Key point: Russia has remained committed to addressing the Su-57's technical problems.
Footage recently released by the Russian Ministry of Defense shows Russia's flagship fifth-generation stealth fighter, the Su-57, being aerially refueled by an Il-78 tanker. Before this, the Su-57 can be seen imitating a refueling formation behind an An-12 transport aircraft.
Aerial refueling is a common feature of fifth-generation fighters, employed—though not without recurring issues—on America’s F-35 and now recently confirmed on China’s J-20. Also possible with some leading fourth-generation aircraft including the Su-35 and even the aging F-15, aerial refueling is best seen not as an added boon but as a necessity for the kinds of long-range operations that most jet fighters are meant to support.
As former F/A-18 pilot Rolf Siegel put it: “The main reason military aircraft use aerial refueling is to extend the mission radius of the jet.” He explains that “for long-range missions, a fighter will take off from their operating base, meet a tanker en-route to top-off, enter enemy territory to perform their mission, and then return back to the tanker to refuel again prior to flying back to land at their operating base.”
Why, then, would Russia’s Defense Ministry release footage of the Su-57 demonstrating a relatively mundane feature that it was always expected to have?
The Su-57’s refueling probe has been altered from the Su-35 to minimize failure rates, but this is only an iterative change with little significance in of itself. Rather, this and similar updates serve to push back against a flurry of rumors over the Su-57’s ongoing production troubles after India backed out of a joint Su-57 production program with Russia in April 2018.