Warplanes: Stealthy Robots Stalk The T-50


September 14, 2010: The Russian answer to the American F-22, the T-50, first flew earlier this year, and has made 18 flights so far this year. The T-50 is a prototype, and the Russians are still doing a lot of tinkering. While the T-50 is the stealthiest aircraft the Russians have, it is not nearly as stealthy as the F-22, or even the F-35 or B-2. The Russians are apparently going to emphasize maneuverability instead of stealth. But they are having problems perfecting the engines for the T-50, and the defensive electronics. This puts the T-50 at a big disadvantage against the F-22 or F-35, which try to detect enemy aircraft at long distance, without being spotted, and then fire a radar guided missile (like AMRAAM).

The T-50 is not an entirely new design, like the F-22. The T-50 was developed from the Su-27, which it is to eventually replace. As part of this process, another development aircraft, the Su-35, was created. This aircraft first flew two years ago. The Su-35 contains a lot of the technologies that are going into the T-50. Three years ago the Russian Air Force showed off the first of two flyable prototypes of the Su-35. Less than four years ago Russia announced its long promised Su-35 fighter was back in development again. The Su-35 is an enhanced Su-30 (itself a development of the Cold War era Su-27), and has been in development for over a decade. At one point, it was called the Su-37, but the name was changed back to Su-35. A dozen or more Su-35 prototypes have been built, and apparently no two are identical. This is typical for Russian aircraft development. They prefer to produce many incremental improvements, rather than make a huge jump to a very different new model. Thus you can trace an evolution from the Su-27 to the T-50.

The Russians want to sell their "Fifth Generation Fighter" (the T-50, which they admit is not true 5th Gen) to China, India and other foreign customers. There is already a deal for India to develop its own version of the T-50, while contributing some technologies (like lightweight materials) to the basic design. The Indians have announced that their version of the T-50 will be a two seater with longer range than the single seat Russian model. Russia now has the billions of dollars it will take to carry out the T-50 development program. India has become a partner, contributing cash, technology and manufacturing capability.

The T-50 is a 34 ton fighter that is more maneuverable than the 33 ton, Su-27, has much better electronics and is stealthy. It can cruise at above the speed of sound. It also costs at least fifty percent more than the Su-27. That would be some $60 million (for a barebones model, at least 50 percent more with all the options), about what a top-of-the-line F-16 costs. The Su-27 was originally developed to match the F-15, which is larger than the single engine F-16.

Russia is promising a fighter with a life of 6,000 flight hours, and engines good for 4,000 hours. Russia promises world-class avionics, plus a very pilot-friendly cockpit. The use of many thrusters and fly-by-wire will produce an aircraft even more maneuverable than earlier Su-30s (which have been extremely agile).

The T-50 is not meant to be a direct rival for the F-22, because the Russian aircraft is not as stealthy. But if the maneuverability and advanced electronics live up to the promises, the aircraft would be more than a match for every fighter out there except the F-22. If such an T-50 was sold for well under $100 million each, there would be a lot of buyers. Russia says it will begin production, and sales, in five years. That may be too ambitious, but for the moment, the T-50 is the only potential competitor for the F-22 in development. But, as with the F-22, development expenses are increasing, and it looks like the T-50 will cost at least $120 each (including a share of the development cost), but only if 500 or more are manufactured. Only 182 F-22s were built because of the high cost. American developers are now seeking to apply their stealth, and other, technologies, to the development of combat UAVs. Thus by the time the T-50 enters service, in 5-10 years, it may already be made obsolete by cheaper, unmanned, stealthy fighters.





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