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January 21, 2009

Swords and Shields: Russia Bets on PAK FA


Moscow continues to pursue a Sukhoi-based fifth-generation fighter. After five years of effort, Russia finally found an international partner for the development project. In 2007 India entered an agreement to jointly develop a fifth-generation fighter based on the Sukhoi.

The Sukhoi T-50 PAK FA -- standing for Advanced Frontline Aviation Aircraft System -- is a stealth-enabled fighter jet designed to compete with the American Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning Joint Strike Aircraft and the Lockheed Martin/Boeing F-22 Raptor. Russian air force watchers already christened it "Raptorsky" after the F-22 Raptor, with which it is supposed to compete.

The developers describe the T-50 PAK FA as having excellent maneuverability, supersonic cruising speed, long range and high protective properties. PAK FA will have a takeoff weight of 20 tons, which falls between the takeoff weight of the two American competitor airplanes, the F-35 JSF (17.2 tons) and the F-22 (24 tons).

The new fighter -- a medium version -- will have a traditional wing form, though the dramatic-looking reverse-delta wing of the Su-47 Berkut influenced the Russian fighter's designers.

The Russian fifth-generation fighter is supposed to make its first test flight this year. The testing dates have been postponed from the end of 2008, as had been previously announced by Sergei Ivanov, the Russian deputy prime minister in charge of defense production.

Some Russian spokesmen promised deployment of the T-50 in 2013, but according to the earlier statements by Sukhoi CEO Mikhail Pogosyan, the new Russian-Indian fifth-generation fighter might enter mass production by 2015.

According to Russian sources, the Sukhoi T-50 PAK FA will incorporate technology from the two experimental predecessors: the Su-47 and the MiG Project 1.44.

The flagships of the Russian aerospace technology -- Tekhnokompleks Scientific and Production Center, Ramenskoye Instrument Building Design Bureau, the Instrument Building Scientific Research Institute in Zhukovskiy, the Ural'sk Optical and Mechanical Plant in Yekaterinburg, the Polet firm in Nizhniy Novgorod and the Central Scientific Research Radio Engineering Institute in Moscow -- were selected to develop the avionics suite for the fifth-generation airplane.

NPO Saturn has been determined to lead the work on the engines. The Novosibirsk Aviation Production Association has begun construction of the fifth-generation fighter at its renowned Komsomol'sk-on-Amure Chkalov plant where most Sukhoi fighters are made.

However, considering the current economic recession and the track record of delayed deadlines, the Russian fifth-generation fighter may stay on paper for a longer time. This would give Washington and its allies sufficient time to launch mass production of F-35s, deploy them on American bases and fulfill orders from international customers such as Britain, the Netherlands and Israel.

The F-35 is expected to enter service no later than 2012, while the Russian Sukhoi T-50 PAK FA is certain to be in mass production by that time.

The future may not be bright for the next generation of the Russian fighter. Many Western defense experts believe Russia's fourth-generation fighter jets cannot withstand the U.S. stealth-enabled tandem of F-35 and F-22, which offer high maneuverability and near invisibility to surface radars because of advanced radar suppression equipment. Moreover, U.S.-based simulations and tests suggest that the stealth-enabled fifth-generation F-22 and F-35 can defeat any current aircraft, including the Raptorsky.

Ariel Cohen is senior research fellow in Russian and Eurasian studies at the Heritage Foundation.

First  appeared on United Press International

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