The latest Russian fighter design, the T-50, made its first flight on January 29th. Also called PAK FA (Prospective Aviation System of Frontline Aviation), or T-50, its a radical development of the Su-27/30/35 series of aircraft. The 47 minute test flight was done without the new engines designed for the T-50. Russia has always had problems with high performance jet engines, and those woes continue.
"Evolving" an aircraft design, in this case, the Su-27, is a Russian custom. New models of a base design are given new names. The U.S. also does this, but keeps the original name. The Russian mods are often much more extensive, extending to the fuselage and basic architecture of the aircraft.
The T-50 is incorrectly touted as a Russian answer to the American F-22. It isn't. But the T-50 contains more features that Russia hopes will make the T-50 (earlier referred to as the Su-47) more competitive against the new American fighters (F-22 and F-35, which are wholly new, and much more expensive, designs). Russia wants to export the new fighter, while the U.S. won't (yet) export the F-22. When the T-50 project went dormant for years, it was believed the Su-35 or Su-37 would be pimped out (a whole lot) to be the official F-22 competitor. But the T-50 hasn't died, not yet anyway. So the Su-35 and Su-37 will continue as advanced models of the Su-27, and not be burdened with competing with the F-22 in the marketplace.
Last year, the Russian Air Force bought 48 Su-35 jet fighters from Sukhoi, to be delivered within six years. Aside from the T-50, the Su-35 is the most advanced of these Su-27 designs. A year ago, one of the two F-35 prototypes crashed on takeoff. The cause was a problem with one of the two engines. A third prototype is under construction. Russia had hoped to have the destroyed prototype fly over the May Day parade in Moscow on May 1st. The crash was really bad PR, since one of the consistent shortcomings of Russian warplanes has been the unreliable engines. But the project is moving forward, and Russia expects to export over 160 Su-35s in the next five years, and eventually have more Su-35s in service than the U.S. has F-22s. But the more advanced T-50 is being pushed to, if not leapfrog the F-22, at least stay in the race.
The Su-35 is a 34 ton fighter that is more maneuverable than the original, 33 ton, Su-27, and has much better electronics. 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), 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. The larger size of the Su-27/30, allows designers to do a lot more with it in terms of modifications and enhancements.
The Su-35 is to have some stealth capabilities (or at least be less detectable to most fighter aircraft radars). 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).
Many of the advanced features promised for the Su-35, are now earmarked for the T-50. The T-50 began development eight years ago, when the Su-47 design was selected as the successor to the Su-27/30 series, as well as the MiG-29. The MiG version of the T-50 lost the competition, but will contribute some ideas. The new aircraft is not meant to be a direct rival for the F-22, because the Russian aircraft is not nearly as stealthy. The 37 ton T-50 will carry up to eight tons of munitions, hanging from 12 hard points. This reduces stealthiness, which the F-22 and F-35 get around by using an internal bay for bombs and missiles. But if the maneuverability and advanced electronics of the proposed T-50 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 under $100 million each, there would be a lot of buyers. India has already agreed to invest several billion dollars into T-50 development, and will buy many of the aircraft if the design is successful. But that depends a lot on Russian military engine and avionics developers getting their mojo back. That is not a sure thing, not matter how much Russian politicians and air force generals want it to be so.