On January 29, the prototype Russian fifth generation Prospective Aircraft Complex of Frontline Aviation (PAK FA) “T-50” finally completed a successful 45 minute test flight in Komsomolsk-na-Amurye. The stealth multirole fighter was developed by OKB Sukhoi (experimental design bureau) to replace MiG-29 and Su-27’s and is reportedly analogous to the US F-22 (Raptor). Mikhail Pogosyan, Sukhoi’s Director-General, praised the aircraft’s maiden flight, saying that it marked a breakthrough for the Russian aviation industry (Rossiya 24, January 29).
Indeed, the reported technical specifications of the aircraft are impressive. It has a maximum supersonic cruising speed of 2,100 kilometers (km) per hour, and a flight range of 5,500 km. It employs stealth technologies to significantly reduce its signature in all fields, uses modern smart avionics, flies in all-weather conditions day and night, and is highly maneuverable even with heavy loads. The fighter can conduct simultaneous attacks on air targets and ground facilities with precision weapons. The PAK FA can take off and land using short runways, only 300 to 400 meters in length, while its powerful onboard computing system, when completed, will maximize automation and provide the pilot with several options in performing his combat mission. The most sensitive issue relates to its ordinance, which has been rumored to include using missiles stored within its hull (similar to the Tu-160 strategic bomber) in order to maximize its stealth capabilities (www.gazeta.ru, December 11, 2009; Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, www.deyta.ru, January 29).
This latter feature, closely protected from prematurely entering the public domain, seems consistent with the aircraft’s appearance. Images of its test flight broadcast on Rossiya 1 and Rossiya 24 reveal a flatter and wider frame than the F-22 (Rossiya 1, Rossiya 24, January 29). It also has eight suspension points under the wings and fuselage for missiles.
While, the test flight, and its surrounding publicity, will provide a welcome boost for the Russian air force (Voyenno Vozdushnye Sily –VVS), after numerous delays and design setbacks, it still remains some years away from procurement. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin lost no time in demanding that it must reach the air force by 2013, however, it is unlikely that he appreciates the technical issues involved. Army-General Vladimir Popovkin, the Chief of Armaments and Deputy Defense Minister, considers that given favorable conditions it might enter service within five to seven years. Defense experts, such as Anatoliy Tsyganok, the Director of the Center for Military Forecasting, believe that this is unrealistic. In December 2009, Tsyganok suggested that only the wings and engine were ready, and if that was correct, the test flight was essentially a publicity stunt to display progress on the frame of the aircraft, while much work remains in terms of its avionics and other technical features. Moreover, the engine in use on the PAK FA was most likely previous generation, which follows earlier Russian prototype design patterns; though this will be resolved it is another factor slowing its introduction into service (RIA Novosti, January 29; www.gazeta.ru, December 11, 2009).
One notable aspect relates to the radar complex, which although at an advanced stage, is still undergoing trials on a different platform: the Su-35S. The active phased antenna array radar complex will require further refinement, planning five embedded antennas, and while these development issues are ongoing, the estimated cost is spiraling, already reaching $10 billion (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, January 29).
Konstantin Makiyenko, a member of the State Duma Defense Council’s Scientific Expert Council and an analyst at the Moscow-based Center of Analysis of Strategy and Technologies (CAST) estimated that 150 to 200 fifth generation fighters might be purchased in the period 2025 to 2030, depending on the future performance of the Russian economy. Many of the new fighters will enter service in the Indian air force, and the test flight was most likely also geared toward the export market, while forming the backbone of Russian fighter technology for the next forty years. According to Makiyenko a “normal” level of budget funding only reached the fifth generation fighter project in 2005, facilitating measurable progress. The project has nevertheless, enabled the domestic aviation design capacity to survive (Moskovskiy Komsomolets, January 27).
While the development of the new fighter may have economic justifications, including export potential, the basic question is why does the Russian state require such advanced platforms? Makiyenko, links this to the uncertain future facing the country, as well as the unpredictable nature of emerging threats. He also implied that it serves as a warning to states pursuing anti-Russian foreign policies, asserting:
“Our country borders a number of states that are pursuing a demonstrably Russophobe foreign policy. F-35 fighters may well turn up in the inventories of some of these states during the coming 15 to 20 years. While in the Far East certain neighbors have territorial claims on Russia, and it is entirely probable that these states will also possess fifth-generation fighters, including those in the heavy class” (Moskovskiy Komsomolets, January 27).
Despite the design of fifth generation fighters being plagued with many delays, it is a sign of the growing confidence of the Russian political leadership that such ventures are becoming more realistic. Equally, following Carl Von Clausewitz’s famous dictum, “war is nothing but the continuation of policy by other means,” neighboring states pursuing “Russophobic” policies are being publicly warned about the possible future consequences. Its sense of urgency, however, might also be driven by the poor performance of the VVS during the Russia-Georgia war in August 2008, when a large proportion of the dumb bombs it dropped did not explode, as well as bombing disused Georgian airfields (Vaziani and Kopitnari).
However, as the ongoing Russian military reform forges ahead relentlessly, the VVS has been buoyed by its recent inter-service victory at the expense of the airborne forces (Vozdushno Desantnye Voiska –VDV). On January 28, the defense ministry announced that air components of the VDV as well as the Space Forces and the Radiation, Chemical and Bacteriological Protection Forces have been subordinated to the VVS. Lieutenant-General Vladimir Shamanov, the commander of the VDV was known to advocate the airborne forces retaining and strengthening its transport aviation, and the decision is arguably a setback for the VDV (Interfax, January 28).