Stealth for the Other Guys

March 1, 2010

An event that many thought might never come finally arrived on Jan. 29. On that day, the world for the first time witnessed a flight of a Russian stealth fighter.

It was Sukhoi’s PAK FA aircraft. The event was wrapped in secrecy on a scale worthy of the Soviet Union. There were no advance photos of the fighter. There was no advance announcement of the flight. There were no foreigners on hand to witness the 47-minute event. Only after the flight’s successful completion did Moscow even acknowledge it at all.

At that point, though, Sukhoi and Kremlin officials held back nothing. They went all out in their praise of the fighter and its purported capabilities. The subtext was that, finally, someone had broken the US monopoly on low-observable aircraft.

Russia’s PAK FA stealth fighter has made its debut. (Sukhoi photo by Sergey Pashkovskiy)

The PAK FA is still shrouded in secrecy. In light of Russia’s tortured quest to develop a “fifth generation” rival to the F-22 Raptor, the blackout is sure to continue for a long while. The “Raptorski,” as it is called in the West, will be a modern Russian mystery.

Russia’s claims about the aircraft’s schedule and capabilities are bold, however, and the US would be foolish to ignore them or to believe they don’t spell trouble.

The PAK FA will enter developmental service with the Russian Air Force’s test and evaluation unit “in 2013,” said Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, adding that “large-scale procurements will start in 2015.”

“It’s going to be no worse than an F-22,” said Anatoly Kornukov, the former commander of Russian air forces. “I’ve been in an F-22, and I know.”

PAK FA is the Russian acronym for Future Aviation System for Tactical Aviation. Also known as the T-50, the fighter bears a strong resemblance to both the F-22 and the F-35, and is sized between the two Lockheed Martin-built stealth fighters. Russian officials claim their fighter will cost less than the F-22, will offer the ability to supercruise, and boasts a longer range than the F-35.

It is designed for aerial combat, ground attack, and even maritime attack missions when equipped with 3,300-pound anti-ship weapons. The PAK FA can carry eight missiles internally, according to Pravda, and will be able to attack multiple targets simultaneously.

This makes the T-50 a multirole strike fighter, like the F-35. Unlike the F-35, however, it will have two engines.

The engines on the test aircraft immediately raise questions about how advanced it really is, however. Despite Sukhoi claims that the PAK FA has “unprecedented small radar cross section in radar, optical, and infrared range,” the current engines are derivative and have traditional, nonstealthy round nozzles.

Russian officials acknowledged the fighter is not yet ready for front-line service. Putin himself said “a lot remains to be done in terms of engines and armament.”

US Air Force officials have acknowledged for years that top-of-the-line Russian fighters on the world market already outclass the most advanced versions of USAF’s fourth generation fighters such as the F-15 and F-16. Until the F-35 is ready for combat, the American advantage in worldwide air combat resides in the quality of its pilots and in the F-22.

It is too soon to predict when the PAK FA will be operational and whether it represents a full-up fifth generation fighter or a hybrid utilizing carryover technology.

Still, the fighter threat is increasing in terms of both quantity and quality, noted Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, last September. “It behooves us to remember the success of the Russian MiG-21, the most widely produced and deployed jet fighter in history. Over 50 countries operated the MiG-21, not just Russia or China, … [so] we need to be prepared to deal with advanced fighter technology in quantities and locations beyond Russia and China.”

Indeed, India is a charter partner in the PAK FA program. Other current customers of Russian fighters include longtime US adversaries such as Iran, Syria, and Venezuela.

“The Russians are working on the PAK FA, and China is working on their XXJ or F-12,” Deptula continued. “Export of both fighters will likely take place, and the prices they’ll charge will likely undercut the F-35. This provides the opportunity for both nations to acquire near-F-22 performance while attempting to proliferate the systems [in] F-35-like quantities.”

That’s a sobering prospect for those who want the US to maintain air superiority in any future conflict.

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