Warplanes: The 5th Generation Is Cursed


October 4, 2013: The Russian answer to the American F-22, the “5th generation” T-50 (or PAK-FA), is in big trouble. Several key components are facing serious development problems. The key item in trouble is the new engine, which is still stuck in development. Russia always had problems building competitive engines. In the past, to get the power needed, they built engines that lasted only a fraction as long as Western engines. The Russian engines needed more maintenance, used more fuel and broke down more often. Back in 2006, the NPO Saturn company was selected to develop the engine for the T-50. This effort was expected to cost about $3 billion, or about 30 percent of the cost of the entire project. But Saturn ran into problems from the very beginning with its AL-41 (117S) engine. This forced the temporary use of the older and less capable AL-31 family of engines in the T-50 prototypes. The AL-31s are used in the Su-27/30 series of fighters and are the basis for the Saturn 117A. Saturn promised to produce a "Western Class" engine and has been unable to deliver. This does not kill the T-50 but makes it less capable and reliable.

The engine, unfortunately, is but one of several key systems that is arriving less capable than promised. The NIIP AESA radar built for the T-50 worked very well as a prototype but the manufacturer found that the hand-built prototype NIIP was difficult to mass produce. This had long been a Russian problem, made worse by 70 years of communist rule that discouraged the kind of entrepreneurial activity that made such things work in the West. The immediate solution is to throw more money at the problem, but this is making the mass produced NIIP radar much more expensive than originally planned. The same problems were encountered with the radar absorbing materials used in the airframe to provide much of the stealth capability. Similar problems are being encountered with many of the state-of-the-art electronic systems. As a result of all this, T-50 development has gotten more expensive, been delayed two years, and more delays are expected. The price of the aircraft is also going way up.

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 reference is to jet fighters, and the first generation was developed during and right after World War II (German Me-262, British Meteor, U.S. F-80, and 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 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.

The current plan is for the T-50 to enter service in 2019. This is according to India, which is collaborating with Russia in the development of this Russian designed fighter. The delays and escalating costs worry India because they are picking up half the development expense. These delays mean rising costs. Moreover, the $3 billion India is contributing only covers work on the basic aircraft. All the avionics will be extra, and India is unclear of how much extra. India has had serious (and expensive) problems with Russian (and Indian) development cost projections before. Undeterred, India planned to buy 250 of the new T-50s, for about $100 million each. An increasing number of Indians now see the T-50 possibly following the same cost trajectory as the F-22 and in response reduced their order to 200 and now 144 aircraft. India is planning to provide some insurance by buying 129 French Rafale fighters, which are considered “generation 4.5” but have been in service for several years and even have combat experience (Afghanistan and Libya). The French are eager to export sales and are offering attractive terms. The Indians still believe the T-50 will be very capable, although probably not as good as the F-22. But the Russian development and manufacturing problems indicate the T-50 will not be a lot cheaper than the F-22.

There are now 5 T-50 prototypes in operation. The T-50 flew for the first time in January 2010. 5 more prototypes are on order and, if all goes well, the first 70 production models will be ordered by 2016 and be delivered by the end of the decade, maybe. Some of the prototypes are to be handed over to the Russian Air Force next year for testing.

Russians and Indians have been doing a lot of tinkering since the first T-50 flew. 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. The problems with the T-50 engines and the defensive electronics are proving difficult to solve. 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 delays.

The Russians want to sell their "Fifth Generation Fighter" (which they admit is not true 5th Gen) to China, India, and other foreign customers. With the Indian participation, Russia now has the billions of dollars it will take to carry out the T-50 development program. India is not just contributing cash but also technology and manufacturing capability. China is unlikely to be a customer because they have two “stealth fighter” designs in development and flying.

The T-50 is a 34 ton fighter that is more maneuverable than the 33 ton Su-27 it will replace, has much better electronics, and is stealthy. It can cruise at above the speed of sound. It also costs at least 50 percent more than the Su-27. That would be some $60 million (for a bare bones 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 American F-15.

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 under $100 million each there would be a lot of buyers. But it looks like the T-50 will cost more. For the moment the T-50 and the Chinese J-20 are the only potential competitors for the F-22 that are in development. Like the F-22, T-50 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 at the end of the decade it may already be made obsolete by cheaper, unmanned, stealthy fighters. The United States, Russia, and China are all working on applying stealth technology to combat UAVs. Thus the mass produced 6th generation unmanned fighter may be the aircraft that replaces most current fighters.




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