The head of the Russian air force recently announced that their new “5th generation” T-50 (or PAK-FA) stealth fighter was passing all its flight tests and was now expected to enter service in 2017. This is surprising because in March Russia announced that they were reducing the number of production T-50s to be built by the end of the decade from 52 to 12. Russia already has five development models of the T-50 flying, although one was damaged in a fire. The Russian announcement did not cover specific reasons for the change. But Indian Air Force officials have been criticizing the progress of the T-50 program for over a year. This aircraft is the Russian answer to the U.S. F-22 and according to the Indians, who have contributed $300 million (so far) to development of the T-50, they are entitled by the 2007 agreement with Russian to have access to technical details. The Russians were accused to refusing to provide development updates as often and in as much detail the Indians expected. 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. Until the Indian Air Force gives their view on this the optimistic Russian assessment of the T-50 must be regarded with caution. The latest T-50 announcement may be mainly to keep the Indians happy.
The Russians have been trying to conceal T-50 problems since 2013, when Indian pilots and aviation experts had a chance to examine Russian progress and 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 questions all the Indians got until early 2015 were excuses and promises. Russia insisted this is all a misunderstanding, until now.
In early 2015 the Russians were portraying the T-50 as a specialist aircraft to be built in small numbers. This is what the United States ended up doing with the F-22, which entered service in 2005. That decision was triggered by development problems and a final price per aircraft that was deemed (by Congress) too high to be affordable. The less expensive F-35 is moving in the same direction despite years of U.S. Air Force assurances that the F-35 benefitted from the F-22 experience. That was true, but the benefit did not bring the F-35 cost down sufficiently to prevent reductions in the number to be built. While only 195 F-22s were built, more than ten times of F-35s are to be built. But that is less than the planned amount. Originally 750 F-22s were planned, with no exports allowed. The F-35 is to be exported and it was hoped that a thousand or more would be sold overseas. But the rising cost of development and production is leading to reductions in U.S. and foreign orders.
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 other than 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. Few 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 in large numbers 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
The T-50 flew for the first time in January 2010, 13 years after the F-22 did so. Once the T-50 flew it was believed that the first 70 production models would be ordered by 2016 and be delivered by the end of the decade. The order number was later reduced to 52 and now it is 12. Some of the prototypes were to be handed over to the Russian Air Force or testing but that has not happened yet.
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 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. Russia has already told its air force generals to prepare for a future full of Su-30s. This also bothers the Indians, who are having lots of unexpected reliability and performance with their two hundred or so Su-30s.