Warplanes: The Stealth Curse


February 4, 2016: Without openly admitting they are falling behind in keeping up with Western warplane technology, Russia recently acknowledged just that when they gave into India pressure over their slow progress in developing their new “5th generation” T-50 (or PAK-FA) stealth fighter. Russia agreed to cut the development cost by a third (to $8 billion) with India providing half that and Russia being responsible for any additional costs. In addition three of the eleven prototypes will be built to Indian specifications and the first of these will be flown to India by 2019. In return India will buy up to 250 T-50s and keep financing development. Russia already has six T-50 prototypes flying, although one was damaged in a fire. The problem is that Russia keeps falling behind.

When the Cold War ended in 1991, both the United States and Russia had already spent a decade working on designs for a "5th Generation Fighter." The Cold War ended because the Soviet Union had bankrupted itself trying to sustain an arms race it began in the 1960s. That meant a halt to work on a Russian 5th Generation Fighter. But the U.S. effort continued, and the F-22 was the result. Costing about $350 million each, the F-22 is the most expensive, as well as the most capable, fighter aircraft ever.

In 2007 India agreed to pay half the six billion dollar cost of finishing development of the T-50 and be the first export customer. Russia said the T-50 would have its first flight in 2009 and be in service by 2017. The Russian reasoning was that, by being second, they could produce a fighter that matched the F-22 in capability, but cost far less. This would mean lower development costs. Some $70 billion was spent to develop the F-22. Unsaid was the fact that many technologies in the F-22 could be stolen by the Russians, and others could be deduced, thus avoiding a lot of development trial and error, because you now know what works. Russia also had some new tech that was developed near the end of the Cold War but never put to use. Russian development costs could be much lower, and if the new Russian fighter can be produced at, say, about a third the cost of the F-22, far more can be built. In addition, the Russians and Indians are looking for export sales. The U.S. refuses (despite intense pressure from Israel and Japan) to export the F-22, leaving a large market for a competing fighter.

Another reason for T-50 optimism was the fact that Russia developed some impressive fighters towards the end of the Cold War and kept a lot of their development teams together between 1991 and 2007. This was done at great cost because Russian fighter aircraft sales have only kicked into high gear again after 2003. So the Russians have the capability. The Indians are several decades behind the Russians in weapons development capability but are catching up fast. The Indian cooperation would bring in more cash and more export customers and give India access to some very high tech.

In reality the T-50 appears closer to the F-35, than the F-22, in capabilities. But if the selling price was low enough the market was there. If development costs get out of control, the effort will lose money. But the capability to develop a competitive fighter is there. Meanwhile there are some unfavorable comparisons to be made. For example the first flight of the F-22 took place in 1997 and it entered service in 2005. During eight years of flight tests the eight prototype F-22s made 3,500 flights. The six T-50 prototypes have made only 700 test flights in the last six years. In that time development costs have increased by a third (officially) and more likely at least doubled to $12 billion (unofficially). Another critical factor is that the United States is the only nation that has successfully developed and used stealth aircraft in combat. The F-117 (a light bomber) entered service in 1983 followed by the B-2 in 1997, the F-22 in 2005 and the F-35 in 2015.

Meanwhile China is developing two stealth warplanes. The 25 ton J-31 first flew in 2012 and the 32 ton J-20 in 2011. There are eight prototypes of the J-20 and apparently at least one pre-production model. Both the J-31 and J-20 are expected to enter service by the end of the decade. Japan is also developing a stealth fighter which, if it is completed, won’t enter service until the late 2020s.

Indian Air Force officials have been criticizing the progress of the T-50 for several years. In late 2015 senior Indian officials pointed out that they had already contributed over $400 million (so far) to development and were entitled by the 2007 agreement with Russia to have access to technical details. The Russians tried to withhold detailed development updates from their Indian partners. The Indians knew from experience that when the Russians clam up about a military project it is usually because the news is bad and the Russians would rather not share. There were growing doubts about the Russian ability to develop the needed tech and pay for it, even with the Indian assistance. In response to Indian threats to abandon the T-50 the Russians admitted to delays and offered India more generous terms and better access to data. The Indians accepted, but with little enthusiasm. But India has little choice. China is close to putting its own stealth designs into service and the only other option they have is to try and buy the American F-35.


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