Could Russia export the Su-57 Felon? For a long time the question seemed absurd, given China’s progress on the J-20 stealth fighter and long-term Russian concerns about Chinese technology appropriation. But a new report in Jane’s (also noted by Mark Episkopos at the National Interest) suggests that Russia is at least open to exploring the possibility of selling the stealthy fighter to the Chinese. According to Viktor Kladov, an official at Rostec, “in the next two years [China] will make a decision to either procure additional Su-35s, build the Su-35 within China, or to buy a fifth-generation fighter aircraft. This could be another opportunity for the Su-57E.”
The Russians have long taken a positive view of the export prospects of the Felon, even if those took a hit when Indian pulled out of the project. At the very least, the comments suggest that Russia is no longer overly concerned about the prospect of Chinese intellectual property theft. This could be for several reasons; Russia may no longer believe that it has a technological lead over China worth protecting, or Russia may believe that the strength of the bilateral relationship will deter China, or Russia may simply think that the benefits of the sale (with a possible long-term repair and update relationship) outweigh the costs. Indeed, Episkopos suggests that Russia may see exporting the Su-57 as key to keeping the Russia military aviation industry (and consequently the Russian air force) solvent.
Why would China want the Felon? As a high performance air superiority fighter, the Felon fills a different niche than that envisioned by either the J-20 or the J-31. Acquiring the Su-57 would allow the Chinese to more effectively concentrate their efforts on long-range strike, interception, and carrier aviation. Buying the plane would also help cement the defense relationship with Russia and outflank India, which loudly withdrew from the Felon project several years ago. And the Su-57 would give China long-term access to the expertise and know how in Russia’s military aviation industry, largely the only industry outside China not yet compromised by the United States.
If not China, then who would buy the Felon? Russia has had a great deal of success exporting variants of the basic Su-27 frame, and as the platform matures may be able to sell the Felon to some of the same customers. If Turkey remains locked out of the F-35 project (a good bet for now), then Ankara is a potential customer. But no country in the world could provide more long-term support for the Su-57 than China, which is probably why the Russians are at least willing to explore the idea.