(Updated) Satellite Images Confirm Two Russian Su-57 Stealth Jets Deployed in Syria
(Source: Voice of America News; posted Feb 22, updated Feb 23, 2018)
By Jamie Dettmer (Edited Feb 24)
Moscow has deployed two of its latest-generation stealth warplanes to Syria. Satellite imagery circulated Feb. 23 on social networks confirmed video footage cirdulating Feb 23 and showing a pair of Su-57s landing at a Russian airbase in the war-torn country.
The deployment comes amid rising alarm that the Syria conflict that started out as an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad and is now split into several separate struggles could erupt into a wider regional clash between outside powers.
Update: Satellite image confirms deployment
Satellite image confirms two Su-57s on the apron at Hmeymim air base in Syria.
The video allegedly shows a pair of Su-57s — Moscow's most advanced combat warplanes — landing this week at Russia's Hmeimim air base southeast of the city of Latakia on Syria's Mediterranean coastline. It quickly circulated Thursday on social media sites.
The U.S. Defense Department on Thursday declined to confirm the deployment of Russia's newest stealth jets to Syria, but voiced concern despite downplaying the threat.
"The addition of fifth-generation fighters into Syria would certainly not be in keeping with Russia's announced force drawdown," Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon said in a statement.
"We do not consider these jets to be a threat to our operations in Syria, and will continue to deconflict operations as necessary," Pahon said.
"We call on all parties, however, to remain focused on defeating ISIS, de-escalating and resolving the Syrian conflict, and protecting innocent civilians," he added, using an acronym for the militant group.
U.S. officials have repeatedly accused Russia of using Syria "literally as a showroom" for its military and defense industries.
"They have absolutely made an effort to show off a bunch of military capabilities," a U.S. official previously told VOA, regarding Moscow's use of airpower and missile technology.
If Russia has deployed Su-57s, it would mark a significant addition to Moscow's firepower in a theater of war that now features a dizzying array of competing forces and increased military involvement by outside sponsors, including Russia and Iran on Assad's side; Turkey, which is determined to stop Syrian Kurds from establishing an autonomous state of their own; and the U.S., which has aligned with the Kurds to defeat the Islamic State.
Every day in Syria's crowded airspace, warplanes from a half-dozen countries are flying in ever closer proximity, increasing the dangers of a clash, which could turn a war of proxies into an all-out confrontation between jostling outside powers, all of whom are determined to shape the outcome of the messy Syria conflict.
Footage posted Thursday by Syrian political activists purported to show four Su-35 fighter jets and four Su-25 strike aircraft escorting the Su-57s as they came in to land at the Hmeimim air base.
Russia has manufactured a dozen Su-57s. The single-seat, twin-engine jets are due to enter operational squadrons formally next year after years of problem-plagued development. Nicknamed the "F-22 killer," the Su-57 has been earmarked by the Russian military as a direct competitor to America's U.S. F-22 Raptor.
Russian and Syrian officials have not commented on the unverified video footage, but pro-Assad news sites welcomed the additional firepower.
Beirut-based Al-Masdar News, which boasts close links with the Syrian military, said: "With the arrival of the Su-57s (and additional warplanes in general), it appears that Moscow is expecting major escalations in Syria during 2018 and — having been caught off-guard in the past — wants to be fully prepared for any drastic situation that may arise."
In December, Russian leader Vladimir Putin declared Moscow's mission in Syria had been accomplished — a declaration coinciding with confirmation that he'd seek a fifth term as Russia's president in elections in March. He said Russia would start a military drawdown.
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced on the same day as Putin's victory declaration was made that 38 warplanes had returned to Russia.
-- Feb 24 at 16:00 GMT: added tweet with satellite photo of two Su-57s on apron at Hmeymim air base in Syria and revised headline.
Mission Possible: Here's What Those Russian Su-57 Jets May Be Doing in Syria
(Source: Sputnik News; posted Feb 23, 2018)
The appearance of two Su-57 fighters at Syria's Hmeymim air base, yet to be confirmed by the Russian MoD, has nevertheless got defense observers and armchair analysts alike talking. But what might the planes be doing there? Is their deployment strictly testing-related, or is it also meant to send a political message? Sputnik investigates.
So far, both the Kremlin and the MoD have stayed mum on the subject of the Su-57’s possible mission to Syria. But a simple observation of Su-57-related news from recent months seems to indicate that the deployment is highly likely.
For instance, on February 8, Deputy Defense Minister Yuri Borisov announced that the military was set to buy a batch of Su-57s for combat trials, with the first stage of state trials already completed. Two weeks before that, Boris Obnosov, CEO of Tactical Missiles Corporation, a company engaged in the development of weapons for the fighter platform, confirmed that the Su-57 had begun flight testing with its advanced new weaponry onboard. Hinting that the results of their work would be seen "in the imminent future," Obnosov added that Su-57 test launches of new weapons developed by the Raduga and Vimpel design bureaus would start "soon."
Vladimir Gutenov, Duma lawmaker in charge of a commission supporting the Russian defense industry, told Sputnik that while he could not independently confirm the Su-57s' deployment to Syria, he "whole-heartedly welcomed" the reports. According to the lawmaker, the planes "need to be tested in combat conditions, in conditions of [enemy] resistance." Furthermore, he said, the presence of the Su-57s will doubtlessly send a political message, serving as a deterrent "for aircraft from neighboring states which periodically fly into" the Middle Eastern country uninvited.
What Russian Experts Are Saying
Russian military experts have offered a myriad of possible reasons for the Su-57s' deployment to Syria.
For instance, Andrei Frolov, editor-in-chief of Arms Export, a Russian military publication, told RBC that the deployment would help to advertise the planes, especially to the Indian market, in light of the joint Russian-Indian Sukhoi/HAL Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) program.
For one thing, he said, "Lockheed Martin is active on the Indian market. Furthermore, there are difficulties with India on the FGFA project. The public launch of the Su-57 last year and its deployment to Syria now is aimed at convincing the Indians that the FGFA is a real project, which has a prototype that not only flies, but is capable of operating in a warzone."
For his part, Nikolai Antoshkin, Col-Gen (ret.) a veteran Soviet and Russian military pilot, commander and combat training specialist, explained that while the first squadron of production Su-57s would soon be deployed to the Lipitsk Combat Training Center, "fighters, like any other weapon, are tested mainly in combat. Therefore, sending the Su-57 to Syria is a natural solution."
Emphasizing that the Su-57 was an excellent tool which would "come in handy" in the event of any "provocations against our forces in Syria," Antoshkin also commented on rumors circulating online about the US Air Force allegedly suspending its F-22 Raptor flights over Syria due to the appearance of the Russian planes in the country.
For one thing, Antoshkin recalled, the Su-57 is equipped with 3D thrust vector jets, as opposed to the F-22's 2D thrust vector jets, meaning higher maneuverability for the Russian plane. "In addition, these engines allow our fighter to reach speeds up to Mach 2 without an afterburner. With its onboard Belka radar station, the Su-57 can detect 'stealth' aircraft, and track over 10 targets simultaneously. Add to this the plane's excellent radio-electronic warfare module, which suppresses enemy missiles' homing systems."
As far as onboard weapons are concerned, the observer recalled that "the Su-57 has two large internal weapons compartments, taking up practically the entire useful length of the aircraft. Each compartment can carry up to four K-77M air-to-air missiles," which have a range of nearly 200 km and serve as the rough equivalent to the US's AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile.
Ultimately, Antoshkin stressed that while deploying just two planes is not enough to provide Russia with an overwhelming military advantage in the Syrian theater, it would cause Russia's potential adversaries to think twice: "I think it will give our geopolitical rivals an extra reason to ponder whether it is worth raising their hand against Russia," the veteran air force officer concluded.
Western Military Observers Respond
Wednesday's photo and video evidence purporting to show two Su-57 fifth-gen stealth fighters flying around Hmeymim certainly got the Pentagon's attention, with a DoD spokesperson complaining that the deployment was an indication that Russia was not living up to its "announced force drawdown."
Many Western military observers were similarly critical, with Business Insider quoting experts who claimed that the deployment was a "cynical move" aimed at boosting Russian arms sales and gaining valuable intelligence on advanced US air power operating in the region.
Popular Mechanics was somewhat more evenhanded, pointing out that the deployment will give the Russian military an opportunity to "learn a lot about how the jet works in less-than-ideal conditions, how good its sensors are at picking up targets in the air and on the ground, and how difficult it is to maintain the planes thousands of miles from Mother Russia." However, that publication too offered its share of criticism, suggesting the Su-57s might stoke conflict with F-22s over US-controlled airspace in Syria, and would face the constant threat of mortar or drone attacks so long as they remain stationed in Hmeymim.
The National Interest's Dave Majumdar did one better, actually speaking to a Russian military expert – Vasily Kashin of the Moscow-based Center for Comprehensive & International Studies. According to Kashin, the Su-57s' deployment amounts to "testing in actual war," something that would help prepare the planes for mass production.
As for Majumdar, as far as the analyst can tell, the deployment will likely help the Russian military gain valuable operational experience and performance data on the Su-57's advanced avionics, including its active electronically scanned array radar and ELINT systems. Even "limited combat missions" are a possibility, he wrote.