Russia’s Experimental Arsenal Takes to Syria’s Skies

The Russian military has finally offered an explanation for its mysterious, and brief, deployment of Su-57 stealth fighter prototypes to Syria in February.

The Su-57s conducted “practical” test launches of “promising multipurpose tactical cruise missiles,” Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu said during a May 25 address in Moscow.

But there are good reasons to believe Shoigu’s explanation is a lie. The Kremlin seems determined to portray its stealth fighters in the best possible light as prospects fade for mass-production of the troubled warplanes.

Two of the Russian air force’s twin-tail, twin-engine Su-57s spent two days at Hmemmem Air Base in western Syria, where Russia’s main military contingent has been based since Moscow intervened in the Syrian civil war on the side of regime president Bashar Al Assad beginning in September 2015.

The deployment startled observers when it was first reported by social media users on the ground near Hmemmem. Warplane-maker Sukhoi has assembled just seven Su-57s for testing since the type’s first flight in 2010. The plane, a rough analogue to the U.S. Air Force’s F-22 and the Chinese J-20, is apparently years away from being truly combat-ready.

The Su-57 currently lacks many of its planned electronics and sensors and has been cleared to carry only a few different kinds of munitions. The jets usually appear in public carrying dummy bombs and missiles that are strictly for display.

U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. and allied air operations in the Middle East and keeps close tabs on Russian flights in the region, was dismissive of the Su-57s’ February visit to Syria. “The presence of any new Russian aircraft in the region does not affect coalition operations, nor do we see this as a danger to coalition aircraft,” a command spokesperson told The Daily Beast.


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