But is it more bark than bite?
Last week, Russia escalated its military profile in Syria by dispatching its top of the line fighter bomber to the war-ravaged country. Based on publicly available Israeli satellite imagery and eyewitness accounts, the Russians have deployed between 2 to 4 Su-57 fighter bombers to Khmeimim Airbase. In addition to the Su-57, the Russians also deployed advanced Su-35 fighter jets, and an A-50U airborne command and control plane.
The Su-57 is a fifth generation fighter bomber, and according to Russia, is said to possess stealth characteristics and performance features similar to the U.S. F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Lightning II. The Israeli Air Force has adopted the F-35 (which it calls the Adir) as its premier fighter and has outfitted the plane with an indigenously designed avionics package. The Su-57 is almost certainly the product of stolen U.S. technology, obtained through corporate espionage, cyber penetrations and surprisingly, open sources. The Russians have over the years developed a penchant for stealing or otherwise appropriating Western technology. Regardless, the F-22 and F-35 are still considered far superior to the Russian plane.
But if Russian reports regarding the aircraft’s performance are accurate, the Su-57 platform poses a serious challenge to U.S. and Israeli aerial operations. Both Israeli F-35s and U.S. Raptors are active over the cluttered skies of Syria.
In June 2017, a U.S. F/A-18E Super Hornet shot down a Syrian Su-22 after it dropped bombs on Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) positions. The SDF is an anti-Assad militia which is working with the U.S. to defeat ISIS and also operates as an effective bulwark against Iranian expansion. On December 14, two U.S. F-22s intercepted two Russian-piloted Su-25s and a third Su-35 which flew into coalition airspace on the east side of the Euphrates River.
The most notable engagement involving U.S. aircraft in Syria occurred on February 7, 2018 when fighter aircraft and artillery bombed and shelled a large pro-Assad force of battalion-sized strength that menacingly crossed the so-called de-confliction line at the Euphrates, and approached Deir-Ezzor. The enemy force, equipped with tanks, rocket launchers and artillery advanced on a base controlled by the SDF and U.S. Special Forces. U.S. strikes were extremely effective, forcing the pro-Assad column to beat a hasty retreat but not before leaving some 200 to 300 dead or dying. Later, it was revealed that those killed were mercenary contract workers of Russian and Ukrainian nationality. The Ukrainians were Russian sympathizers and some had previously been doing Putin’s dirty work in eastern Ukraine.
The Russians were seething over the incident but made no mention of Russian casualties in their condemnation of U.S actions. Assad or possibly Iran had hired these mercenaries through a Russian company called Wagner to secure the regime’s energy assets. These contract workers were in essence carrying out Russian government objectives but in an unofficial capacity giving Moscow the option of plausible deniability.
This incident could have been the impetus for Russia’s deployment of the Su-57. According to Russian media sources, the aircraft were sent to Syria to test their capabilities in a “semi-combat environment.” That vague description could mean that the Russian military wishes to examine the Su-57’s stealth capabilities and avionics under real combat conditions but without actually tangling with coalition aircraft. Russia has been using Syria as its testing ground for new weapons. Russia’s deputy defense minister Yuri Borisov recently boasted that Moscow had tested over 600 new types of arms in Syria. While this may be a stretch, it underscores the fact that Russia has been using Syria as its guinea pig.
But a Russian official closely affiliated with the Russian defense establishment issued a statement with more ominous undertones. In an interview with the Russian propaganda outlet Sputnik, Vladimir Gutenov, a parliamentarian in charge of a commission supporting the Russian defense industry, said that the aircraft “need to be tested in combat conditions, in conditions of resistance.” He also noted that the presence Su-57 is meant to deter “aircraft from neighboring states, which periodically fly into [Syrian airspace uninvited].” That statement could apply to U.S., Israeli and Turkish aircraft that routinely fly over Syrian airspace.
The Israeli Air Force has conducted over 100 bombing missions (and many more reconnaissance missions) over Syria, striking Syrian, Iranian and Hezbollah targets with notable success. On February 10, 2018 an Iranian UAV penetrated Israeli airspace and was promptly shot down by an Israeli Apache helicopter. Israeli F-16I fighter jets then attacked and blasted the command and control vehicle directing the UAV. During the operation, the Syrians fired 27 surface-to-air missiles at the F-16s, and one of them, a SAM-5, exploded near the F-16 causing it to crash in Israeli territory. Both pilots safely ejected. That prompted a massive Israeli retaliatory response in which 1/3 to 1/2 of Syria’s missile batteries were destroyed. The Israelis also struck four Iranian military bases.
But the presence of the Su-57 and other advanced Russian fighter jets such as the Su-35 (there are currently four of them based at Khmaimim) not to mention the deployment of the formidable S-400 anti-aircraft system and the A-50U airborne early warning command and control platform are cause for concern. No doubt Israeli and U.S. planners are preparing contingency plans to deal with these potential threats.
There may however, be a more benign explanation for Russia’s deployment of the Su-57 which has more to do with economics than military posturing. Russia is looking to bolster foreign military sales and the Indian Air Force has already expressed some interest in the Su-57. The Su-57s deployment to a combat zone could bolster its credentials among potential foreign customers. Moscow can now tout the fact that the Su-57 is “battle proven,” and nothing bolsters sales more than a battle proven weapon system. Either way, Israel and the U.S. will be watching warily.