Choosing the Next Generation

Military expert Andrei Frolov on why the Russian Federation’s proposal will be uncontested after the United States refused to supply F-35s to Turkey.

After the Pentagon’s announcement regarding Turkey’s exclusion from the F-35 program in connection to its purchase of Russian S-400 anti-aircraft complexes, Moscow offered Ankara an alternative. On Thursday, the head of the state corporation Rostec, Sergei Chemezov, said that Russia is ready to supply multipurpose 4th ++ generation Su-35 fighters to Turkey. This is a good option for Ankara if it is facing the need to urgently purchase aircraft. However, if we’re talking long term, it would obviously be much more interesting for the Turks to buy Russian 5th-generation Su-57s.

On Ankara’s agenda right now is the replacement of the country’s well-worn F-16 fighters. Despite modernization, the aircraft is gradually becoming morally and physically obsolete. On the one hand, Turkey is independently developing its fifth-generation TF-X fighter jets, but a large part of the work on this project is done in the West, including in the U.K. Due to recent events, it’s possible that cooperation with the West on this project will slow down. But even if that doesn’t happen, there is still a long way to go and it’s unknown whether Turkey will be able to independently create and launch its fighter into mass production.

It appears that by the early to mid-2020s, the Republic will have an acute need for a new aircraft. The fourth-generation planes – European Rafales, Eurofighters and Saab Grippens – cannot be considered, nor can similar offers from other countries. By the mid-2020s, the only new aircraft on the market will be Chinese J-31 fighters and Russian Su-57s. There won’t be anything to choose from, and if the Turks’ need for a new plane is really great, it’s likely they’ll buy the Russian aircraft.

It’s unknown whether the J-31 will be ready by the start of the 2020s, and this plane’s performance is a big question. The Russian Su-57 is nearly ready for production, and will continue to develop during the next two to three years. As an export product, our fighter will be more “mature,” so to speak.

There’s one more important factor. In the history of Turkey’s anti-aircraft purchases, when Russian proposals were chosen, Americans pushed Ankara away largely because the U.S. was not ready to fully share the secrets of its Patriot air defense missile systems. Besides, after the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, the Republic is very wary of the United States because the U.S. supported the Gulenists, the main opponents of the current Turkish regime.

Even if you don’t take political and technological considerations into account, the F-35, like the Patriot, is quite expensive and the Russian proposal looks more profitable.

Should Turkey express a desire to purchase the Su-57, I assume that Russia will be ready to transfer some of the technology, and perhaps give up some of the production of certain components. Additionally, Moscow is much more loyal politically. Russia most likely wouldn’t stop the supply of aircraft for political reasons. There is practically no such precedent. The only exception involves an Iranian contract for a supply of S-300s. However, first, the transaction was refused before delivery began, and second, the contract was the result of international agreements, not just Russia’s initiative. Furthermore, we still gave Iran some of the complexes.

So, purchasing the Russian Su-57s is, first, politically less risky and second, comes with the acquisition of technological know-how. Besides, the American F-35 is sort of like an iPhone, which can become a useless toy if you are not permanently connected to the Apple store or update the phone regularly. For the same reasons, the F-35 could become an expensive pile of iron. The manufacturer could block the software at any time. The capabilities of the Su-57 are classified, but I don’t think it’s as digital as the F-35. Even if they were the same, it’s still less likely that a similar situation would occur. Again, Russia has never solely used an arms embargo. It’s not our method.

That is not to mention the F-35’s many design flaws. If bombs are placed on its external pylons, it loses its stealth, and its internal compartment is not very large. The F-35 was originally created as a universal aircraft for three branches of the U.S. Armed forces – the Navy, the Air Force, and the Marines. This affected its specifications, making it less successful. The Su-57 has no such restrictions and can be much more interesting as a strike aircraft.

Although the decision to exclude Turkey from the F-35 program has already been announced, in my opinion, both countries can still get what they want. They have an opportunity to reach an agreement and find a way that will allow both parties to save face: Turkey does not refuse the S-400s, the U.S. leaves Turkey in the F-35 program, and Ankara complies with certain requirements.

But if both sides chomp at the bit, the likelihood of the F-35 being delivered is not very high, at least with the current leaders of Turkey and the United States. And then Turkey can become the first foreign customer for the newest Russian fighter, which will significantly strengthen Russia’s position on the world market.

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