Warplanes: July 19, 2005

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: The Russian aircraft firm Sukhoi is seeking help from European companies, and governments, for developing its new fighter design. This aircraft, designated the T50 (also known as the PAK FA), is slated to be a new fifth-generation fighter in the class of the F-22, Rafale, F-35, and Eurofighter. The T50/PAK FA is intended to be a long-range aircraft with stealth technology, short-takeoff-and-landing capability, and highly maneuverable. Russia is hoping to buy as many as 600 of this aircraft.

Some collaboration with the West has occurred since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. A version of the Il-96 airliner, the IL-96M, used western avionics and Pratt and Whitney engines. Yakovlev helped Aermacchi develop a variant of its Yak-130 trainer into the M-346. But this is the first time in sixty years (the end of World War II) that Russia is getting foreign help on a weapons program for use in its military.

Russias fighters have some good traits. The Flanker is very maneuverable (the Pugachev Cobra being a prime example of that maneuverability), and it carries a lot of weapons (at least ten air-to-air missiles for air superiority missions, and a wide variety of bombs and missiles to attack ground and naval targets). However, despite these positive traits, Russian fighters have had a very uneven performance record where it counts: combat operations. In air battles against  United States Air Force aircraft, the kill ratios have been lopsided. The Russian-built planes have always come out the losers. The worst examples were the 1982 Bekaa Valley Turkey Shoot and 1991 Desert Storm battles.  The combined score of those two air campaigns was 108 to 0 against the Russian aircraft.

These poor performances are primarily due to the fact that Iraqi and Syrian pilots were nowhere near as good as their American and Israeli opponents. However, Russias Flankers are quickly finding themselves falling behind aircraft from the United States and Europe in terms of quality from near-parity with aircraft like the F-15 and F-16, primarily in the areas of avionics and signature reduction (ease of detection). The latter is becoming more and more an issue as fire-and-forget beyond-visual-range air-to-air missiles like the AMRAAM, Mica, and AA-12/R-77 enter service. This is a huge problem for Russia not only for export sales (Sukhoi would be unable to sell Flankers when a country could buy F-35s, Rafales, and/or Eurofighters), but also for Russia itself (its fighters would be overmatched). India has chosen to use a mix of domestic, French, and Israeli avionics systems on its Su-30MKIs in order to give their Flankers a better chance in combat than they would have with Russian systems. This has led Sukhoi to ask Europe for similar help for the T50 in some areas, not only for export versions, but possibly for Russian pilots as well.

The major issue in Russian cooperation with Europe will be ensuring that whatever technology is shared by Europe does not end up being exported to China or other countries after all, Eurofighter and Dassault have planes to sell. Intellectual property issues could also derail cooperation. Moscow is one of the biggest markets for stolen information and the prices are shockingly cheap. Russias ability to deploy a legitimate fifth-generation fighter quickly (series production starting in 2011) will depend on how much cooperation it can secure from Europe. Harold C. Hutchison (hchutch@ix.netcom.com)

 


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