New Missile Just Made Russia’s Su-57 the First Fighter to Put U.S. Guam and Hawaii Bases in Strike Range

The Russian Air Force’s sole squadron of Su-57 fifth generation fighters in October 2023 integrated a new class of cruise missile which matched the estimated 3500km range of the the Kh-101/102 missiles carried by Russian strategic bombers. This development has the potential to allow Su-57s to conduct strike missions previously considered possible only for strategic aviation assets. The new missile has a much more compact body than the original Kh-101/102 suited to arming tactical aviation units, but sustained the original’s very long range primarily through use of a new smaller bypass turbojet engine. Although some estimates for the Kh-101/102’s range have exceeded 5500km, a range of at least 3500km has been generally accepted by analysts internationally. The Su-57’s own combat radius, at well over double those of the American F-35 and F-22 fifth generation fighters, is expected to be extended significantly with the integration of Saturn 30 engines in the second half of the decade, which when combined with the new 3500km range missile allows it to engage targets which tactical aviation units have never been able to before. 

With the first operational Su-57 unit set to be based in the Pacific, which has been a growing priority for Russian forces, a key potential target are American military facilities on the islands of Guam and Hawaii. These have gained growing importance for American power projection capabilities into East Asia not only due to Washington’s launching of the Pivot to Asia initiative in the early 2010s, but also because facilities closer to the Asian mainland such as those in Korea and Japan have been seen as increasingly vulnerable to Chinese and North Korean strike capabilities. The growing vulnerability of sites on Guam and their key importance to America’s ability to wage war in the region has led the United States Military to invest in building up to 20 new air defence sites on the territory, although with the primary challenge to these defences coming from ballistic missile strikes a radar evading cruise missile would allow Russia to hold targets at greater risk. Bases in the Russian Far East would place Su-57s within unrefuelled range of striking Guam, while other sites nearer to the Cape Dezhnev could host facilities which would place the aircraft within strike range of facilities on Hawaii as well. 

The integration of a strategic cruise missile onto the Su-57 has particularly significant implications due to how widely the fighter class will be deployed, with over 250 expected to enter service domestically at a very conservative estimate of which the first three squadrons will be operational by the end of 2027. With production expected to exceed 12 aircraft in 2023, it is considered likely to have exceeded 20 aircraft per year by 2027. As the aircraft comes to form the backbone of the fighter fleet tactical aviation units across Russian territory will gain the potential to be easily re-equipped for strategic strike roles at near intercontinental ranges. Operating over the Pacific a little beyond Alaskan airspace, the fighters could with support from aerial refuelling assets also hold facilities across key parts of the continental United States within range including vital industrial facilities in California. While strategic bombers were already capable of doing so, fighters will be deployed in much greater numbers, from a much wider range of bases, without the need for long airfields, and with much lower maintenance needs. The Su-57’s combination of a short airfield performance and a strategic cruise missile is particularly unprecedented, while its design has specifically emphasised the importance of low maintenance needs and high availability rates to avoid many of the complexity traps which have kept readiness among American fifth generation fighter units low. The Su-57’s stealth capabilities are another important factor which will seriously limit the warning American facilities will have of a potential missile attack. 

The original Kh-101/102 has been extensively combat tested against targets in both Syria and Ukraine, while the Su-57’s own beyond visual range precision strike capabilities have also been tested during multiple operations in both countries including in air defence suppression missions in Ukraine. The new cruise missile’s integration onto the fighter increases its air to surface strike range more than tenfold compared to the Kh-59MK2 the fighter used in prior engagements, and thus provides the Su-57 with by far the longest engagement range of any tactical combat aircraft in the world with significant implications not only for how it will operate, but also its ability to potentially replace a portion of the Russian bomber force. The challenge posed by the class’ new strategic strike capabilities could be increased considerably should the new miniaturised cruise missiles be offered for export to the aircraft’s foreign clients. Algeria is reported to have already placed orders for Su-57s, with the cruise missiles if acquired allowing the country’s air force to strike key targets across much of Europe from deep within Africa. Very long range strike capabilities using radar evading cruise missiles provide a key means to compensate for some of the Su-57’s other limitations in particular regarding its lower stealth capabilities compared to its Chinese and American rivals, with further beyond visual range air to surface weapons including a ballistic missile reported to be under development for the fighter class.