Sukhoi T-50 stealth multirole aircraft at MAKS-2011 airshow, 2011. Wikicommons/ Dmitry Zherdin. Some rights reserved.Russia's forays towards western airspace in recent months have been persistently overhyped, as last week’s column in this series outlined. In this connection, the arrival in Syria of two quite different Russian aircraft also deserves a closer look.
The planes in question are models of Russia’s ultra-modern, multi-role, stealth strike-aircraft, the Sukhoi-57. Their appearance was greeted by some notably over-the-top coverage in Britain's tabloids. With trademark capital letters, the Express announced "Russia's war WARNING: Putin's fearsome Su-57 stealth fighters SPOTTED being unleashed - VLADIMIR Putin has sent his fearsome new state-of-the-art Su-57 stealth fighters for combat trials in the Syrian war zone" The Star echoed the style with "Putin’s SECRET WEAPON: Russia unveils new ‘Ghost’ stealth fighter jet - VLADIMIR Putin has flexed his military muscles once again – revealing the country’s first ever stealth fighter jet”.
The broadsheet Daily Telegraph was somewhat more circumspect, reporting “It’s Russia’s answer to the United States’ cutting-edge F-22 'Raptor' stealth fighter” while providing some sensible perspective in the story: “Now, more than 15 years after the F-22 entered service, Russia is on the brink of pitting the best its military aviation industry can offer against its rival in Syria.”
The tabloid newspapers' alarmist depiction of the new "Russian threat" is effective in grabbing the public mind. The existence of genuine east-west rivalry gives their coverage a slender connection to reality. But as an interpretation of what is really going on, their version is notably shallow and reductive. It tends to ignore complicating factors such as Putin's domestic problems, the troubles of Russian mercenaries in Syria, and Russia's serious need to open up some new export markets for its weaponry.
All this makes the story worth disentangling, not least for the light it shines on the whole arms business. Shakespeare’s line in Henry V, “now thrive the armourers”, relates to the battle of Agincourt in 1415. Today it applies with even greater force. And those now engaged in the busy and lucrative trade are prepared to take considerable risks in order to win a slice of those export markets (see "Arms bazaar: needs war, eats lives", 17 August 2017).
The US F-22 Raptor stealth-aircraft is a prominent case. It was originally developed in the mid-1990s to replace the Lockheed F-117A Nighthawk, and entered service in 2003 in time to conduct air-raids in the United States's wars in the Middle East and south Asia. It is also considered an intelligence asset: its radar-avoiding features enable it to track and assess capabilities of other aircraft and air-defence systems. This may be its main current operational role in the US presence in Syria.
Russia's Su-57 may be seen as its answer to the F-22. The plane is seen as a prestige project and a source of domestic pride. But the design has taken twenty years to get this far, and is not yet fully tested. Russia's airforce still has only twelve such planes, all of them prototypes or pre-production models. Against the background of these long delays and the modest numbers comes a budgetary burden. Russia's overall military budget now faces acute pressures: the cost of forays into Crimea and Syria, upgrading nuclear forces, and modernising the army and navy. The airforce too needs to justify its expense.
Thus while the Su-57 is much needed, it is likely to be ordered in substantial numbers only if an export market can be developed. So far, its export prospects have encountered setbacks with South Korea and Brazil. Its salespeople now aim to convince India of the relatively low cost of an export version which could be co-produced with Delhi. After that, they hope, might come Vietnam.
These considerations almost certainly underpin the appearance of a couple of Su-57s at the Hmeimim airbase in Syria, even though the Russian airforce has not yet declared them operational. Jane’s Defence Weekly, a well informed military journal, suggests that sending the planes to Hmeimim allows Russia to use the Su-57's visibility as a means of boosting the plane's commercial potential. Such showcasing of new aircraft in warzones is a remarkable twist. But from Russia's standpoint it makes sense: the airforce needs to project and sell its product to new customers. A lot of money is riding on the success of the current deployment.
But there are two substantial risks. The first is that other Russian aircraft have already suffered losses in Syria, mainly through mortar and other attacks from rebel groups. Jane’s points out that the Su-57 could also be vulnerable to shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles such as the American Stinger or the Russian Igla, and it is unlikely that the Su-57 prototypes have yet been equipped with the necessary protective systems. If there is one thing likely to damage export-sales potential it would be the loss of one of the planes in Syria.
The second risk is that the very deployment of Su-57s in a warzone so close to US airforce activity means that the very plane it is designed to compete with, the American F-22, might easily be able to use its advanced surveillance features to get more data on the Su-57’s design features and flight capabilities.
That said, two other factors must be balanced against the export potential and the risks. One is that Russia's military prestige is a vital part of Vladimir Putin's offer to Russians. Although his re-election as president is a near certainty, he is aware of the perennial need to consolidate his authority as a national leader. This is especially so as the costs of Syria, Ukraine, Crimea, and the exercises in and near the Baltic are stretching defence budgets, to the extent that there are grumblings over tax levels.
The other is that Russia's ground forces in Syria have experienced serious problems in recent weeks. On 7 February a Russian-supported Syrian assault on US-backed militias in eastern Syria, conducted by as many as 500 mercenary fighters from the shadowy Wagner group, proved disastrous. Jane’s analysis, citing a Moscow source, claimed that “several dozen” of these fighters were killed. Such losses may not figure in the Russian media, but as word spreads so does a perception that Putin’s wars are costing Russian lives as well as roubles.
So here is the contrast. Western tabloid newspapers trumpet the latest Russian threat, now coming to you from the skies above Syria, whereas the reality is a perilous venture much more concerned with domestic political realities and the need to export advanced weapons. The armourers may well be thriving, but nothing is as straightforward as it seems.
Russian Airbase in Syria, 2016. Wikicommons/ L-BBE. Some rights reserved.
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