The UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) has claimed that the Russian Aerospace Forces (RuASF) have “almost certainly” been using fifth-generation Sukhoi Su-57 multi-role fighters in combat missions against Ukraine for at least seven months.
The claim was first highlighted in the UK MOD’s daily defence intelligence update on the ongoing conflict in Ukraine on January 9, which stated that the Su-57 has been supporting the Russian war effort against Ukraine from afar since June 2022. The update was also one of the rare times that the Su-57’s unconfirmed NATO reporting name, Felon, has been used in describing the aircraft by a NATO member state.
While the UK MOD believes that the Russian fifth-generation multi-role stealth fighter has not been used in combat operations within Ukrainian airspace, it says that the Su-57 missions “have likely been limited to flying over Russian territory, launching long-range air-to-surface or air-to-air missiles into Ukraine.”
According to available information, the Su-57 currently boasts a limited arsenal of weapons for long-range air-to-air/ground operations. With six internal and six external hardpoints in total, the platform can be fitted with four Kh-59MK2 Ovod fire-and-forget TV-guided air-to-ground cruise missiles, which are designed to engage fixed ground targets with known coordinates and boasts a range of up to 285km. The Su-57 can also carry four Kh-58UShKE anti-radiation missiles, each with a combat range of up to 120km. It will also field the recently developed R-77M (AA-12 Adder) medium-range active radar homing beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile (BVRAAM), however it remains unclear as to whether this missile is operational yet.
To back up its claim, the British defence ministry published satellite imagery (taken on December 25, 2022) which shows five RuASF Su-57s parked on the flightline at Akhtubinsk Air Base, located in the Astrakhan Oblast in southwestern Russia, near the border with Kazakhstan (approximately 500km east of the Ukrainian border). While Akhtubinsk is home to the 929th Flight Test Centre (GLITs) – an operator of the Su-57, among many other types – the UK MOD stated that “as this is the only known Felon base, these aircraft have likely been involved in operations against Ukraine.”
It adds that the reason the Su-57 has not been actively deployed into Ukraine is because “Russia is highly likely prioritising avoiding the reputational damage, reduced export prospects and the compromise of sensitive technology, which would come from any loss of Felon over Ukraine. This is symptomatic of Russia’s continued risk-averse approach to employing its Air Force in the war.”
With a growing number of man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS) and surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems being employed by both sides on the frontline in eastern Ukraine, Russia would likely not want to risk sending one of its most high-profile combat aircraft assets into the battlespace due to the high number of attrition cases this war has seen already on the aviation front. Any loss of a Su-57 in combat against Ukrainian forces on foreign territory would be highly embarrassing and damaging to the Kremlin, which would explain why these aircraft would be supporting the Russian war effort from afar.
While the UK MOD is rather certain that Russia is using its small Su-57 fleet in long-range combat operations against Ukraine, the Russian MOD has not specifically acknowledged its involvement in the campaign thus far – even in doing general combat air patrols (CAPs) along its border with Ukrainian and NATO territory - nor have any images or video footage been released showing the Su-57s conducting combat operations against Ukraine.