PAK FA: An initial success for the Russian military

Today, Russia’s fifth generation fighter plane had its first test flight. Sukhoi’s T-50, also known as the PAK FA (which stands for “perspective aviation complex for frontal aviation,” I kid you not). The test flight was originally supposed to occur yesterday, but problems with the steering and brake systems caused the flight to be delayed by a day. Todays flight lasted 47 minutes and went off without a hitch (see the video below).

This plane is supposed to be comparable to the American F-22 fighter plane, which entered service in 2005, though somewhat lighter (therefore sharing some characteristics with the newer F-35 joint strike fighter, which is currently in final in-flight testing). Design of the T-50 began in 2002, with the first prototype being built in 2007. While the plane is obviously capable of flight, it is not clear which of its systems are ready, as journalists were not allowed to approach the plane closely. Initial reports stated that the fifth generation engines are not yet ready, so the prototype flew with a modernized Saturn-117S engine, similar to those used on the Su-35BM. Subsequently, Saturn, the manufacturer of the engine, put out a press releasestating that the prototype flew with an entirely new engine that was not based on the 117S. The same information was reported by RIA-Novosti. At the same time, no information was provided on the readiness of the plane’s radar and weapons systems.

The T-50 is expected to reach a maximum speed of 2000km/hour, have a range of over 5000 kilometers (with refueling) and have superior maneuverability and stealth characteristics. It is also expected to have the other characteristics of fifth generation fighter planes, such as integrated multifunctional radioelectronic systems and new advanced weaponry. It is being designed in cooperation with the Indian Air Force.

The air force plans to procure 150-200 T-50s by 2030, with India procuring at least another 200-250. There are also plans to sell the aircraft to countries that would like to purchase a fifth generation fighter plane, but do not want to or are restricted from purchasing American or Chinese models. The cost of the plane’s design is assessed at around $12-14 billion. Each plane is expected to cost $100 million, which compares favorably to the $175 million cost of each F-22, but is more expensive than the much lighter F-35.

Plans call for the plane to enter serial production in the next 3-5 years, with the air force receiving the first planes in 2015. However, Ruslan Pukhov, the director of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, believes that because of expected budget cuts, it is more likely to enter active service sometime in 2018-20. If this is the case, it will mean that Russia will be about 12-15 years behind the US in fighter aircraft design, but about on par with China. Not a bad result given that pretty much all development was suspended in the 1990s due to a lack of financing.

The test flight is a big psychological boost for the Russian defense industry, which has been criticized by top government officials in recent months for its inability to build high tech weaponry. As Vitaly Shlykov noted, it may lead to an increase in exports for a variety of Russian weapons, showing buyers that Russia’s arms manufacturers are capable of producing the most modern weapons systems.

Russian military planners expect to use the fighter to counter potential threats from “neighboring states that are conducting a demonstratively russophobic foreign policy” and may come to possess F-35s in the next 15-20 years. It is also expected to be used to counter potential threats from China and its fifth generation fighters, which are currently in development. How real these threats might actually be is another matter, but as journalists and military planners like to point out, the plane is designed for a 40-50 year lifespan, and no one knows what the world will be like in 2040 or 2050.