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Russia was scared to fly its Su-57 in combat, fearing a loss. Ukraine scored a hit on one anyway.

Jake Epstein   

Russia was scared to fly its Su-57 in combat, fearing a loss. Ukraine scored a hit on one anyway.
  • Russia has largely kept its Su-57 fighter jets out of the war in Ukraine, fearing a combat loss.
  • But on Saturday, Ukrainian forces struck one of the aircraft hundreds of miles from the battlefield.

Russia has tried to keep its very limited number of Su-57 fighter jets hidden from the war in Ukraine, fearing that a combat loss would be a blow to the aircraft's reputation, according to Western intelligence and aviation experts.

But over the weekend, Ukraine damaged one of the fifth-generation fighters anyway in a long-range strike hundreds of miles inside Russian territory, underscoring the vulnerabilities to Moscow's most-celebrated weapons — even if they're far from the battlefield.

A Su-57 was "hit for the first time" on Saturday in an attack on Russia's Akhtubinsk airfield, located more than 365 miles from the front line, the Ukrainian Main Directorate of Intelligence wrote in a statement on the Telegram messaging app.

To back up its claims, the HUR shared satellite imagery purportedly showing some damage to the aircraft as a result of the strike, as well as visible explosion and burn marks on the tarmac in the immediate vicinity of the fighter jet.

The extent of the damage is ultimately unclear, and Business Insider was unable to immediately verify the imagery.

Multiple Su-57s could be seen at the Akhtubinsk airfield as early as December 2022, according to satellite images shared by Britain's defense ministry.

In both images, the Su-57s appear parked outside without any hardened shelters. The Saturday imagery does appear to reveal some sort of arched structure, but whatever it is did not prevent the attack, which was reportedly carried out by a low-cost Ukrainian drone.

This particular detail has not gone over well with Moscow's war commentators.

"Russian milbloggers seized on the June 8 strike to criticize the Russian military command for not constructing hangars to hide Russian aircraft from Ukrainian strikes," analysts at the Institute for the Study of War think tank wrote in a Monday assessment.

The milbloggers "claimed that Russian forces could construct hangars at every military airfield in Russia for the cost of one Su-57 aircraft," which costs an estimated $35 million, the analysts noted.

Russia's problematic Su-57 program

The twin-engine Su-57, known by NATO as the 'Felon,' is Russia's first attempt at a fifth-generation fighter, although analysts have often questioned whether the aircraft can actually claim that status considering that it apparently lacks some of the necessary capabilities.

Russian state media has often touted the Su-57 as being comparable to — or even better than — American fifth-generation stealth fighters like the F-22 and F-35. But it is riddled with technical issues, including a lack of stealth-capable engines and body panels that are tight enough to sufficiently reduce the radar signature.

The aircraft first saw combat in Syria in 2018 and was delivered to the Russian military in 2020. Kremlin officials have claimed that the Su-57 has seen combat in Ukraine, although the evidence supporting the claims is extremely limited.

Western intelligence and aviation experts have said that Russia's reluctance to employ the Su-57 in combat suggests it is eager to avoid any reputational damage, the loss of sensitive technologies, and reduced export possibilities that could occur if the aircraft is shot down by Ukraine. Additionally, Moscow may not be confident in the aircraft's purported stealth capabilities.

The HUR said that the Su-57 is Russia's "most modern fighter," capable of launching Kh-59/69 missiles, and there are only "a few" of the fighters in service. Ukraine's Southern Command specified that Kyiv on Saturday struck one of six operational aircraft. Moscow has a similar number of unfinished jets.

Russian state media has suggested the military will eventually field dozens of Su-57s by the end of the decade, but it's unclear if these plans will materialize.

Justin Bronk, an airpower and technology expert at the UK-based Royal United Services Institute think tank, said the Ukrainian strike on Saturday is a "significant symbolic blow" to Moscow's "long-troubled" Su-57 program, though its direct effect on the war will be "almost non-existent."

"Due to its small fleet size, the political humiliation if one were to be shot down, and slow aircraft systems development, the Su-57 has played an extremely minor role in the conflict to date," Bronk wrote in a Monday analysis.

He said that the strike demonstrates that Ukraine has a "relatively mature low-cost long-range harassment capability" that it can use to strike military bases deep inside Russia.

Ukraine has relied on an arsenal of homemade, long-range exploding drones to repeatedly strike military and energy targets hundreds of miles inside Russian territory over the past few months because Kyiv had been unable to do so with Western-provided missiles. Some of these restrictions, however, have been relaxed in recent weeks, giving Ukraine more options.

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