Unverified photos and video footage has emerged on Twitter, showing two new Russian Su-57 stealth fighters, also known as the PAK FA and T-50, landing at Khemimim air base, near Latakia, in northwestern Syria.
The two stealth combat aircraft were reportedly part of a larger package of assets deployed to the Russian airbase in Syria.
RuAF deployed today few numbers of their fifth generation fighter jet the Su-57 in #Khmemeim #Syria
Subsequent footage analysis confirm that the videos were indeed taken in Syria as the jets made a landing at Russia’s master air base located south of Latakia:
In one of the video clips, which first emerged online on Feb. 21, 2018, an Su-35 Flanker-E fighter jet, which the Russians have already deployed to Syria, is also seen flying nearby. As The Drive reports, additional unconfirmed reports said that the Su-57s were part a larger group of Russian aircraft arriving in the country, including four additional Su-35s, four Su-25 Frogfoot ground attack aircraft, and an A-50U Mainstay airborne early warning aircraft, all types the Russians have previously deployed to the country.
Still, this would be a major deployment for Russia, coming after Putin claimed total victory over terrorists in the country during a December 2017 visit where he also announced his country would begin drawing down its military presence in Syria.
The deployment also comes after a steadily increasing number of aggressive interactions between Russia’s tactical aircraft and U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor stealth fighters over eastern Syria. If the Kremlin has sent the Su-57s to Syria it could further complicate those situations since American pilots have no actual experience, beyond intelligence assessments and possibly simulations, with how the Russian aircraft appears on their sensors and at what ranges, what the jet’s actual combat capabilities are, and what threat they might pose. At the same time, of course, it could give the United States an excellent opportunity to gather new information about the fighters, especially depending on what sensors they activate or if they fly in a full low-observable configuration during missions.
Although the deployment of two Russian 5th generation aircraft came somehow unexpected, it must be noted that it’s not the first time that Moscow deployed some of its advanced “hardware” to Syria.
According to the Aviationist on Sept. 13, 2017, the Russian Air Force deployed some of its MiG-29SMT multirole combat aircraft to Khemimim airbase for the first time. Previously, in February 2016, it was the turn of the still-in-development Tu-214R spyplane to exploit the air war in Syria to test its sensor packages.
To be sure, Russia has used the proxy war in Syria to showcase and test its latest weapons systems. However, most analysts agree that the deployment of the Su-57 is probably mostly meant to send a strong message about air superiority over Syria, where Russian and American planes have almost clashed quite a few times recently (with conflicting reports of the incidents).
The Aviationist notes that deploying two new stealth jets in the theater is a pretty smart move for diplomatic and marketing purposes, especially with questions surrounding the Su-57 program as a consequence of delays, engine problems and subsequent difficult export (last year the Indian Air Force reportedly demanded an end to the joint Indo-Russian stealth fighter project).
That said, the deployment of a combat aircraft (still under development) is obviously also a huge risk. First, there’s a risk of being hit (on the ground or during a mission: the attack on Latakia airbase or the recent downing of a Su-25 are just reminders of what may happen over there) and second, there’s a risk of leaking intelligence data to the enemy.
Meanwhile, the presence of the new aircraft raises the risk of a new provocation: while it’s safe to assume that the stealth prototype will not use their radar and that the Russians will escort the Su-57s with Su-30/35 Flanker derivatives during their trips over Syria in order to prevent the U.S. spyplanes from being able to “characterize” the Su-57’s signature at specific wavelengths as reportedly done by the Russians with the U.S. F-22s, it’s safe to assume the U.S. and NATO will put in place a significant effort to gather any little detail about the performance and operational capabilities of the new Russian stealth jet. That would certainly include getting up close and personal to observe how it responds. And considering the recent deaths of Russian mercenaries in Syria, which has failed to provoke a major diplomatic escalation – for now – why not add a downed stealth aircraft to the mix?