• Russian state media claims the Su-57 fighter is undergoing unmanned flight testing.
• The report, based on an unnamed source, is suspect and should—for now—be treated as a rumor.
• Despite problems with the report, it is likely a window into the direction Moscow wants to go and a capability the Russian Aerospace Forces would like in the near future.
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Russia’s new Su-57 stealth fighter is reportedly undergoing unmanned testing. The Sukhoi Su-57, codenamed “Felon” by NATO, is a large twin-engine stealth fighter in the same rough class as the U.S. Air Force’s F-22 Raptor. The claim could well be true, but should be taken with a grain of salt.
According to RIA Novosti, an arm of the Russian state media services, the Su-57 is flying unmanned at an undisclosed location in Russia. Novosti cites an unmanned source which claims that the fighter is flying with a pilot, but the pilot is merely monitoring the aircraft’s systems.
The Su-57 is designed to fulfill both anti-air and air-to-ground roles. The aircraft is Russia’s first stealth fighter, with a reduced radar cross-section from the frontal and side aspects. The Su-57, along with the U.S.’s F-22 Raptor, F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and Chinese J-20 is a so-called “fifth-generation fighter,” mixing speed, stealth, and advanced weapons and sensors.
The RIA Novosti report is troublesome—not only does it come from a news outlet controlled by the Russian state government, the actual source is remained anonymous. Typically, piloted aircraft modified for autonomous missions require the installation of equipment to remotely manipulate the weapons, sensors, and flight controls. The Su-57 is a single-seat aircraft, and if there is a pilot sitting in the seat, there is no room for such equipment. Either the Su-57 used for unmanned testing is a two-seat variant or the aircraft is controlled remotely via software.
Russia’s aviation industry lags behind others in the development of autonomous combat aircraft, but Moscow is trying hard to catch up. Last year saw the introduction of the S-70 Okhotnik (“Hunter-B”) strike drone. Russia envisions the Su-57 and S-70 working together in wartime as a team, with the Su-57 clearing the skies while the S-70 conducts strikes against enemy forces on the ground. Alternatively, the S-70 could act as an robotic wingman for the piloted Su-57.
The Su-57 was first revealed in 2010, the announcement taking the world by surprise. Russian state media boasted the Russian Aerospace Forces would receive 144 “Felons” by 2012. In reality, development and funding problems forced Moscow to repeatedly pump the brakes on the program, to the point that co-development partner India exited the program. Sukhoi has delivered only 13 jets, all prototypes and pre-production models. The company is supposed to begin serial production this year on 76 Felons, but a decade of promises and delays, it’s best to wait and see.
Moscow definitely wants you to believe the Su-57 is flying without a pilot, but the timing is also suspicious. For example, Russian President Vladimir Putin revealed six new nuclear weapons in March 2018, weapons that really did turn out to be real. The Russian Army was supposed to have 2,300 brand-new T-14 Armata main battle tanks by 2020, but the service likely has less than 50.
The unmanned Su-57 might be flying in the right direction, but when it lands with the Russian Aerospace Forces is anyone’s guess.