A Mach-10 Missile Won’t Save Russia’s Stealth Fighter
The Russian air force will arm its Su-57 stealth fighters with a hypersonic missile, state media reported on Dec. 6, 2018.
But with the Kremlin having deferred final development and full-scale production of the Su-57, the plan could result in no more than a token hypersonic strike force, if even that.
“In accordance with Russia’s State Armament Program for 2018 to 2027, Su-57 jet fighters will be equipped with hypersonic missiles,” an unnamed official told TASS.
The Su-57’s hypersonic missile will be similar to the Kinzhal air-to-surface strike missile that arms a small number of modified MiG-31s, the source added.
The Russian military apparently first tested the air-launched Kinzhal in early 2018. The roughly 25-feet-long missile, a variant of the Iskander ground-launched rocket, reportedly can travel as fast as Mach 10 over a distance as great as 1,200 miles, all while maneuvering.
“The Kinzhal has no analogues in the world,” the Russian defense ministry boasted.
Russian president Vladimir Putin first hinted at the Kinzhal’s existence during a March 2018 address in which he described several new conventional and nuclear weapons that he said would deter a nuclear attack on Russia.
A video that played during Putin’s speech depicted a MiG-31 launching a large missile. The video included an animation of the missile striking what appeared to be a U.S. Navy warship.
A few days after Putin’s speech, the Russian defense ministry published a video depicting a separate MiG-31—the fighters are distinguishable by the color-coded numbers on their fuselages—firing the same kind of missile. The test apparently took place near Volgograd in southwest Russia.
“The launch was conducted normally,” the ministry stated. “The missile hit the target at a training ground.”
At top — Su-57s during a 2018 photo shoot. Above — a MiG-31 carrying a Kinzhal. Russian state media photos
Babak Taghvaee, an expert on Russian warplanes, claimed in a tweet that no more than a dozen MiG-31s would receive, by the end of 2018, the modifications necessary to carry the Kinzhal.
Taking into account maintenance demands and the tendency of both planes and missile to break down mid-flight, the MiG-31 squadron could probably launch just a few Kinzhals at a time, said Pavel Podvig, an expert on the Russian military.
“We’re talking about isolated launches—two or three or six missiles at a time,” Podvig said. “That doesn’t give you a lot of operational capability.”
Likewise, the Kremlin has ordered just 22 Su-57s — 10 pre-production prototypes and a dozen production models. With military budgets declining amid an economic slump, Moscow in mid-2018 decided to not acquire the plane in large numbers.
The Russian government tried to spin the decision to curtail the Su-57 effort. “You know that today the Su-57 is considered to be one of the best aircraft produced in the world,” Yuri Borisov, Russia’s deputy defense minister, told a T.V. audience in July 2018. “Consequently, it does not make sense to speed up work on mass-producing the fifth-generation aircraft.”
The 22 Su-57s could lack full combat capability even after they enter squadron service possibly some time in 2019. Tom Cooper, an independent expert on Russian air power, said the Su-57 lacks combat avionics and cannot accurately employ ordnance in wartime conditions.
Even if Sukhoi completes the stealth fighter’s combat systems, the bulky Kinzhal itself likely won’t be compatible with the plane. The MiG-31 carries a single Kinzhal under its centerline. The Su-57’s own centerline is occupied by the type’s weapons bays, which are too small to accommodate a Kinzhal.
The Su-57 “will receive missiles with characteristics similar to that of the Kinzhal missiles, but with inter-body placement and smaller size,” the unnamed official told TASS.
But Kinzhal has to be large in order to be fast. It is, in essence, a powerful rocket booster with a modest warhead at its tip. Shrink it down, and you must reduce the size of its motor or its fuel supply, or both. The reductions would make the weapon slower, potentially negating the advantages that resulted from its former high speed.
In light of the Su-57 fleet’s limited size and capability, arming the planes with a hypersonic missile might not make much a difference in wartime.