Russia’s newest prototype jet fighters are already deployed over Syria
On February 21, claims surfaced that Russian Su-57 fighters (PAK-FA / T-50–4) were deployed in Syria. The appearance of Su-57s in Syria was unexpected, since the fighter jet is still in trial mode.
@DFRLab took a closer look at the Su-57’s alleged premature deployment to an active conflict zone.
The video appeared on YouTube and Twitter as early as February 21. In the video, two aircraft with landing gears fully extended appeared to be landing.
Reverse image search suggested that this video was not published before and is likely to be genuine. Even though the video lacked substantial geolocation data, the camera most likely captured the aircrafts a few kilometers south of Khmeimim airbase in Syria.
Two houses, a hedge, and an electricity pole seem to coincide with the satellite imagery from the area. The geolocation data and reverse image search confirm the claim that these aircraft were captured on the premises of Khmeimim airbase.
After zooming in on the imagery, it appeared that the aircraft were Russian Su-57 fighter jets, which has the unconfirmed NATO reporting name of Frazor.
In the days following the video upload date, new satellite imagery surfaced on Twitter. The images clearly showed a parked Su-57 in the western part of Khmeimim base, next to the terminal. The outlines of the stationed aircraft perfectly matched images of Su-57.
Furthermore, the satellite imagery showed the Su-57 with a defensive barrier around it, similar to the one in the image below. These additional security measures suggest that the pictured aircraft is highly valued.
Here are the locations pinpointed on the map:
After the civilian video of Su-57 surfaced, Russian media outlets joined the discussion. Sputnik did not confirm the claims of Su-57 in Syria, but Kommersant and RT did confirm the fact on February 26. Kommersant quoted an undisclosed insider source, which claimed that these aircraft were deployed to Syria to test their electronic warfare and radar capabilities. Kommersant also claimed that Su-57s would not partake in combat missions.
The sudden appearance of the Su-57 in Syria is surprising, since the jet fighters are still in trial mode and according to Center for Naval Analyses, will remain as prototypes up until 2027. The Su-57 still reportedly suffers from many faults, including engine troubles. Images that surfaced on the internet in 2014 suggested that at least one prototype caught fire due to engine failure.
Despite its shortcomings, the Su-57 represents the latest and most advanced fighter technology currently flying out of Russia. These planes are one of the few fifth generation fighters, having all-aspect stealth even when armed and rival the U.S. Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, F-35A, and B Lightning II, and the Chinese Chengdu J-20.
One of the most likely reasons of the sudden deployment could be to show off the product to possible buyers of the aircraft. Moscow is planning to buy no more than 60 jets and India, who promised to buy 108 fighters, appeared to be losing interest in buying them as well. The Russian PJSC United Aircraft Corporation (Объединённая авиастроительная корпорация) might be in dire need for new customers.
Definitive evidence suggests Russia deployed Su-57 fifth generation fighters to Syria. The deployment was sudden and surprising, but most likely served more purposes than just the declared testing. A recent Wagner setback in Deir-Ezzor or the need to find new buyers Su-57s could have influenced this Moscow’s move. We will continue to observe if the promises not to involve Su-57s in combat missions will be kept.
@DFRLab will continue to monitor whether the new Su-57s engage in combat missions, which would contradict public statements thus far. We will also continue to monitor Russian military operations and developments in Syria.
Lukas Andriukaitis is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).
Follow along for more in-depth analysis from our #DigitalSherlocks.