We asked a Russian military analyst how the F-22, Su-57 and J-20 stealth planes match up

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We asked a Russian military analyst how the F-22, Su-57 and J-20 stealth planes match up

Su-57

United Aircraft Corporation

Su-57

  • With Russia and China beginning to field their Su-57s and J-20s stealth jets, we sat down with Michael Kofman to get his impressions on how these jets match up against US stealth planes.
  • Kofman said that the Su-57 doesn't match the stealth capabilities of the F-22 or F-35, but that it will be a capable platform.
  • He also said that the J-20, which has good avionics and software, is inferior to the Su-57 because of its older engine model and because of its large surface.

There have been a few developments in the stealth world this month, with Russia deploying its Su-57 to Syria, and China announcing that its J-20 has been put into combat service.

With more countries now fielding and trying to market stealth jets to other potential buyers, I spoke to Michael Kofman, a senior research scientist at the think tank CNA and fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center focusing on Russian military and defense, about how the Su-57 and J-20 match up against US stealth planes.

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The partial transcript below has been edited for length and clarity.


Brown: What are your general thoughts on the recent deployment of the Su-57 to Syria?

Kofman: They deployed them to Syria, really, for two reasons. One is to change the narrative that's been going on in Syria for the last couple weeks, and take a lot of media attention to the Su-57. And second, is to actually demo it in the hope that there might be interested buyers, as they have deployed a number of weapons systems to Syria. ... They're always looking for more investors in that technology. ... Fifth-generation aircraft are expensive."

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Brown: What do you think overall of the Su-57?

Kofman: I think it's a stealthier aircraft than your typical fourth-generation design. I don't think it matches the stealth capability of F-22 or F-35, nor does it match the price tag of them. I think it's a poor man's stealth aircraft. I think it'll be a very capable platform. I don't think it'll match or compete in the low-observation rules that US aircraft do.

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On the other hand, it will definitely be a step above a fourth-generation aircraft. In terms of how maneuverable it is, yeah, but Russian aircraft are always very capable, very maneuverable. F-22 is actually really good in maneuverability too. F-22 is a phenomenal plane. F-35, not so much, but F-22 is actually a brilliant aircraft. We still have a lot of them. But, the Su-57 is not meant to be a direct competitor to F-22 or F-35.

Brown: That's how Russia seems to be marketing it.

Kofman: Yeah, sure, I'm sure they do. I'm sure some guy thinks his Honda Civic is better than my BMW. ... Here's the thing you got to understand. There is a fifth-generation market out there. Where can you go to get a fifth-generation aircraft? The US is very tight on technology with F-35. The only other people that have one in development is the Chinese. ... So here's the real question: is Su-57 better than the J-20?

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Brown: Is Su-57 better than J-20?

Kofman: Well, it's certainly far - if not further - along in technology design. ... Here's what it's important: at the core of every plane is the engine. It's all about the engine. That is what makes the plane. ... Everything else is super cool, but it's all about the engine. Su-57 is not in serial production because they've not finished the engine for it. It is flying on an upgraded engine from the Su-35S. So, it can not be a fifth-generation aircraft yet because it still has a fourth-generation engine and it does not have the engine and performance they intend for it.

Now, is it low-observable relative to Su-35? Yes. Is it low-observable relative to F-35? No. But you know what, if it was, probably no one would be able to afford it, least of all Russia. Don't let the best be the enemy of the affordable.

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Brown: What do you think about the J-20 compared to the F-22 or the Su-57? Where does it stand?

Kofman: I suspect that J-20 probably has great avionics and software, but as always, has terrible engine design. In fact, early Chinese low-observation aircraft designs are all based on ancient Russian Klimov engines because the Chinese can't make an engine worth a damn. That's where I think it stands. In terms of observation, when I look at it, I suspect it also has a lot of stealth issues.

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Brown: They recently said it was combat ready, didn't they?

Kofman: Ha, combat ready. Yeah, sure...

Brown: You don't buy that?

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Kofman: Yeah, I'm very skeptical. I'm also puzzled by its design. You see how huge it is, and how much surface it has? ... It's got so many surfaces and a lot of them look pretty reflective too. I'm pretty skeptical on the stealth of that aircraft.

Brown: So, you'd take the Su-57 over J-20?

Kofman: Totally. I'd take any Russian-designed plane with Russian-designed engines in it over any Chinese-designed plane with older Russian engines in it. ... I would not get into any Chinese plane with Chinese engines in it.

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