Russian stealth fighter will enhance air force capabilities

In June 2015, I published a short article in the Oxford Analytica Daily Brief discussing the capabilities of new Russian aircraft. Here’s the text, as usual with no edits other than restoring some cuts made for space reasons.

SUBJECT:The Russian T-50 fighter and PAK DA bomber.

SIGNIFICANCE:In early June, a series of high profile crashes involving Russian military planes led to Moscow grounding the Tu-95 ‘Bear’ bomber fleet. Additionally, on June 4, a Su-34 strike fighter crashed near Voronezh and a MiG-29 crashed near the Caspian. Military leadership is hoping that the air force’s reliance on old systems will be solved by two new programmes: the Sukhoi T-50 PAK FA and the PAKDA bomber.

ANALYSIS: Impacts

  • Russia will continue high frequency of air activity over Baltic and North Sea regions.
  • Increasing numbers of European air forces will look to procure fifth-generation fighters to maintain approximate parity with Russia.
  • Shortage of refueling planes will be a concern for the Russian air force and may prove to be an Achilles’ heal.
  • One of the primary targets of the air force is a stealth fighter, in order to to maintain parity with the United States, a role which is sought for the T-50.

PAK FA T-50

The Russian Air Force has been developing a fifth-generation fighter aircraft since the late 1980s. The PAK FA T-50, has been under development at Sukhoi for about 15 years. The first flight of a prototype aircraft took place in January 2010. A total of five prototype aircraft have been delivered over the last five years. It is expected that the jet will enter service in 2016.

Stealth abilities

This aircraft will be the first operational stealth aircraft operated by Russia. It is expected to be built at least in part out of composite materials, highly manoeuvrable, with supercruise capability and advanced avionics. It will initially use a variant of the Saturn 117 engine currently installed on the Su-35S. A new engine, Product 30, is to be ready for production no earlier than 2017 and will become the standard engine in the 2020s. This engine is supposed to provide 17-18% more thrust, improved fuel efficiency, and higher reliability than the existing engine.

While recently constructed prototypes have been equipped with advanced avionics, reports indicate that the T-50’s electronic components are likely to be upgraded further before serial production begins. The need for continued work on avionic equipment and engines means that the initial production run of the aircraft will retain fourth-generation characteristics and will be comparable to earlier US F-16/18s. The Russian air force will therefore not have a complete fifth-generation fighter until 2020 at the earliest.

F-22 and F-35 comparison

Russia generally compares the T-50 to the F-22, rather than to the F-35. The T-50 has cruising (Mach 1.7) and top (Mach 2.5) speeds that are comparable to the F-22, though it is designed to be significantly faster than the F-35, which has been tested to a top speed of Mach 1.6. The maximum range without refueling is also comparable to the F-22, at 2,000 kilometres, and slightly inferior to the F-35’s 2,200 kilometres. Service ceiling is also relatively comparable, at 20,000 metres for the F-22 and T-50 and over 18,000 metres for the F-35.

There are extensive debates among aviation specialists regarding the relative merits of the three aircraft. These debates are complicated by the lack of reliable information on the characteristics of final versions of various T-50 components, including in such key areas as engines and avionics. At the same time, there is some consensus that the T-50 is more manoeuvrable but less ‘stealthy’ than the F-35 and F-22. Because of this characteristic, the T-50 is expected to be slightly superior to US aircraft in air battles but less successful in attacking ground targets. However, these comparisons are being made based on real data about Western aircraft but only statements regarding the T-50. Given Russian officials’ track record of hiding problems and exaggerating the capabilities of new technology, it is possible, perhaps likely, that the T-50’s performance may not match expectations.

Cooperation with India has stalled

Since 2007, the T-50 project has included a two-seater version designed for the Indian Air Force and commonly known as the FGFA (Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft). Original plans called for the production of 500 aircraft, with serial production to begin in 2015. Disagreements between the two sides have resulted in serious delays. The Indian side has complained that the aircraft’s engine is underpowered and unreliable, that problems with the airframe reduce the aircraft’s stealth features, that radar and other electronic systems are inadequate, that construction quality is poor, and that as a result of these defects the per unit cost is too high. As a result of these delays, India is expected to receive only three prototypes by 2017.

Procurement plans

Original plans called for the air force to receive 52 T-50 aircraft by 2020 and a total of 250 by 2030. However, officials have announced that due to the deteriorating economy, only twelve of these aircraft will be procured during the next five years. Four planes are expected to be produced during 2015, though these will still be considered prototypes. Therefore, the T-50 will not become a mainstay of the Russian air force in the foreseeable future.

Overall, it is unclear whether the Russian defence industry will be able to produce some of the advanced features on this aircraft, particularly in the areas of stealth technology, avionics and fifth-generation engines. Furthermore, the cost of the aircraft, estimated to be at least 50 million dollars per unit, may make large-scale procurement unaffordable given Russia’s current economic problems.

PAK DA bomber

Development of what is known as the PAKDA bomber began in 2007. Tupolev won the initial tender to design the new long-range bomber. By 2009, company officials were anticipating that the research and development phase would be complete in 2012, the engineering phase would be finished in 2017 and the Russian air force would have 100 PAK DA aircraft by 2027. Subsequently, there have been debates regarding the need for such a plane and its capabilities. In August 2012, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin stated that any new strategic bomber will need to possess hypersonic technology to avoid falling behind the United States. This idea was later rejected in favor of a subsonic flying wing design with a long range and the ability to carry a heavy payload of weapons.

Long range

Given the lack of a prototype, there is little certainty about the plane’s design features. Experts believe that it is likely to have an initial weight of around 120-130 tons and a range of approximately 12,000 kilometres. Early indications that the two aircraft (T-50 and PAK DA) may also share engines appear to have been rejected in favour of an updated version of the engines found on the Tu-160. Last year, Russian Air Force Commander Lieutenant General Viktor Bondarev said that the miltiary would start receiving the PAK DA in 2023. However, there have been indications that the timeline for developing a new bomber could possibly be pushed back, with some air force officials stating a potential in-service date range for the new plane of 2025 to 2030. The project is currently at the prototype design and construction stage.

CONCLUSION: The requirements of the air force will provide further stimulus to Russia’s defence industry import substitution scheme. As a result of Western sanctions and broken defence cooperation with Ukraine, Russia is embarking on an ambitious programme to make its defence industry self-sufficient within three years. However, increasingly the defence industry may be forced to retrench, returning to old designs and recycling components as it is unable to meet this ambitious target. The high cost of the T-50 fighter will eat into the overall budget, sapping chances for full-spectrum reforms.

Air Force procurement plans part 1: fighter aircraft

A long time ago, I promised some folks a report on the air force’s procurement plans for the coming decade. Various other projects pushed that to the back burner, but with MAKS 2011 fast approaching, now seems to be the time to resurrect it. The following is largely based on Anton Lavrov’s excellent chapter in the CAST center’s “Russia’s New Army” report. If you know Russian, I encourage you to go read the original. But if not, here’s my summary, with some additions based on developments since the report went to press.

Long term decay

The Russian Air Force received virtually no new planes or helicopters between 1995 and 2008. This means that by the start of the Medvedev presidency, even the most modern aircraft were 15-20 years old, while many were approaching 30. This means that not only were the planes physically old, but their designs were outdated when compared to Russia’s main military rivals. This means that almost none of them were equipped to use guided weapons. Furthermore, lack of money for maintenance meant that many aircraft were no longer in usable condition. Finally, lack of money for fuel meant that pilots did not receive adequate training to maintain or develop their skills, adding to the air force’s overall state of deterioration. These problems were exposed during the 2008 war in Georgia, when six planes were lost in five days. Furthermore, the air force was assessed to be ineffective in combat operations due to a combination of its lack of guided munitions and the pilots’ limited training.

Fighter and Ground Attack Aircraft

Throughout the post-Soviet period, the Russian air force’s combat forces have consisted primarily of five types of aircraft:

  • Su-24: The venerable Su-24 attack aircraft was introduced into the Soviet air force in 1974. According to warfare.ru, around 320 of these aircraft are in service in the Russian air force.
  • Su-25: close air support plane introduced in 1981. Approximately 200 in service.
  • Su-27:  fourth generation fighter plane introduced in 1984. Approximately 260 in service.
  • MiG-29: fourth generation fighter plane introduced in 1983. Approximately 190 in service.
  • MiG-31: interceptor introduced in 1982. Approximately 140 in service.

These planes will remain the primary combat aircraft in the Russian air force for the next decade. Some types have undergone significant modernization.

Between 2003 and 2008, 55 Su-27s were modernized to the Su-27SM variant, including the installation of new engines, which has substantially extended their expected lifespan. The modernized aircraft are based at the 6987th and 6989th air bases in the Far East. An additional 12 new Su-27SM3 aircraft were ordered from Sukhoi in 2009. Eight of these have already been delivered and the rest will be received by the end of 2011.

Relatively few MiG-31s have been modernized to the MiG-31BM version that includes improved avionics and navigation systems and better armament. Recent reports indicate that the defense ministry is preparing a contract to modernize another 30 MiG-31s to the MiG-31BM level.

Substantial purchases of new combat aircraft began in 2008, after a 15 year gap. Initially, the air force bought 28 MiG-29SMT and 6 MiG-29UBT planes, which had been sold to Algeria but were then rejected by the latter ostensibly due to problems with the planes’ quality. Despite these concerns, some analysts consider these aircraft to be highly capable because they are equipped with the most modern electronics and the best weapon systems of any aircraft in the Russian air force. An additional 26 MiG-29K aircraft are expected to be purchased in the next five years.

They are to be supplanted by the Su-35S fighter planes, 48 of which are to be procured in the next five years together with 4 Su-30M2 two-seater trainers. However, there have been significant delays in the development of the Su-35s. The first plane was made available for flight testing in May 2011, five months behind schedule, and the timetable for subsequent aircraft has likewise been extended. The delays have been caused by limited space for final assembly at the Komsomolsk assembly plant, which is busy assembling Sukhoi Superjets for the civilian market. Analysts expect another 24-48 Su-35s to be purchased in the near future.

Down the road, the T-50 is seen as the future of Russian fighter jets. This heavy fifth generation fighter is being developed jointly by Sukhoi and India’s HAL Corporation. The first test flight was conducted in January 2010. The goal is to procure 60 T-50s in the 2016-2020 time period. It is slated to fully replace the remaining Su-27s in the following decade.

However, there is no obvious replacement for the MiG-29 light fighter jets. The MiG-35‘s failure in the recent Indian MMRCA tender has left it with few prospects in either the domestic or export markets. In any case, it is not a next generation aircraft such as the American F-35, but merely an extension of the MiG-29 line.

The situation is somewhat worse for the modernization of Russia’s fighter-bombers. The air force has repeatedly declared that the Su-24 is to be replaced by the Su-34, which began development in the mid-1990s. After the first two aircraft were ordered in 2006, then defense minister Sergei Ivanov stated that 44 would be in service by 2010 and 200 by 2015, at which time all the Su-24s would be retired. However, only 6 Su-34s have actually been transferred to the air force as of the end of 2010, in addition to 5 prototypes that were built prior to 2006. Sukhoi seems to be on track to build 6-8 planes per year, which would allow the company to fulfill the 2008 contract for 32 planes by 2014, only a year or so behind schedule. The Russian press is reporting that contracts for another 80 Su-34s will be signed in the next few months. However, at the current rate of construction, it will still take 25 years to build all 200. Sukhoi would have to gradually double the rate of construction to get them built by 2025.

Because of the delays with the Su-34s, the air force has decided to modernize the existing Su-24Ms, rather than simply replacing them. An initial 30 planes were modernized to the Su-24M2 level, which features improved navigation and weapons control systems and improved armaments, in 2007-09. Further upgrades may occur in the future.

The air force has also been modernizing its Su-25 close air support planes. Between 2006 and 2010, a total of 40 aircraft were upgraded to the Su-25SM variant, which has improved avionics. Rather than buying or designing new planes, the air force has decided to extend the lifespan of its existing Su-25s to 40 years, allowing them to remain in service through 2030. In the meantime, the air force has ordered 16 Su-25UBM trainer planes, which will be received in the next 2-3 years.

However, the experience of the Georgia war has shown that the Su-25 is highly vulnerable to enemy fire, because it is armed with unguided munitions and therefore has to approach within 600 to 800 meters of targets if it is to have any chance of hitting them.  As a result, three Su-25s were lost and four damaged during the war. These losses should not have come as a surprise to the Russian military, as it sustained similarly high casualty rates on these planes in Afghanistan back in the 1980s. In a recent article, Ilya Kramnik argues that the solution is to restart building Su-25T (aka Su-39) aircraft, which are similar to the Su-25SMs but were designed to use guided munitions in any weather or light conditions. The Russian air force currently operates no more than six such planes, built in the 1980s and early 2000s.

Overall, the situation with fighter aircraft seems to be relatively good for the long term. Sukhoi (and to a much lesser extent MiG) is in fairly good shape and can continue to supply the air force with relatively modern planes as long as it continues to receive funding. The joint venture with India’s HAL Corporation may help in developing better electronic systems for the long term.

Russia’s State Armaments Program 2020: Is the Third Time the Charm for Military Modernization?

The following post is being published as a PONARS Eurasia policy memo and will be presented at its annual policy conference, which will be held in Washington D.C. on Friday, October 22. For more information, click here.

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For the first two years of the Russian military reform program that began in October 2008, the top priority of the Ministry of Defense was reorganization. This involved the transformation of the military’s division-based structure into one based on brigades, as well as a shift in the ratio of officers to enlisted soldiers in favor of the latter. The last step of this reorganization was the replacement of military districts with four operational strategic commands, modeled on the U.S. military’s regional commands. These are joint commands that control all of the forces on their territory, including naval and air force units.

As this organizational transformation was being completed, top defense officials increasingly focused on the need to rearm the newly streamlined Russian military. In several speeches last winter and spring, President Dmitry Medvedev called for large-scale rearmament. More specifically, in a March 5 speech to the Defense Ministry Collegium, he called for renewing arms and equipment at a rate of 9 to 11 percent per year for the next decade, in order to reach a target of modernizing 70 percent of military equipment by 2020.

This will be a difficult target to achieve. The current rate is less than two percent; even the Soviet military of the 1980s averaged only a 5-7 percent renewal rate. In order to achieve this plan, the Russian government is putting together a new State Armaments Program for 2011-2020 (SAP-2020). This program will replace two earlier programs enacted since Vladimir Putin came to power, the most recent for the period from 2007 to 2015. What the previous programs have all had in common is that in each case the government failed to achieve the program’s stated goals.

SAP-2020: What We Know So Far

The SAP will not be announced until later this fall, but some information about its parameters has already begun to appear in the Russian press. The total size of the program is still under negotiation. Back in May, President Medvedev announced that total spending on armaments over the next ten years will be 13 trillion rubles, or approximately $425 billion at current exchange rates. This would be a significant increase from the previous armaments program, which allotted five trillion rubles over a nine-year period. However, Defense Ministry officials argued that this amount would not be sufficient to modernize the entire military. General Oleg Frolov, the acting chief of armaments, noted that for 13 trillion rubles the ministry would be able to modernize only the strategic nuclear forces, the air force, and air defenses. To modernize the ground forces, an additional 15 trillion would be necessary, while the modernization of the entire military (including the navy and the space forces, which operate Russia’s military satellites) would cost a total of 36 trillion rubles ($1.2 trillion).

The definitive program budget will not be announced for several more months, though it seems impossible for the Ministry of Defense to obtain anywhere near the full amount it seeks. In late September, Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov announced that total spending for the armaments program would equal 22 trillion rubles, of which 19 trillion would be allocated to the Ministry of Defense and 3 trillion to other power ministries. This would increase Russian defense spending to around 3.5-4 percent of GDP, up from the current 2.9 percent.

The Air Force

The full parameters of which armaments the Russian military will procure with this money have also not been announced, though some specifics are now available. The air force will be one of the main beneficiaries, while the navy and ground forces are considered a lesser priority. The Ministry of Defense believes it can modernize all of the country’s military aircraft over the next ten years. The goal is to purchase 350 new fighter airplanes, 1,000 new helicopters, and a number of new transport aircraft. This is a high priority as most of the existing aircraft have reached or exceeded their original lifespan. Specific air force procurement plans include:

  • T-50 fifth generation fighter aircraft (PAK FA). 10 to be purchased in 2013-2015. An additional 50-60 to be procured in 2016-2020.
  • Next generation long-range bomber (PAK DA). Design began in 2010. Prototype to be built by 2015. First units scheduled to enter air force in 2020.
  • Su-35BM fourth generation fighter aircraft. 48 to be purchased in 2010-2015.
  • Su-34 fighter-bomber. 32 to be purchased in 2010-2015.
  • MiG-35 fighter. Currently in development. First units expected to enter air force in 2013.
  • Yak-130 training aircraft. 150 to be delivered in 2010-2015. An additional 50 to be procured in 2016-2020.
  • An-124 transport aircraft. 20 to be purchased in 2015-2020. 10 to be modernized in 2011-2020.
  • An-70 transport aircraft. 60 to be purchased in 2011-2020.
  • Mi-26 transport helicopters. Exact number unknown. Main focus of helicopter renewal program.

Air Defense and Strategic Rocket Forces

The armaments program also promises significant improvements in air defense and strategic rocket forces. For the former, Russia will continue to procure the S-400 air defense system. Two air defense regiments were armed with this system prior to 2010. An additional five were to be procured during this year. The goal is to have as many as 23 regiments (of 8 to 12 missiles each) by 2015. It will then be augmented by the more advanced S-500 system, currently under development and expected to be ready for production by 2013. Both the S-400 and S-500 systems are superior to the US Patriot PAC-3 in maximum speed, range, and accuracy. Russia will also continue to procure the Pantsir-S1 short-range surface-to-air missile, with at least 200 units expected to be added by 2016 to the 10 already in service in 2010.

The strategic rocket forces will continue to receive Topol-M (SS-27) and the new RS-24 ICBMs. The latter is a Topol-M variant with three or four multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVed) that began to be deployed this year. These will gradually completely replace the older SS-18 and SS-19 ICBMs, as the service life of these missiles is scheduled to expire over the next ten years.

The Navy

The procurement plans for the navy seem quite extensive, but are likely to be carried out in full only if the Ministry of Defense succeeds in its effort to increase the government’s total financial commitment to the State Armament Program. The strategic submarine force remains a priority for the military and will be funded no matter what. Financing for other projects, especially the larger and more expensive ships, is more uncertain, though the commander of the navy recently announced that the construction of a total of 15 ships and diesel submarines for the Black Sea Fleet will be part of the armament program. Specific plans include the following:

Submarines

  • Borei-class ballistic missile submarine. First currently in sea trials. Five to seven more to be commissioned in 2010-2017. Three of these are already under construction. The project’s success will depend on the military’s ability in getting the Bulava SLBM to fly successfully.
  • Yasen-class multi-purpose attack submarine. First launched in June 2010. Two to five more to be commissioned by 2020.
  • Lada-class diesel submarines. First commissioned in April 2010. Two to seven more to be commissioned by 2020.
  • Improved Kilo-class submarines. If problems with Lada class continue, could build as many as eight of these instead, with at least three going to the Black Sea Fleet. There is also the possibility that a smaller number of these would be built to be used in conjunction with a small number of Ladas.

Surface Combat Ships

  • Aircraft carrier. This summer, the navy announced that designs for a new aircraft carrier would be finished this year. It is likely that the construction of one or two carriers will be included in the State Armaments Program. Their actual construction is likely to take many years in the best of circumstances, and it is highly unlikely that the Russian Navy will have a functioning aircraft carrier by 2020.
  • Mistral amphibious assault ships. Two will be purchased from France, with another two to be built in Russia under license. Negotiations over the purchase are still ongoing, but they are likely to conclude successfully in the next few months.
  • Ivan Gren-class landing ships. Three to five to be commissioned in 2012-2020.
  • New destroyers. Press reports indicate that design of a new 10,000-ton destroyer is under way, with construction of the first ship to begin in 2013. The hope is to build 10 to 12 of these ships over the next 20 years, though it is unlikely that more than two or three could be completed by 2020 in the best of circumstances.
  • Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates. Two currently under construction. Plans call for a total of 20 to be built over the next 20 years. Of these, three to six are likely to be built by 2020.
  • Krivak IV-class frigates. Given the slow pace of construction for the Admiral Gorshkov frigate, the Russian navy is likely to build three or four of these frigates for the Black Sea Fleet. Previously, these ships have been built for the Indian Navy.
  • Steregushchii-class corvettes. First commissioned in 2007. Second launched in March 2010. Three more are currently under construction, to be commissioned by 2013. In total, 20 are expected to built, with 10 likely to be completed by 2020.

In addition to these procurement plans, the Navy has declared its intention to restore and modernize the various mothballed Kirov- and Slava-class cruisers owned by the Russian Navy. The Kirov-class Admiral Nakhimov (originally Kalinin) cruiser will be the first to undergo modernization. If this effort is successful, the Admiral Lazarev (originally Frunze) may also be modernized prior to 2020. The Admiral Ushakov (originally Kirov) could theoretically be modernized as well, though most sources believe it to be a pile of radioactive rusted metal, due to a combination of a 1990 reactor accident and subsequent lack of repair or maintenance. The Navy may also work with Ukrainian shipbuilders to finish the almost completed Admiral Lobov Slava-class cruiser. If this project goes through, the three active Slava-class cruisers in the Russian navy may also be modernized over the next ten years.

Ground Forces and Other Equipment

Much less is known about procurement plans for the ground forces, in part because they are likely to receive the least amount of new equipment in the next decade. We do know that the military has canceled plans to procure the T-95 battle tank and will instead continue to purchase T-90 tanks for the foreseeable future. The ground forces will also receive Italian light armored vehicles, probably instead of the BTR-90 armored vehicles that they had previously planned to purchase. They will also continue to purchase Iskander tactical ballistic missiles for its missile brigades, replacing existing Tochka (SS-21 Scarab) missiles in seven more brigades, in addition to the two that have already been rearmed with Iskanders in 2010. It is likely that sometime during the next decade, the design of a new generation of multiple rocket launcher systems will be completed, with some likely to enter service prior to 2020 in place of the currently used BM-30 Smerch systems.

In addition to platforms and weapons, the Russian military will focus on improving its communications capabilities by upgrading its GLONASS satellite system and procuring new digital communications and command and control systems, as well as other high tech items such as night vision equipment and better IFF (Identify Friend or Foe) systems. Many of these items are likely to be procured abroad or developed with foreign assistance.

Limitations

Whatever the actual details of SAP-2020 turn out to be, if the Russian government carries all of them out, it will be the first time such a program is actually carried out in full. Past programs foundered due to three reasons: lack of financing, corruption, and the poor state of the Russian defense industry. All these factors are likely to play a role in limiting the Russian military’s ability to modernize its weapons and equipment over the next decade.

The large increase in funding promised for SAP-2020 may not be sustainable, as it depends on a stable or rising price of oil and natural gas in coming years, which itself depends on the continuation of the current global economic recovery. If government revenues should falter, financing for the military will undoubtedly suffer as well. And even if revenue projections are met, the increase in financing being discussed right now will require a significant shift in government expenditures toward the military despite ever more pressing needs in the civilian sector.

Whether the government will be able to maintain such a plan if its popularity starts to erode in coming years is very much an open question, especially as it becomes more and more obvious to the population that much of the procurement money instead goes to line the pockets of senior military officials. Various press reports estimate that as much as half of all procurement money is spent on bribes and other forms of corruption. Last spring, the Audit Chamber announced that one billion rubles of military procurement money was lost to corruption in 2009. Analysts argue that without corruption, 19 trillion rubles would be more than enough to finance the entire defense procurement wish list, rather than the 36 trillion that was asked for by the Ministry of Defense.

However, the real question facing the armaments program is whether the Russian defense industry can actually build the weapons they are being asked to produce. The ability of the Russian defense industry to design and produce new weapons has been declining for 20 years. The best workers—those left over from Soviet times when the industry was well funded and a highly prestigious place to work—have retired or are about to do so. Few good people went into the field in the 1990s, when there was virtually no financing and the industry came close to collapse. At the same time, because there was no money for equipment modernization, the industrial plant began to deteriorate. By the start of the Putin presidency, even the allocation of additional financing was not enough to counteract the decline in the defense industry’s ability to produce high quality products. This decline will have to be reversed if the Russian military is to be successful in producing new high-tech military equipment.

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.