Russia Further Expanding Production of Su-57 Fighters: Why New Fifth Generation Jets Are in High Demand

The Russian state owned United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) is currently further expanding its capacity to produce Su-57 fifth generation fighters, according to a December 28 statement by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Industry and Trade Denis Manturov. “Systemic decisions made at the state level for supporting the upgrade program have allowed for launching the serial production of fifth generation aircraft on time. Production facilities continue to expand. New high tech equipment is commissioned and more production personnel employed. An up-to-date final assembly line is in operation,” he stated at the time. The CEO of Rostec Sergey Chemezov, of which UAC is an affiliate, said Russia’s primary fighter manufacturing plant at Komsomolsk on Amur is set to considerably increase Su-57 production. “The Yu. A. Gagarin plant in Komsomolsk on Amur is working on a large-scale upgrade project, which will significantly increase the output of these combat planes… This aircraft is associated with the future of Russian combat aviation. It is an embodiment of advanced engineering and design solutions. It boasts supermaneuverability and low visibility to radars and is capable of destroying air and surface targets, detect the enemy at large distances, and operate in the conditions of a network-centric warfare. Its airframe is largely made from composite materials. The plane is equipped with the latest on-board equipment,” he elaborated. These reports followed confirmation from UAC CEO Yury Slyusar that production of all Su-57 and older Su-35 fighters at Komsomolsk on Amur to meet 2022 quotas had been completed, stating: “Our plant in Komsomolsk-on-Amur has completed this year’s program to produce the Su-57 fifth-generation aviation systems and multipurpose fighter jets Su-35S for the Russian Aerospace Forces. We will continue to live up to our commitments. Aircraft scheduled for delivery next year are already in the production phase.”

In August it was confirmed that new facilities were opening at Komsomolsk on Amur in preparation for an expansion of Su-57 production. The facility previously produced Su-27s in the Soviet Union, before transitioning in 1997 to manufacture Su-30 fighters after receiving large orders for the class from China. This continued until the mid 2000s meeting orders from Venezuela, Uganda, Indonesia and Vietnam, before culminating in the production of 20 Su-30M2 airframes for the Russian Air Force itself – the country’s first post Soviet fighter unit to enter service. The facility produced Su-35 fighters from November 2009, with production quickly reaching around 14 airframes per year, before adding a production line for the Su-57 close to a decade later. The first Su-57 was delivered to the Russian Air Force in December 2020, and although only six are currently in service the scale of production has expanded considerably. Production is expected to reach approximately 14 per year in 2025, while the Russian Air Force will field three squadrons by the end of 2027 with a total of 76 airframes according to current plans. Expansion to production to a scale exceeding that of the Su-35, Su-30 and Su-34 currently in production is expected in the late 2020s or early 2030s, as the Su-57’s unique status as Russia’s only fifth generation fighter means it is expected to have a larger share of both the domestic and foreign markets than any one of its three competing fourth generation predecessors. Much like the Su-27 was modernised and evolved into the Su-30/34/35, which are currently produced on three different lines, so too are different Su-57 variants expected to enter production at more locations across Russia, with the Irkutsk Aviation Plant currently manufacturing the Su-30SM/SM2 expected to eventually transition to producing a Su-57 derivative. 

The Su-57 is one of one of just three fifth generation production fighters currently in service worldwide, alongside the Chinese J-20 and American F-35, and has seen widespread interest from export clients with Algerian orders widely reported to have already been made. A spike in oil prices in 2022 as a result of the outbreak of war between Russia and Ukraine in February has notably significantly increased the revenues not only of the Russian state, but also of many of its key clients for fighter exports most notably Algeria and Kazakhstan, fuelling speculation that it could further boost demand for the Su-57. Foreign demand, and questions regarding the continued viability of enhanced fourth generation aircraft against the increasingly fifth generation dominated fleets of NATO members, has created further pressure for Russia to expand Su-57 production. Although the Soviet Union was expected to field its first fifth generation fighter squadrons in the early 2000s, the state’s disintegration, contraction of Russia’s tech sector, and sharp reduction in the scale of research and development and in defence expenditures, meant that the ambitious Soviet MiG 1.42 program was never completed. The Su-57 has itself faced considerable delays, with a service entry goal of 2015 and anticipated fleet size of 200 by 2025 both missed by several years. The fighter has served as a tested for sixth generation technologies such as directed energy weapons, wingman drones and hypersonic missiles, and is expected to evolve in to a ‘5+ generation’ fighter in the late 2020s. The enhanced Su-57M variant, which is expected to integrate many of the key technologies that take the program in this direction, is scheduled to enter service from 2025 – leaving the production run for the baseline Su-57 at only a few dozen airframes.

Development of enhancements to the Su-57 is seen as particularly critical due to China and America’s strong leads in developing their own clean sheet sixth generation fighters, which are both set to enter service around 2030 possibly within months of one another. Sixth generation aircraft of the two industry leaders are expected to leave current Russian fighters obsolete, with a ‘5+ generation’ derivative of the Su-57 seen as Russia’s most practical option to avoid an overwhelming disadvantage in the air. The Su-57 is considered less stealthy than Chinese and American fifth generation fighters, but has a number of strengths including an unrivalled endurance and level of manoeuvrability, use of sextuple radars, access to APAA guided R-77M air to air missiles, and use of unique laser defence systems. While the Soviet Union developed four separate classes of fourth generation fighter/interceptor, with others having been under development when the state disintegrated, Russia has only developed a single fifth generation fighter class. It has done so with a significantly greater delay behind the U.S. and with less distinct performance advantages over rival American jets compared to what the USSR had achieved in the preceding generation, when its Su-27 and MiG-31 jets were considered unrivalled in a way the Su-57 likely never will be. As momentum from the Soviet era further diminishes, Russia’s ability to remain a near peer competitor to China and the United States in fighter aviation remains in question due to the much smaller size of its tech sector and industrial base. Although already reliant on foreign electronics, the possibility of gaining greater Chinese support and technologies for the Su-57 program and its future successors has been raised as a possible means of significantly strengthening Russia’s position as the Chinese and American leads over competitors in the field are expected to continue to grow.