Warplanes: Bad Signs For The F-22ski

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September 4, 2014: The Indian Air Force is pressuring Russia to be more forthcoming with details of what is going on with the development of the new Russian “5th generation” T-50 (or PAK-FA). This is the Russian answer to the U.S. F-22 and according to the Indians, who have contributed $6 billion to development of the T-50, the Russian aircraft is in big trouble. The latest complaint has to do with the Russian response to earlier complaints. The Russians are now refusing to provide development updates of the frequency and detail the Indians had been accustomed to. The Indians know 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 that. All this began in late 2013 when Indian pilots and aviation experts who had examined Russian progress noted that the T-50 as it was then put together was unreliable. The Russian radar, which promised so much has delivered, according to the Indians, insufficient performance. The Indians also noted that the T-50s stealth features were unsatisfactory. Instead of answers to these criticisms are the Indians are getting in 2014 are excuses and promises.

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, is stealthy and can cruise at above the speed of sound. 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 problem the Indians have is that the improvements do not appear to be worth the additional investment. The T-50 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.

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 (and J-31) 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

There are now six T-50 prototypes in operation. The T-50 flew for the first time in January 2010. Four 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 within a year for testing. All these plans are now suspect and more delays are expected, especially after the Indian comments and criticism.

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 export their "Fifth Generation Fighter" (which they admit is not true 5th Gen) to 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. India is too heavily invested to easily withdraw from the T-50 effort, but that might change if it becomes obvious that the T-50 development is going to get a lot more expensive and take a lot longer.

 

 


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