Russian Su-57 Fifth Gen. Fighter’s Primary Air-to-Ground Weapon Makes Combat Debut in Ukraine

The Russian Air Force has reportedly made first use of the new Kh-59MK2 cruise missile to support ongoing operations in Ukraine, with the new weapon having been designed specifically for the Su-57 fifth generation fighter to be deployed from its internal weapons bays. Ukrainian sources claim such a missile was first deployed on February 7, although claims regarding the kinds of assets used have often been dubious and included export-only weapons not fielded in the Russian Armed Forces. Three Kh-59MK2s were allegedly launched against Ukrainian targets overnight on February 7-8, which could provide the first indication that Su-57s were involved in precision attacks at the time. Although the new missile is not known to be deployed by fighter classes other than the Su-57, it is highly possible that another aircraft, such as the more widely used Su-34 strike fighter, has been used for the first combat tests before combat testing from the Su-57 itself begins.  

First combat tested in Syria in 2018 on Su-57 pre production models temporarily deployed there, the Kh-59MK2 was designed as the fighter’s primary air to ground armament is optimised for neutralising small hardened targets at long ranges of close to 300km. The missile uses a 320kg penetrating warhead, but can also be equipped with a smaller pellet warhead designed to affect targets over a wider area. Other warheads proposed have included a more powerful penetrator and a cluster munition carrier. The missile is subsonic which allows it to cover a greater range despite its relatively small size, and it is famously capable of changing target during flight. The designation ‘Kh-69’ has recently been widely used, and potentially refers to a variant with a different warhead, guidance system or built for export. This was recently placed on display at the Dubai Airshow.

Reports of the new missile’s use follow confirmation that country’s sole Su-57 regiment has also received a new class of much longer ranged cruise missile based on the Kh-101/102 deployed by strategic bombers, and that the Drel glide bomb designed for the fighter would likely begin deliveries on a large scale in 2025. The relatively conservative aircraft has a production cost approximately half that of the Soviet MiG 1.42 fifth generation fighter which was cancelled in the early 2000s. With the Su-57’s stealth capabilities and avionics considered well behind those of the rival Chinese J-20 and American F-35, the advanced capabilities of its missiles are one area where the Russian aircraft particularly stands out. No other fifth generation fighter is currently known to be capable of deploying a similar class of missile to the Kh-59MK2. With Su-57s having been deployed to support operations in Ukraine since mid-2022, possibly as early as March, it remains highly possible that the missiles have been used in the past with this simply not being reported by Ukrainian sources. The Su-57 has emerged as by far the most thoroughly combat tested fighter of its generation, with its operations involving not only air to surface strikes, but also more complex air defence suppression and air to air combat at beyond visual ranges.