October 23, 2012:
India is revising the terms of its deal to work with Russia to build a rival for the American F-22/F-35 “5th generation” fighters. India is insisting on building more of the new T-50 (or PAK-FA) in India and outfit Indian T-50s with Indian or Western electronics and other equipment. As part of this change India will buy fewer T-50s built in Russia. That order has been cut from 200 to 144. Russia says the T-50 will now enter service in 2019, but India is willing to delay its version an additional year or more in order to modify the “T-50I” to Indian specifications.
Earlier this year it was revealed that the T-50 has been delayed two years. It will now, barring more delays, be ready for mass production in 2019. India was not happy about this. India is picking up half of the $6 billion dollar development cost and feels they are not having enough say in how the project proceeds. A two year delay means rising costs and the Russians have not announced any budget changes yet. Moreover, the $6 billion only covers work on the basic aircraft. All the avionics will be extra, and India is unclear of how much extra. That’s apparently the main reason why India is now going to supply its own electronics, something the Russians are not happy about and are unable to prevent. India has had serious (and expensive) problems with Russian development cost projections before. India originally planned to buy 250 of the new T-50s, for about $100 million each. That number fell to 200 and now 144. An increasing number of Indians now see the T-50 possibly following the same cost trajectory as the F-22.
The T-50 prototype first flew two years ago and India will get its first flyable prototypes in two years. Russians and Indians have been doing a lot of tinkering with the design. 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. India wants more stealth and would prefer a two-seat aircraft. There are also 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). These problems are apparently the main reason for the two year delay.
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 more than twice as much as the Su-27. 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 a T-50 was sold for well under $100 million each there would be a lot of buyers. For the moment the T-50 and the Chinese J-20/30 are the only potential competitors for the F-22. Like the F-22 development expenses are increasing and it looks like the T-50 will cost at least $120 million each (including a share of the development cost) but only if 500 or more are manufactured. Russia hopes to build as many as a thousand. Only 187 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 7-10 years, it may already be made obsolete by cheaper, unmanned, stealthy fighters.
The latest American warplanes, the F-22 and F-35, are often called "5th generation" fighters. This leaves many wondering what the other generations were. The first generation of jet fighters was developed during and right after World War II (German Me-262, British Meteor, U.S. F-80, Russian MiG-15). These aircraft were, even by the standards of the time, difficult to fly and unreliable (especially the engines). The 2nd generation (1950s) included more reliable but still dangerous to operate aircraft like the F-104 and MiG-21. The 3rd generation (1960s) included F-4 and MiG-23. The 4th generation (1970s) included F-16 and MiG-29. Each generation has been about twice as expensive (on average, in constant dollars) as the previous one. But each generation is also about twice as safe to fly and cheaper to operate. Naturally, each generation is more than twice as effective as the previous one. The Russians are still working on their 5th generation, although some of the derivatives of their Su-27 are at least generation 4.5. One of the reasons the Soviet Union collapsed was the realization that they could not afford to develop 5th generation warplanes to stay competitive with America. The Russians had a lot of interesting stuff on the drawing board and in development, but the bankruptcy of most of their military aviation industry during the 1990s has left them scrambling to put it back together ever since. At the moment the Russians are thinking of making a run for the 6th generation warplanes, which will likely be unmanned and largely robotic.