Russian Air Power on Display: The T-50


08/20/2011: Russian Air Power on Display: The T-50

By Richard Weitz

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Russia’s International Aviation & Space Salon (MAKS-2011) air show, which is being held at Zhukovsky airfield outside Moscow from August 16-21, will not soon rival Paris, but the event, along with the Russian public commentary about it, has revealed a lot about the plans of the Russian aviation industry and the Russian Air Force.

This show saw the first public displays of post-Soviet Russian-made aircraft, signifying Russia’s return to the league of leading Russian aviation companies. An estimated 600,000 visitors will atten the five-day biennial show, at which more than 600 companies will be represented, including more than 150 foreign firms.This column will cover the first public display of the Sukhoi T-50 fighter, Russia’s new fifth-generation warplane.

My next column will address the information that has come out recently, at the show and elsewhere, about Russia’s other air systems.

The T-50 is the first Russian warplane entirely designed and built in Russia since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. It is also Russia’s first declared fifth-generation multi-role fighter/attack plane. It is formally known as the Advanced Front-Line Aviation Complex (PAK FA), [(Russian: Перспективный Авиационный Комплекс Фронтовой Авиации, Perspektivnyi Aviatsionnyi Kompleks Frontovoi Aviatsy, literally “Prospective (Promising) Aircraft Complex (System) of Front line Aviation”].

It is manufactured by the state-owned OAO Sukhoi aircraft corporation, at Авиационного производственного объединения в Комсомольске-на-Амуре (КНААПО), a plant located at Komsomolsk-on-Amur in the Russian Far East, where its maiden flight occurred in January 2010. The first prototype has since carried out more than 40 test flights. Two more prototypes are at various stages of testing.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin joined other senior Russian officials and military officers and the many other attendees to view two T-50 prototypes perform aerobatic maneuvers during their 15-minute demonstration flight — though rather than being subsequently displayed on the ground they were quickly removed to keep their secrets concealed.

Although the definition of a “fifth-generation” fighter is imprecise, it is generally agreed to have stealth (low-observable) characteristics, making the aircraft almost invisible to conventional radar. These include extensive use of composite materials, reduced engine heat signatures, internal weapons carriage, and other advanced technologies that minimize the aircraft’s optical, infrared, and radio-frequency visibility. Furthermore, they can fly at sustained supersonic speeds (“supercruise”) of over 2,000 km/h, a speed other planes can only attain, if at all, for a limited time only by using afterburners.

In addition, fifth-generation warplanes possess advanced weapons, avionics, and navigation control systems that use state-of-the-art technology, such as artificial intelligence, to achieve enhanced maneuverability and network centric warfare capabilities.The single-piloted, twin-engine Sukhoi PAK FA is intended to replace the Russian Air Force’s aging fleet of MiG-29 Fulcrums and Su-27 Flankers. It will serve along with the 48 Su-35s multi-role fighters the Air Force is also procuring from Sukhoi. The Su-35 is considered a “four++” generation plane, with only some fifth-generation capabilities.  The Russian Air Force plans to backload some of the new technologies developed for theT-50, especially the AESA Radar, as mid-life upgrades onto its existing fleet of Su-35BMs, Su-30MKIs, and Su-30MK2s.

According to Sukhoi, the PAK FA has a new advanced avionics suite, sophisticated phased-array radar, more automatic controls, and a very low radar cross-section.  The new all-weather plane will be equipped with new high-precision air-to-air, air-to-surface and air-to-ship missiles and two 30 mm cannons in order to allow it to function in multiple roles, including dog fighting other planes and striking multiple ground and maritime targets simultaneously.  In developing and manufacturing the PAK FA, Sukhoi has functioned as a systems integrator for more than a hundred suppliers and strategic partners.

Before its maiden test flight, Russian sources had given few details about the capabilities and design specifications of the PAK FA. No foreign reporters or military attaches were invited to the initial test flights.  After the test proved a success, the Russian media provided extensive coverage of the flight by releasing its first public photographs and videos of the new plane.  Russian defense industry representatives cited the development as demonstrating that the country’s military industrial complex had recovered from the period of post-Soviet collapse.

The repeated unsuccessful tests of the submarine-launched Buklava intercontinental missile, the problems refurbishing the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov for the Indian navy, the decision of the Russian military to buy unmanned aerial vehicles from Israel rather than the inferior models offered by Russian suppliers, and other embarrassing failures have led many in Russia and elsewhere to doubt the complex’s recovery.

Russian aircraft makers have been seeking to manufacture a fifth-generation warplane since the 1980s.India is a major partner in this $10 billion program. The joint project, India’s largest, will produce derivatives for both air forces. The version for the Indian Air Force will have two seats. The participation of the Indian side in the project is expected to increase over time.  India will contribute about 30 percent of the total project design, including composite components with the stealth function and some avionics, cockpit displays, and electronic warfare systems.  The Indian government signed a preliminary agreement in October 2007 to collaborate with Russia in developing and manufacturing a 5th-generation fighter.

The Russian Air Force will begin testing the mass production version in 2013.  Serial production of the new plane is still scheduled to commence in 2015.   After its first test flight, Mikhail Pogosyan, General Director of the JSC Sukhoi Design Bureau and, since January 31 of this year, General Director of United Aircraft Corporation (UAC), said that the Russian and Indian Air Forces would receive the first planes, but hoped that other countries that are already flying Sukoi and MiG aircraft.  The Russian Air Force aims to purchase at least 20 new T-50 each year after 2015 and eventually buy half of all the planes that are produced.

When I had dinner with Pogosyan in May in Moscow, he indicated Sukhoi/UAC planned to market the plane globally. He even expressed hope that perhaps some North American clients would appear after he declined my suggestion (made in gest, obviously) that perhaps he could instead serve as a paid consultant to Lockheed to help revitalize the F-35 program and ensure that UAC had some international competition for the high-end fighter market.

China, which is seeking to develop its own fifth-generation warplanes, would probably like to buy a few PAK FA planes so that it can study and copy their technologies. Sukhoi and the Russian government probably would not risk such a sale given Chinese demonstrated Chinese prowess in reverse-engineering Soviet-era weapons systems and then selling modified, lower-cost versions to potential Russian customers in other countries.

The manufacturers of the F-22 and F-35 will probably have mixed emotions about the advent of the new Russian plane. On the one hand, it could increase U.S. sales of the more advanced F-22, which Congress has banned from export due to its advanced capabilities. The Defense Department has stopped purchasing more of these air superiority fighter, citing is high cost and the absence of a competitor to the 187 planes already on order despite arguments that the plane is needed to evade increasingly sophisticated surface-to-air missiles.

On the other hand, the Sukhoi PAK FA series could compete with foreign sales of the F-35 since it may cost less (the target is less than $100 million per plane but with full up production the F-35 will be significantly below that number) and has a longer declared range (more than 5,000 kilometers).It is still unclear if the Sukhoi can outperform the F/A-22 in a one-on-one dogfight. It should be noted however that the entire purpose of the systems on the US fifth generation aircraft is to obviate the need for the classic dogfight.

Sukhoi has not been able to integrate supercruise engines or LPI radar into its tests flights. The degree of stealth in the T-50 is also uncertain. The T-50 prototypes are presently equipped with modified fourth-generation A-31FN engines built by the Saturn Corporation. These are more visible in the infrared range than desirable in fifth-generation plane.

The F-22 and F-35 hide their weapons inside their bodies and wings to avoid radar detection, but it was unclear how well the T-5s can do this since the fly-by prototypes were unarmed. Pogosyan said that, “The stealth fighter is progressing as planned and the new engine for the plane will be ready in time.”In any case, increased Russian military spending combined with the decision to export the plane widely will reduce the plane’s production costs and ultimately bring down the fly-away cost per airplane for the Russian Air Force. Combined with cut backs in the number of U.S. combat aircraft to be procured in recent U.S. defense budgets, the eventual number of T-50 variants in the world’s air forces could well exceed the current U.S. fleet of 187 F/A-22 Raptors.

(Note: How integrated or not these combat systems remains a key discriminator among the new planes as weapons systems.  The F-35 remains unique in terms of the nature of its overall integrated combat systems.

And the quality of the radars is another issue as Northern Edge 2011 reminds us as the intersection between F-35 radars and the rest defined a significant generational difference the Russians have yet to demonstrate.

The emergence of foreign fifth generation systems does highlight the need to fully integrate the new US planes into a honeycomb operations

As Ed Timperlake as warned us the tactical aircraft competition is highly interactive

And Ed Timperlake introduces the z axis to explain the differences among combat aircraft