Perhaps the main lesson should be that, despite their differences of philosophy, the Russians and Americans both armed their stealth fighters with guns.
One Chinese expert holds a mixed view of Russia’s Su-57 stealth fighter, Beijing’s state media reported. For all its faults, the Su-57 is “unique,” Wang Yongqing concluded, according to Global Times .
Wang is the chief designer at the Shenyang Aircraft Design Institute, which is developing the J-31 stealth fighter. The Chinese navy reportedly is considering adding the type to future carrier air wings.
But in studying the troubled Russian plane, Wang seems to have overlooked potentially the most important lesson the Su-57’s abortive development stands to teach the Chinese.
The Su-57 might never enter service in meaningful numbers. But that’s not necessarily the fault of the plane’s design, which is sophisticated and well-rounded. Perhaps most notably, the Su-57 has a gun, just like American stealth fighters do. Alone among stealth fighters, China’s own J-20 does not have a gun.
The gun gap apparently escaped Wang’s attention.
“Although many Chinese military observers are pessimistic over Russia’s latest fighter jet Su-57’s capability, a senior Chinese warplane designer believes the Su-57 has a very unique concept,” Global Times reported on Jan. 24, 2019.
The Su-57, a large, twin-engine fighter with a wide, trapezoidal wing, first flew in January 2010. Since then the Russian air force has acquired around 10 Su-57s for testing. Sukhoi engineers reportedly build each Su-57 by hand, resulting in crude workmanship .
The Su-57s reportedly lack key combat systems. Two of the fighters briefly deployed to Syria in February 2018. The Kremlin claimed, without firm proof , that the planes flew strike missions during the deployment.
The Kremlin ordered its first dozen production-standard Su-57s in August 2018, hoping to form the first regular squadron some time in 2019. But with military budgets declining amid an economic slump, Moscow at the same time decided to not acquire the plane in large numbers.
The Russian government tried to spin the decision to curtail the Su-57 effort. “You know that today the Su-57 is considered to be one of the best aircraft produced in the world,” Yuri Borisov, Russia’s deputy defense minister, told a T.V. audience in July 2018. “Consequently, it does not make sense to speed up work on mass-producing the fifth-generation aircraft.”
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force has had greater success with its own J-20 stealth fighter. The large, twin-engine fighter first flew in early 2011. In early 2018 the PLAAF declared the first squadron of the type to be operational.
Meanwhile Chinese companies are developing at least three additional radar-evading warplanes, including a stealthy fighter-bomber, a stealth bomber and the medium-weight J-31 fighter that could operate from the Chinese navy’s growing fleet of aircraft carriers.
Despite the PLA’s own progress toward becoming the world’s second-leading operator of stealth warplanes, after the United States, Wang insisted the PLA can learn from the Su-57 program.
The Su-57’s overall capability is “not bad at all,” Global Times paraphrased Wang as saying.
Wang analyzed the Su-57 in a February 2018 magazine article. “Having an innovative aerodynamic design and capable of thrust-vectoring control, the Su-57 attaches strong importance to supersonic cruise capability and super-maneuverability,” Global Times reported, summarizing Wang’s conclusion. “Stealth is intentionally a second priority.”
Extrapolating from the Su-57 design, Wang reportedly compared Russia’s apparent concept for operating the Su-57 to America’s own concept for deploying its F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters.
“The U.S.’s concept of next-generation aerial battle stresses beyond-visual-range attacks, but missiles capable of delivering such attacks have to travel for a while, a time window far enough for the Su-57 to make super-maneuvers and evade them,” Global Times paraphrased Wang as claiming. “The Russian fighter is also equipped with special radars designed to detect the precise location of incoming missiles.”
“With long-range missiles out of the question, the final showdown will eventually take place at close range, where stealth loses its meaning and super-maneuverability thrives,” Global Times continued, citing Wang. The Su-57 includes an internal 30-millimeter cannon for very close range combat.
Wang’s assessment inadvertently highlights an important disparity between the American, Russian and Chinese stealth fighters. While it might be true that the Su-57’s design assumes the type will close to visual range in order to engage the F-22 and F-35, it’s worth noting that both American types also possess guns. The U.S. Air Force and sister branches assume their stealth fighters might fight at very close range.
By contrast, China’s J-20 does not have a gun, apparently underscoring China’s entirely different view of stealthy aerial combat. “USAF and industry watchers deduce that [the J-20] is not necessarily built for agility, but for speed and stealth in the forward quarter; capabilities that would make it useful for surprise attacks on land units or, more likely, critical airborne assets such as tankers and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms,” Air Force magazine concluded.
In other words, the J-20 is a fast-flying, defense-penetrating missile platform. Its design assumes it will never need to fight at very close range with anything but a missile.
That’s a dangerous assumption. “The aerodynamic limitations inherent in employing missiles at minimum range makes the gun weapon system crucial for tomorrow’s combat arena,” U.S. Air Force major Stuart Nichols explained in a 1998 paper for the Air Command and Staff College.
“The gun is a simple weapon system to employ and maintain,” Nichols added. “It cannot be degraded by enemy electronic countermeasures or flare decoys which all help to degrade missile performance. Another significant benefit of using a gun is that it isn’t reliant on the aircraft’s radar system. Radar missiles must work in concert with the aircraft’s radar, which is very susceptible to enemy aircraft maneuver and countermeasures.”
In comparing the Su-57 to the F-22 and F-35, Wang claimed to discover useful insight for China’s own growing force of stealth fighters. Perhaps the main lesson should be that, despite their differences of philosophy, the Russians and Americans both armed their stealth fighters with guns.
David Axe serves as the new Defense Editor of the National Interest. He is the author of the graphic novels War Fix, War Is Boring and Machete Squad.