Russia's New T-50 Super-fighter Wannabe

Sometimes the juxtaposition position of events in time results in an irony that makes even the most deadly events amusing. One such came on January 29.

Just a couple of Fridays ago, the Russians announced the first flight of the Sukhoi T-50, also referred to as the PAK FA, a fifth generation stealth interceptor and ground attack fighter built in “post-Soviet Russia” with help from India. The Russian media and the BBC talked of the T-50 as the Russian answer to the U.S. fifth generation fighter the F-22 Raptor.

And within four days of the roll-out of the T-50, on February 1, the U.S. Secretary of Defense unveiled the 2011 President’s Defense Budget Request that halts funding of the F-22 Raptor at 187 aircraft. For those just joining us, President Obama campaigned against what he called unneeded Cold War era weapon systems, and cancelled the F-22 – because there was no use for it against the Taliban and such. And no, of course, we’re not going to fight any conventional wars any more.

Let’s see, the Russians test fly their first advanced fighter and the U.S. stops production on its advanced fighter because there is no perceived requirement.

The argument in the past for halting production of the F-22 was that it was a fighter without a mission and no fighter peer. Well, according the international aviation press and the BBC, now there is. The 47-minute first flight, by all accounts was a success. Sergie Bogdan, the Sukhoi Corporation’s test pilot flying the jet explained in a video interview that the aircraft was “easy and comfortable to pilot” and that “there were no emergencies.” The “no emergencies comment” may be setting the bar a little low to my way of thinking.

Videos of the first flight festivities at Sukhoi’s production plant in the Far Eastern city of Komsomolsk-on-Amur show engineers and other glazed-eyed celebrants in what might have been vodka-induced ebullience tossing Sergie in the air congratulating one another on the aeronautical achievement. The back-slapping and handshaking was a bit over the top making me think that perhaps a successful first flight might have been less important than simply surviving to fly another day.

The PAK FA (stands for Prospective Aircraft Complex of Frontline Aviation) is touted as having low-observable technology like the F-22, twin engines like the F-22, sustained super sonic speed without using afterburners like the F-22, and greatly enhanced agility and maneuverability like the F-22. Admittedly, when looking at the first flight video the resemblance to the F-22 of the center fuselage, wings and outward canted twin vertical tails is immediately obvious. But, on closer inspection there are differences.

A goose-neck forward fuselage and nose section jutting out beyond the engine inlets appears grafted on from an Su-30 as does the extended appendage sticking out between the engine nozzles at the rear of the aircraft. In other Soviet-vintage fighters the tubular tail cone extension between the engines housed rearward looking radars and avionics. Though the geometry of the sections of the aircraft that look like an F-22, could have low-observable characteristics, the rest does not. We are told that the stealth characteristics result from its reduced profile rather than F-117-like angled surfaces. Maybe.

Historically, the Soviet approach to going fast was simply to build huge, honk’in engines that brute-forced their way to speed. The large inlets and big nozzles on the T-50 seem to suggest that this fighter carries on that tradition. The big nozzles make me wonder about just how low the heat signature can possibly be. So, the airplane may have this real skinny profile, but the heat from the engines can be seen half way around the globe by any house cat wielding an I.R. sensor.

We are told that the T-50 will have a sophisticated suite of avionics and modern, technically advanced radar. Its armament will include a variety of air-to-air and air-to-surface missiles. So, it appears that the intention in building the T-50 was to provide the Russian air force with a modern, very capable air-to-air and ground attack fighter to replace their aging fleet of cold war combat aircraft. Production of the T-50 aircraft will be in quantities of approximately 200 for the Russian Air Force and an equal number for India.

Russian commentators are somewhat more reserved when making comparisons and seldom mention the F-22, being more inclined to draw parallels between their T-50 and the F-35 Lightening II. This may be because the F-35 was designed and is being developed with international sales in mind. Actually the international sales are crucial to keeping F-35 unit costs down. Similarly, the T-50 with its Russian and Indian linage is also destined for the international market we are told. The important question is, what international market? Would that be possibly the Iranian international market?

This last point is also a departure from making any serious comparisons between the F-22 and this new Russo-Indian fighter collaboration. Congress has repeatedly been unwilling to make the F-22 available to our allies and the international market. Having done so early would have provided the opportunity to have benefited from more aircraft overall and the larger quantity would have driven down the unit cost. Lower unit cost would have made the F-22 more attractive for foreign military sales, and well you see where this goes. But, but that option is closed, and we are where we are.

The Russo-Indian collaboration is curious in another way. Though I’m sure there has been international collaboration by the Russians in other weapon systems, front-line fighters have not been as prominent examples of technology sharing. The T-50 as a front line fighter to be placed in the Russian (and Indian) fighter arsenals suggests strongly that the Russians recognize that there are in Indian aerospace technology advances missing in their own. Though we have known for some time that India’s aerospace industry has not been sitting on their hands watching others develop advanced technology, this teaming arrangement should prompt the U.S. to be much more vigilant about what is going on in “the world’s largest” democracy.