The SU-57 Enigma: Why Were Russian Stealth Fighters Sent to Syria and then Whisked out after Two Days?

The astonishing information that Russia’s fifth-generation Su-57 stealth fighters were whisked out of Syria, even more suddenly than their arrival, only deepened the mystery surrounding Moscow’s intentions in deploying them in the first place.

Russia’s defense minister Gen. Sergey Shoigu was delegated to debunk speculation about their brief mission on March 1, shortly after President Vladimir Putin’s announcement of invincible new weapons capable of piercing US air defenses. Speaking to reporters, Shoigu began by correcting the reports published thus far. He said that only two of the stealth aircraft had been sent to Syria – not four, as claimed, and that they had completed a number of evaluations, including an unspecified “combat trial.” The trials were successful and “the planes returned home a week ago,” he said and added: “There were two planes escorted by flying laboratories and test beds monitoring the parameters of weapons work.” He confirmed that the two Russian jets were carrying out combat testing missions in Syria.

If what the defense minister said was fact, not just a smoke screen, it only added more enigmas to the mystery: Who scheduled just two days for these ultra-complicated tests? Could someone in the Russian air force have taken upon himself to send the planes to Russia, unbeknownst to the president or the defense minister? Or did the Kremlin’s two top men decide to send them over, only to change their minds and pull them back after receiving intelligence that the planes were under some sort of threat?

Or could Putin have indeed authorized their deployment to Syria in late February, only to be deterred by the international furor and its possible impact on the Russian presidential vote on March 18? He may have been uncomfortable to be revealed boosting the Russian military presence in Syria, when as recently as December he solemnly announced its drawdown, and so moved fast to correct this impression.

DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources don’t yet have the answers to these riddles, but all the signs point to a bungle at the highest level in Moscow. The result was a bizarre event unheard of in the annals of modern military aviation. No power in possession of superior, fifth generation flying war machines, such as he Su-57, has been known to place its finest warplane inside an active war zone and then remove it after two days of “tests.” The Su-57 had not even completed a basic series of tests at home, or reached operational stage, before it was sent to the Syrian battlefield. True, President Putin is fond of blowing his horn about Russia’s superlative weapons systems, as he did last week in his annual speech. In November 2016, for instance, he sent Russia’s only aircraft carrier, the rusty old Admiral Kuznetsov, to the Mediterranean and boasted that in its short stay off the Syrian cost, it had attacked “a thousand targets.”

So maybe he went over the top with the Su-57 and sent it to Syria, even at the risk of exposing some of its secrets.

The Russian plane does indeed feature an extremely complex and fully integrated avionics suite, including three X band active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar (one main, two side-looking), another two L band active electronically scanned array radars in the wing’s leading edge extensions, plus an integrated electro-optical system location system (working in infra-red, visible and ultra-violet frequencies). All these sensors are fused (5 radars, 2 bands plus passive optics) and they are then combined with the data received by the Su-57’s advanced electronic warfare suite and a high-speed encrypted datalink connecting the aircraft to other airborne, space and ground-based sensors.

The radiation-rich environment of Syria’s air space certainly offered a tempting opportunity for testing all this gear, especially when Russia has available on the spot advanced air defense systems such as the S-400 and A-50U. The US and Israeli AWACS F-22s and F-35s also provided plenty of interesting signals for testing in an active combat arena. However, such testing, to be of any value, cannot be compressed in two days – or even two months. They would have necessitated the plane being kept in Syria for four or six months.

However, since no explanation for this bizarre turn in the story of Russian military intervention in Syria is forthcoming from Moscow, there is no alternative but to wait for more information to surface. Maybe Gen. Shoigu will oblige.

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