The Russians Are Coming: The T-50's Flight to the Future
by Meinhaj Hussain, email@example.com
In late January 2010, the PAK FA made its maiden flight, ushering in an end to an era of US dominance of stealth, fifth generation fighter aircraft. Military analysts of every shade and nation spent endless times speculating and awaited the first flight with sleepless nights and over bitter arguments about its final configuration, for the PAK FA was kept so secretive that none other than a very choice few knew what it would look like.
Combat aircraft are the spear tip of any military power, and play a pivotal role in air warfare. And in today's day and age, any nation that has the decisive advantage in the air war, dominates the ground war, and by extension, the political arena. The PAK FA, also known as the T-50 and possibly to be known in its final version as the Su-50, is an aircraft that not only Russia, but the world needed. For the unipolar world that ushered in an American Empire has increasingly become an unfair and unjust world where American arrogance and exploitation is increasingly creating fiction, not only with the Muslim world but with such powers that have had the most to lose and least to gain, such as China, Russia and Brazil.
Even some of the US's allies in Europe, staunch in their support are increasingly feeling like surrogates rather than allies, slaves rather than friends. An example within the military aviation industry is the F-35, a promised cooperative project by the US with its allies, has turned into a chain of dependence, where vital software codes and maintenance legacies will now remain in the purview of the US, with their Allies permanently dependent. It is no wonder that many Western Europeans of various shades have cheered at the PAK FA, even though it is Russian. Freedom perhaps cannot exist in a monopoly.
The PAK FA is an answer to the US F-22, a fifth generation fighter that till now had no equal. A comparative analysis will follow later in this paper, but for now it suffices to say that it contends with the F-22 on stealth, aerodynamic performance and sensor sophistication and capability, as well as in cost, maintenance and practicality.
It must be understood that the T-50 is not merely a combat aircraft, it is an investment in technology and engineering that has implications for Russian industry, and has economic implications for Russia as well as for Su-50 customers who may thus be able to avoid conflict by deterrence. As a superficial example, two squadrons of this aircraft with Iran would dispel all possibilities of an Israeli strike on that nation.
Guesstimates on Performance
There is scant data on the PAK FA, but educated estimates can be made from carefully analyzing pictures and videos. Following are some basic guesstimates on the present prototype aircraft by this author:
19.5m 20.4m 03/10/10
14m 14.7m 03/10/10
Empty Weight 18.5t 03/10/10
75 m2 80m2 03/10/10
Much of the performance analysis is unreliable as the actual power-plant is unknown. However, it should be in the range of a max speed of 2.5 Mach, service ceiling of 20,000 m and rate of climb greater than 350 m/second.
Hardpoints: unknown, speculated to be 8 hardpoints.
The aircraft is known to have five radar modules with known primary radar to be an AESA. Innovative wing leading edge radar of lower frequency (perhaps L band) would be able to locate stealth aircraft like the F-22, a capability that the F-22 does not have.
The wings on the PAK FA are large and well-swept, optimized for supersonic flight and for high(er) altitudes. In comparison to the F-22, given even remotely comparable engines, the PAK FA should be able to fly faster, for longer and supercruise more effectively (with lower fuel consumption and greater speed).
The all-wing shape of the PAK FA follows the same principles that was so successful with the Su-27 FLANKER and the MiG-29 FULCRUM and not only provides lift, but also provides ample space (along with the large wings) for massive fuel and/or weapons bays. Reducing drag, increasing range and payload and creating lift and stands in good light compared to the F-22s design.
CARET inlets of the air intakes are useful for “wave riding”, generating increased lift for the airframe. This allows lower RCS and increased airflow. With the long length of its horizontal wedged edge (of the inlet) additionally helps lift.
Large, moveable Leading Edge Root Extensions (LERX) over the inlets are highly innovative and perhaps plays a role in making the PAK FA super-maneuverable. It is not a flap-like structure but perhaps more like an aileron and behaves in someways perhaps like a canard.
This is an interesting innovation and also provides a solution for the PAK FA in managing air-flow over the wing and onto the slanted stabilizers, solving problems of a twin-tailed delta configuration.
The twin all-moving stabilizers are innovative in that they can be smaller and have the same effect as a larger conventional stabilizer. Given that the PAK FA also has 3D Thrust Vector Controls (TVC), this makes the PAKFA a fundamentally more stealthy design given that large stabilizers contribute to RCS significantly. Other advantages include reduced weight, stability in hard maneuvering and the ability to go supersonic in a turn.
The large low(er) pressure tires, a bane for space on an airframe implies that the Russians are still staying real, for in any future conflict with a comparable power, airbases could easily be destroyed and operating from semi-prepared strips would provide the Russians (and any other operator) with a key advantage over American designs, whose runways have to be carefully combed for the smallest intrusion.
Technology and Basic Industrial Manufacturing
The PAK FA is built using new methods that the Soviet Union did not have – electro-chemical milling rather than traditional welding methods. While this has been in use since the late 1950s in the West, this method has only now found its way to Russia. This would allow far better finish which has major implications to stealth and minor implications to reducing drag. Along with RAM coatings and the extensive use of composites, this spells a major industrial leap for Russian industry.
Electronics and avionics have traditionally been an area that Russia lagged behind in. However, the PAK FA makes ground here as well. Other than having five radars, informed sources understand that it has a high degree of sensor fusion, combining sensor fusion, Electronic Warfare (EW), data linking and the general Man-Machine Interface (MMI) are said to now be in the league of the US fighters. How far this gets confirmed is yet to be seen but this author believes that given the Russian IT sector's pivotal role globally, this is a leap they have long made and are but only now implementing in their aviation industry.
The PAK FA is the first non-American stealth VLO fighter. The F-22's frontal Radar Cross Section (RCS) is compared to a metal marble, the F-35's to a golf ball and it is this author's speculative contention that the PAK FA's could perhaps be compared to a baseball. The Russians are not looking to make the aerodynamic tradeoffs to stealth that the US has made, for a variety of reasons including the effectiveness and costs of such stealth. Given that stealth in the real world would be far less effective than the advertised “metal marble” because the enemy may not always come exactly head on, nor use the radar's that the F-22s were tested with. Nor would any future competent enemy only have one radar on (but rather a plethora of ground and airborne radars at various frequencies). Further, wear and tear in a real world operational scenario are likely to reduce stealth.
The PAK FA thus would save weight and enjoy superior aerodynamics while trading off some stealth. It's S-duct may not fully hide its fan blades from every possible angle but rather perhaps allow a maximum of 5% of it to be exposed from very specific angles. These may still be RAM quoted and netted.
The PAK FA abandons stealth from the rear quarter altogether. Detractors would scoff at such a tradeoff but, considering the aerodynamics and high altitude and high speed effectiveness of PAK FA, the aircraft may not need stealth in the hind quarters, as it could always out run any enemy. Case in point, the F-35 which also remains exposed from the rear quarters would have no such capability. For air combat after a merge however, this would still be an issue for the PAK FA, but RCS reduction then becomes of little relevance, given that IR missiles and IRSTs would then be more effective in any case.
The Russians seem to have carefully watched the US fighter programs, taking the best elements without buying Lockheed Martin propaganda and stealth as the final panacea to fighter combat.
The PAK FA compares most favorably to the F-22, surpassing it on a number of parameters while sacrificing certain parameters to the F-22. The relationship is not dissimilar to that between the early FLANKER and the F-15. Primarily, the F-22 is stealthier while the PAK FA is likely to exceed the F-22 in the critical arena of a high-high combat profile. The PAK FA also has a bigger weapons bay and greater fuel capacity. In terms of operational capability and cost, the PAK FA wins hands down to the high cost and complicated maintenance of the F-22, while the PAK FA is said to be an improvement over the maintainability of the Su-27. It could cost a third of an F-22 by its greater simplicity and managed tradeoffs as well as greater production run (being procured by both Russia and India if not any other country).
Until the US produces the next generation of aircraft, this spells the end of their monopoly in 5th generation aircraft and is likely to usher in other players such as China and perhaps give enough hope to Europe to produce its own fighter rather than sink to the humiliation to their sovereignty that the F-35 provides.
The Euro-canards now appear out-dated and out-classed, a situation unlikely to sit well with Western Europe. Given the attitude of the US towards her allies vis-a-vis the F-35, Europe now finds itself between a rock and a hard place. It is the contention of this author that Europe will get together and build a fifth generation fighter, for the spirit of Europe has not been one to see its technological edge corrode or to be demeaned by external powers.
Implications for the Subcontinent
Given that by 2018 the Indian Air Force could be receiving the PAK FA, there are serious implications for India's neighbors, particularly Pakistan. Vis-a-vis India, Bangladesh may as well stop operating an air force, for the gap in capability between the two countries is now too great to bridge.
For Pakistan, this implies that the massive resources and labor that she has spent in closing the gap between her and India will again widen as nothing in the PAF arsenal would compare to the PAK FA. The future of air combat is increasingly moving to high speed high altitude fights, something that the JF-17 design is ill-suited for. The J-10Bs may be of relevance, but would be completely outclassed by the PAK FA. Consider the simple fact that the J-10s powerplant would merely be a fraction of PAK FA's and would have no stealth to speak of in comparison.
The future of the PAF will depend on whether she can again innovate in collaboration with China to build a fifth generation aircraft without breaking the bank. Investments in R&D and a strong commitment from the military and the government would need to start now, if such a project is to succeed. A single engined fifth generation project would also be something that many other smaller powers would be looking for and could be viable in the international arms market. This plane could be built around a WS-15 with a small weapons bay and perhaps built around a high sweep delta. While such a plane may sound impossible now, given that the JF-17 has hardly started production and that China may have little interest in pursuing it for its domestic use, thinking forward could save Pakistan from being threatened again as it was after the Mumbai incident.
Just as the US is being challenged in global economics and is seeing a resistance to its political imperialism and empire building, the world of military aviation also mirrors this challenge in the shape of such aircraft as the French Rafale, the Chinese J-10 and the Indian Su-30MKI. The PAK FA represents the pinnacle of this challenge and puts the ball squarely back to the US court. Can the US now move on to another generation of combat aircraft? With a failing economy, ever decreasing competitiveness, ever increasing dependence on government spending and increasing dependence on indirectly taxing the rest of the world through dollar depreciation, spending billions on a new fighter project may be outside the realms of the US Empire. As such, this may spell the beginning of the end of the US as the center of a uni-polar world. That is exactly what the PAK FA challenges and symbolizes in its capabilities.
Videos of Flight:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S67zfmEqGxQ Full Video