Russian Su-57 ups the ante in Syria

On February 21, the Russian air force has allegedly deployed at least two Su-57 multirole fighter aircraft to the Khmeimim airbase in Syria. This is the first time aircraft of this type were observed in Syria, or as part of any active deployment for that matter. The Su-57, also known as the PAK FA, is Russia’s most modern fighter aircraft, jointly developed with India, but is still technically under development. The two Su-57 aircraft arrived together with four Su-35 multirole fighter aircraft, four Su-25 ground attack aircraft and an A-50U early warning and control aircraft. Russia did not officially announce the deployment, though the two aircraft were filmed as they landed at what was claimed to be the air base in Latakia.

The most prominent features of the Su-57 that make it stand out from other Russian air assets already present in Syria, are its stealth and aerodynamic performance. The aircraft are much more advanced in the context of air-to-air combat than other airframes such as the Su-35 that had already been present in Syria. The Su-57, however, is still under development, and has not officially joined the ranks of the Russian Air Force yet. This makes the deployment all the more notable, and even suggests some sense of urgency on the part of Russian decisionmakers.

The decision to deploy these aircraft to Syria at this point, is unlikely to have been made on a whim. While the exact extent of the deployment, and the ultimate goals by Russian planners, remain unknown, there are several dynamics within the Syrian conflict that could offer an explanation for a deployment of more survivable aircraft to this theater. Russian aircraft have faced off with United States fighter aircraft, including the F-22, in eastern Syria on multiple occasions, but in addition to this the recent Turkish activity in Afrin has also led to calls for Syrian or Russian intervention to impose a no-fly zone over the area.

Just two weeks ago, the United States used its air assets in Deir ez Zur province to halt an advance by pro-regime militia towards an oil field that is currently under control of the Syrian Democratic Forces. This incident doesn’t mark the first time US forces have targeted pro-regime militia in Syria when they came too close to US or SDF positions in the country, and it also follows several incidents during which US F-22 aircraft intercepted Russian aircraft operating near SDF positions. The presence of the Su-57 aircraft in Syria could be intended to alter the threat perception on the part of the US, eroding the supremacy of the F-22 in this particular theater.

At the same time, the Turkish air operations over Afrin against the Kurdish YPG forces, have  also been a source of concern for Damascus and Moscow. Establishing additional areas under the control of Turkish proxy forces, out of reach from the Syrian military offensives, imposes a considerable check on the recent successes by the Syrian armed forces. While it remains to be seen just how far Russia is willing to take its actions to disrupt the Turkish operations in Afrin, the Su-57 would definitely be a capable air asset that could project a threat to Turkish aircraft over Afrin. Without air support, Turkish operations in Afrin would surely become more difficult, though Russia and Turkey have both demonstrated a willingness to operate next to each other in Syria and maintain productive ties with each other.

The deployment of the Su-57 also occurs at an interesting point in time in relation to developments on the Afrin front. Over the past several days, a number of pro-Assad fighters had crossed from regime controlled areas into Afrin to support the defense of the Kurdish region. Earlier today photography also indicated Russian military police units were securing the crossing point used by these militia to cross from regime-controlled areas into Afrin in a likely move to dissuade further Turkish artillery bombardments of this area. While this is a very visible action that directly limits Turkish operations against those regime controlled areas, it is of course still much more limited and passive in nature than a contestation of Afrin airspace would be.

The exact intended use of these Su-57 by Russia may not be clear yet, but it is clear that the deployment generates at least a number of opportunities for Russia. In addition to this, the presence of the aircraft already sends an important signal to both the United States and Turkey, even without actually committing the aircraft to any particular front in Syria. Both Turkey and the United States are currently assessing the potential threats posed to them by the Su-57 airframe, and will be closely watching any Russian moves that could potentially affect their own operations in the country.

In addition to opportunities, the deployment of the Su-57 also brings a significant number of risks and limitations. Deploying these aircraft into an active warzone imposes direct risks on these airframes, for example. Syrian rebels have already shown capable of striking the Russian aircraft based at Khmeimim air base in Latakia, and flying the aircraft over Syria will expose them to targeting by foreign aircraft or local air defenses. The Su-57 may be more survivable than other Russian aircraft deployed to Syria, but it is not invulnerable, and the decision to deploy it will not have been taken lightly. It is extremely unlikely that the aircraft were, for example, only deployed to Syria for demonstration purposes.

One of the major limitations of the deployment of the Su-57 to Syria is the small size of the deployment. With only two aircraft of this type present, the operations by these aircraft are limited to individual interceptions or limited incursions. Russia would not be able, for example, to sustain a persistent air campaign to establish air superiority over any particular area with only two of these highly capable aircraft. This significantly limits the long term impact these individual aircraft may have beyond deterrence.

 

Cover image: Anna Zvereva