What wins the Battle of the Super-Fighters: the US’ F-35, or Russia’s Su-57?
As tensions rise between East and West, nations are upgrading their military in case the cold war heats up. This includes the US and Russia’s latest super-fighters. But which one will rule the skies?
For almost three decades, the US held a monopoly over low-observable combat aircraft. It introduced the world to stealth with the F-117A Nighthawk in the early 1980s and was the first to enter the age of fifth-generation fighters back in 1997, when the F-22A Raptor took flight.
As the world entered a new millennium, the US joined forces with several key allies to develop a family of fifth-generation multi-role stealth fighters, which gave rise to the F-35 Lightning II. Designed to conduct a variety of missions across a multi-domain battlespace, the F-35 exploits advanced technologies to offer a range of fifth-generation capabilities to operators across the globe.
However, the F-35 was not the only cutting-edge combat aircraft to be launched at the turn of the millennium. As the 2000s progressed, the eyes of the US and its Western allies looked to the east, as the military heavyweight of Russia grew closer to rolling out its first indigenously developed fifth-generation stealth fighter.
By the early 2010s, the US had officially lost its monopoly when the Russian Sukhoi T-50-1 (the first prototype for the serial production Su-57) took to the skies for its maiden flight on January 29, 2010.
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For the last decade, manufacturers and operators have continued to grow and mature the abilities of the F-35 and Su-57. These fighters are intended to serve as a strong deterrent in key flashpoint regions across the globe, which are growing in importance as political tensions between the West and East continue to rise.
As NATO alliance members convert from their older combat aircraft to the F-35, Russia begins to silently induct its first serial production Su-57s into operational service.
So which one has the edge? Let’s take a closer look…
The Su-57 is primarily an air superiority fighter, with a secondary focus on conducting strike missions, much like the F-22. Unlike the Su-57, the F-35 family was designed to be a pure-bred, fifth-generation multi-role stealth fighter that can conduct a variety of missions across a multi-domain battlespace.
The Lightning II has the ability to undertake air superiority, close air support, electronic warfare, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, strategic attack and the suppression/destruction of enemy air defence missions.
At present, just one serial production variant of the Su-57 exists – although Russia has highlighted that a number of different versions of the baseline platform could be developed. The nation first promoted a second variant, the Su-57E, in March 2019, which would be the designation given to examples of the fighter that are exported to international customers.
Where can they be used?
The F-35 differs greatly here, as three distinct versions of it exist to cater for a variety of requirements across a multi-domain battlespace. These variants comprise the F-35A, for conventional take-off and landing; the short take-off and vertical landing-capable F-35B; and the F-35C, which is the conventional carrier variant of the family.
Sukhoi’s Su-57 shares the same employability as the F-35A, given that both platforms operate solely from prepared land-based runways. However, what gives the Lightning II the edge is its ability to be employed from aircraft carriers and amphibious assault ships through the F-35B and F-35C variants.
These versions of the platform allow operators to project combat air power directly into a maritime domain from a base that is deployable to any corner of the globe.
Design and speed
The most noticeable difference between the F-35 and Su-57 is in their overall design. The aerodynamic shape of the larger Su-57 is heavily optimised for achieving a high lift-to-drag ratio while flying at supersonic speeds, making it faster than the F-35. With two afterburning turbofan engines to the F-35’s one, the Su-57’s engines are also optimised to allow the aircraft to supercruise (fly supersonic without using the afterburner).
As well as that, the Russian fighter features a thrust vectoring capability, which gives it supermanoeuvrable handling qualities in flight.
In terms of stealth capability, there is a longstanding debate on how stealthy the Su-57 actually is, although earlier issues with its low-observable signature have seemingly improved as production begins to ramp up.
Meanwhile, despite the F-35 benefitting from Lockheed Martin’s long history of developing stealth technologies, it has its own issues. The F-35B and C variants are at risk of suffering structural damage and losing their low-observable signature if they fly supersonic for prolonged periods of time.
One of the most important features of the F-35 is its employment of advanced avionics and sensor fusion technologies, along with its ability to network and exchange information with other air, ground, and naval-based assets. Yet the Su-57 has also been designed with the same capabilities in mind.
Like the F-35, the Russian fighter is capable of networking and exchanging data with other assets in the battlespace. They both feature open architecture designs that allow them to accommodate new technologies in an effort to meet evolving and future threats.
In terms of their respective armaments, both aircraft can be equipped with an array of munitions, comprising a variety of air-to-air/air-to-surface missiles, anti-ship missiles, and bombs, although the F-35 has a wider selection of weapons to choose from. To maintain their low-observable characteristics, both fighters feature internal weapons bays. They each have external hardpoints where munitions and fuel tanks can be carried at the expense of stealth. The Su-57 boasts 12 hardpoints to the F-35’s ten.
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Which other countries use them?
Although both platforms were developed from the outset to be available to customers on the export market, there is no doubt that the F-35 has excelled over the Su-57 in this area – helped by the fact that it is the product of a multinational development programme. The Su-57 was developed domestically, despite efforts by Russia to co-develop a variant of the type with India.
As of February 2020, neither the Russian government nor Sukhoi had confirmed any solid export orders for the Su-57E, although unconfirmed reports had identified Algeria and Vietnam as potential customers. Turkey has also noted its interest following its expulsion from the F-35 programme in 2019, after it received its first S-400 surface-to-air missile system from Russia.
But 12 nations have officially ordered the F-35 to replace older fleets, with more set to follow, while the US plans to acquire a total of 2,443 F-35s across all three variants to equip the Air Force, Marines and Navy.
All together, this will take the number of F-35s in operation to way above 3,000. It would be almost impossible for the Su-57 to match this export success.
Both platforms have their pros and cons, and excel in different areas. The Su-57 remains heavily geared to air-to-air warfighting, while the F-35 was developed for several roles. It has the edge over the Su-57 when it comes to stealth and also has a wider selection of weapons, although the Su-57 can be equipped with more munitions during combat.
But with its high-speed capabilities and supermanoeuvrable qualities, the Russian fighter trumps the F-35 when it comes to handling.
Yet where the F-35 really wins is in its numbers and export success. With more than 3,000 set to be rolled out for operators across the globe, it is going to be a real struggle to pin the F-35 platform down anywhere – and that will make it exceptionally hard to fight against.
Read more military content at Key.Aero – like the massive Russian military helicopter that’s nearly as long as two tennis courts.