NewsRussian air defenses crumble as $300M Su-57s are destroyed

Russian air defenses crumble as $300M Su‑57s are destroyed

The satellite images show two damaged Su-57s
The satellite images show two damaged Su-57s
Images source: © Wikipedia

6:02 PM EDT, June 16, 2024

Within a few seconds, the Russians lost $300 million. That's the estimated value of two Su-57 aircraft, which were seriously damaged 370 miles from the front line. Financial losses are not the only concern. It has become evident that Russia's air defense system is highly overrated.

The excessive production costs and potential reputational risks in case of their destruction are the main reasons the Russians used the Su-57 sparingly in the war in Ukraine. They deployed the aircraft only a few times. Despite this extensive caution, the Su-57s were hit in a drone attack at the Akhtubinsk airfield in the Astrakhan region.

Initial reports mentioned one seriously damaged Sukhoi. However, Andriy Yusov, spokesman for the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine, later announced that two Russian Su-57s were hit.

"Regarding the (location) of the Su-57 hit on the aggressor state's territory, it is almost 370 miles from our border. We have not officially commented on whose operation it was, but analysts can make their own assumptions. We can confirm that one Su-57 is seriously damaged, while the other has less damage and will probably be repaired in a shorter time," Yusov said.

When the repairs will be completed, and whether they will happen at all, remains unknown, especially since the production of the Su-57 is still at a handcrafted level.

"Super aircraft" the Russian way

The Sukhoi Su-57, until recently known as T-50 PAK-FA, is a fifth-generation fighter intended to represent a significant qualitative leap in the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. The Russians claimed their aircraft was a counterweight to the American F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II. However, the facts suggest that the Su-57 program has faltered initially, and the aircraft does not fully meet expectations.

The aircraft made its maiden flight on January 29, 2010. Serial production was planned to start three years later. By the end of 2014, the Russian military command had announced that by 2020, the Air Force would receive 55 units. These declarations proved to be overstated. Production began only at the end of 2019, and so far, 10 prototypes for flight testing and only 22 serial machines have been produced.

The meager production numbers are largely due to Russia's dependence on Western electronics. According to one anonymous Russian Armed Forces officer, all avionics used in the Su-57 are imported, mainly from France and Germany. Currently, because of sanctions, it is difficult for Russia to obtain components from Europe, and the price of one aircraft now reaches $150 million.

Initially, Saturn-Lyulka AL-41F1 engines had problems. In 2011, the T-50-2, the second Sukhoi prototype, had to abort takeoff because of an engine failure. Four years later, the fifth prototype, the T-50-5, caught fire during landing at the Zhukovsky airfield, about 25 miles from Moscow.

At that time, Sukhoi representatives reported that the fire was localized and quickly extinguished. Soon after, photographs appeared showing burnt engine covers. The serial machines have new Phase II engines installed. However, they still do not provide the expected power.

There is also a problem with "invisibility" to radar. The Su-57 gives off the same radar echo as the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighter-attack aircraft without heavy attachments and a much larger one than the F-22 Raptor. In this regard, it outperforms only the Su-27: it gives an echo more than 30 times smaller than that old machine. But the goal wasn't to outperform old Russian machines but new American ones.

The Su-57 debuted in combat actions in 2018 over Syria, an environment devoid of air defenses. It performed adequately, but this wasn't a significant challenge. The Su-57 has not flown over Ukraine as it was deemed too risky to be shot down.

"Anti-access bubbles" burst

Of course, aircraft destruction at an airfield is not the fault of the machines but of the entire air defense system. Su-57s set up at an airfield are like sitting ducks. They were first detected by satellite surveillance, then a strike was planned, and a drone was sent. This drone flew unchallenged over the front line and then penetrated Russian anti-aircraft defenses, including the short-range ones directly protecting the airfield.

Thus, the Russian "anti-access bubbles," which Kremlin propagandists claimed were so developed and modern that no potential opponent would be able to strike Russian installations, burst with a bang.

Meanwhile, it turns out that the Russian anti-aircraft system is more porous than Swiss cheese. Ukrainians have been attacking Russia's oil and energy industries almost with impunity for months. They have repeatedly shown that they can attack bases, airfields, and ports effectively.

This is a big problem for the Russians, who already had to withdraw strategic bombers beyond the reach of Ukrainian drones. They are moving some frontline aviation to rear airfields. Frontline airfields are now left only as staging bases, where aircraft receive only necessary technical support.

The destruction of the Su-57 will not significantly reduce Russia's capabilities, as they were used in a minimal way, anyway. However, it is a powerful blow to Russia's image, particularly to Vladimir Putin's ego.

Related content