The Russian Su-57 fifth generation fighter which began development in the early 2000s, and first entered service in 2020, was notably not the first program of its generation to see development in the country. Fifth generation fighters began development in the late 1970s in both the Soviet Union and the United States, and introduced a range of new technologies over their fourth generation predecessors most notably use of stealth airframes with internal weapons carriage, AESA radars, revolutionary new levels of sensor fusion and network centric warfare capabilities, glass cockpits and supercruise capabilities – the ability to fly supersonically without using engine afterburners, all of which would provide tremendous advantages over aircraft from prior generations. While American efforts under the Advanced Tactical Fighter program culminated after considerable delays in the service entry of the F-22 Raptor fifth generation fighter in December 2005, a Soviet counterpart to the Raptor was developed by the Mikoyan Design Bureau and had been scheduled for service entry around 2000-2005.
A direct predecessor to the Su-57, the MiG 1.42 fighter was a far more ambitious fighter for its time reflecting the fact that the Soviet Union had a much larger defence budget, greater standing in emerging technologies, and could pursue R&D and acquisitions on much larger scales. Passing the Air Force’s review in 1991 after over a decade in development, the aircraft’s Mach 2.6 top speed and 4000km endurance comfortably exceeded those of the F-22. Its AL-41F engines put out much greater thrust and had a higher thrust/weight ratios than any used on a twin engine fighter to this day – on par with the single engine F-35’s F135 powerplant which entered service from 2015. The fighter’s N014 radar, with a 420km detection range and the ability to track up to 40 targets simultaneously, was considered significantly ahead of its time with few fighters until today boasting comparable sensors. The fighter was also set to make use of a range of technologies not seen on any other stealth aircraft including a plasma stealth system which could reportedly reduce its already low radar cross section by orders of magnitude further. Its R-77M missiles, meanwhile, had performances ahead of any fighter-sized munitions deployed by the Russian Air Force at least until the 2020s. The MiG 1.42’s very ambitious performance, however, came at a high cost, and the aircraft is estimated to have had a flyaway cost of around $70 million (in $2020 dollars) if Russia had completed it and placed it in production, although this partly reflected reductions in efficiency across the Russian defence sector after the Soviet Union’s disintegration.
The MiG 1.42 program was ultimately abandoned for multiple reasons, one being the cost of acquisitions which were unfeasible for the Russian Defence Ministry due to the severe decline the economy suffered in the 1990s. The defence budget that decade fell to around 5-8 percent the levels of the late 1980s. The fighter saw the first flight of its technology demonstrator airframe delayed by over six years due to an inability to finance some of the last avionics required, flying only from 2000 by which time the airframe was largely obsolete, and was soon afterwards cancelled with its high cost being cited as a leading cause. Although technologies developed for the MiG 1.42 would form the basis for developing the Su-57, which began development in 2002, the new fifth generation fighter program appeared to be intended from the outset for the requirements of a much smaller less well funded air force that was making do with a smaller technological base.
Where the MiG 1.42 was a completely clean sheet fighter intended to provide the best performance specifications Soviet science was able to, the Su-57 appeared to be loosely derived from its fourth generation predecessor the Su-27 Flanker – the fighter the MiG 1.42 was initially intended to replace. Design commonalities were significant, resulting in the Su-57 often being derided as a ‘stealth Flanker,’ with the new Russian fighter’s technologies and specifications being far less cutting edge for its time. This would have been the case even if it had entered service on schedule in 2015 rather than being delayed to the 2020s. The Su-57’s more conservative design did have a number of benefits, however, including not only relatively low operational costs, but also anticipated ease of integration in a fleet already accustomed to operating various Su-27 derivatives to form its backbone.
The Su-57 has a flyaway cost estimated at only around $35 million – or half that of the MiG 1.42 – making large scale acquisitions far more viable for the cash strapped Russian state. While this is still over twice the cost of the most advanced Su-27 derivative the Su-35, which reportedly has a flyaway cost of only around $18 million, it is still very low for a fifth generation fighter. This is particularly important since, with the Russian Air Force alone being too small to absorb a very large Su-57 production run, the fighter will need to be exported in significant numbers for the program to enjoy significant economies fo scale. This follows the precedents of post Soviet Su-27 and Su-30 production lines which saw the large majority of the airframes manufactured going abroad.
The Su-57 ultimately represents a program developed for the fleet of a Russian state which was well below the ranks of the world’s top five economies, and was no longer among the two leaders in key emerging combat aviation related technologies. The MiG 1.42 by contrast was developed for the Soviet Union which was world’s second largest economy and had one of the two best funded air forces in the world. The end of the MiG 1.42 program marked a turning point in Russian aviation history after which, having competed on a peer level to the United States from the Stalinist era in the late 1940s, it effectively ceded the fifth generation race. The result is that only China and the United States today field fifth generation fighters at squadron level strength, while Russia is not considered a serious contender with the two industry leaders for primacy in the upcoming sixth generation.