projected per-model cost of just US$40 million, the Su-57 is markedly more advanced but seemingly no more expensive than its highly capable Su-35 predecessor.

The new machines are expected to become the backbone of the country’s frontline aviation fleet for years to come, test pilot Sergey Bogdan believes.

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“This plane will serve far into the future, to the middle of the 21st century. It has enormous modernization potential,” Bogdan told RT. 

“On the basis of this excellent aerodynamic platform, it will be possible to create and develop new types of weapons. It has all the characteristics of a fifth-generation aircraft.”

The Su-57 (NATO nickname Felon) was conceived almost two decades ago, with the first prototype taking to the skies back in 2010. Around a dozen more, known during development as T-50 and PAK FA, were manufactured during the pre-production period, RT reported.

The prototype machines have often appeared at airshows, performing captivating, physics-defying stunts.

However, the engine developed specifically for the Su-57 is still not quite ready and the first mass-produced aircraft is equipped with an older one. Further mass-produced models are expected to be fitted with the new engines in the near future, RT reported.

The Su-57 program also suffered a setback last year, when a fighter jet — believed to have been the first-ever of the mass-produced aircraft — crashed during factory trials.

While its pilot was able to eject safely and no damage was caused on the ground, the incident delayed the delivery of the machines to the country’s military for almost a year, RT reported.

As previously noted by The National Interest, the Su-57 isn’t so much a dedicated stealth fighter as it is an anti-stealth fighter — a purpose-built machine that leverages its raw speed, maneuverability, and weapon acquisition tools to detect, engage, and neutralize high priority aerial targets (like the USAF’s F-35) with brutal efficiency.

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It also boasts advanced avionics that rely on artificial intelligence, helping its pilot to both fly the plane and operate its weaponry simultaneously, eliminating the need for a co-pilot.

The jet is also touted to be able to operate alongside an unmanned aircraft — a heavyweight drone dubbed “Okhotnik” (The Hunter), RT reported.

The new fighter jets can utilize all existing Russian-made aircraft weaponry and are expected to be fitted with cutting-edge hypersonic missiles too — presumably, Kinzhal or, potentially, its smaller derivative, so as to fit into the internal weapon bays of the Su-57.

The Kh-47M2 Kinzhal, which means “dagger,” is Russia’s nuclear-capable air-launched ballistic missile (ALBM), with a claimed range of over 2,000 kilometers, The Eurasian Times reported.

Reports suggest the missile can attain speeds of Mach 10, perform evasive maneuvers at every stage of its flight, and can carry both conventional as well as nuclear warheads.

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told a Defense Ministry’s board meeting that a total of 22 Sukhoi-57 planes would be provided by the end of 2024.

Despite only just having entered service, the Su-57 planes have already managed to see some real fighting action. Back in 2018, a couple of prototype machines were briefly used during Russia’s anti-terrorist campaign in Syria, RT reported.

They passed combat testing with flying colors, according to the military.

Apart from exposing any potential issues a plane might have, actual combat experience is crucial for opening up the jet’s potential for export.

“Any aircraft is taken seriously after it’s been used in real combat. As a rule, any customer is always interested in whether the aircraft was in service and in which conflict it has taken part,” Bogdan told RT.