Advances in Russian Fighter Aviation

“If the United States does not fundamentally change its planning for the future of tactical air power, the advantage held for decades will be soon lost and American air power will become an artifact of history.”

These are sobering words published by Air Power Australia (APA), an online journal of fighter aviation analysis. (Read the article here – The photos on this page were taken from this article.) The above-cited paragraph was written as part of an analysis of the Russian PAK-FA (also known as T-50) – Russia’s entry into the world of fifth generation fighters.  The data upon which the APA article is based was derived from several different sources including photos released by Russian media and technical data released by Sukhoi, the manufacturer of the aircraft.

Let me very clear, all of the material posted on Tally One is based upon open-source information; there is no classified information or U.S. military assessment of Russia’s latest fighter found on this page (or anything with which Tally One is associated – that would be bad!)  Having said that, let’s take a look at the PAK-FA.

The following video was taken of the PAK-FA’s first public demonstration:

From this video one can make a few key observations: This is a big jet, the engines produce a decent amount of smoke, and the internal weapons bays are relatively small.  These observations can tell us a few things – both good and bad – of the jet’s fighting capabilities in the visual arena.

First we’ll address the limitations.  The size of the aircraft and the smoky engines will allow opponents to visually acquire and maintain tally of the PAK-FA much more easily.  Have you ever heard the saying “lose sight, lose the fight”?  Going “blind” will likely not be a problem for those fighting this jet.  Also, a change in the amount of smoke emanating from the engines can signify a change in power setting as readily observed on fighters such as the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom and the Panavia Tornado.  Observing a change in the power setting of your opponent can help in assessing the bandit’s energy and energy bleed rate.

Finally, the small internal weapons bays means the aircraft may be firepower limited (assuming it’s carrying only internal weapons) or additionally limited by the operating limits of stores potentially hung on external pylons.  In the case of the PAK-FA I don’t foresee this jet being able to easily deploy heat-seeking missiles unless they are hung from the wings due to seeker field of view limitations from the internal weapons bays on the belly of the jet.  Per the APA article it is assessed the PAK-FA can carry up to eight air-to-air missiles internally (six if they are R-77/AA-12 missiles).

Some of these observations may prove to be advantageous to the PAK-FA.  With more real estate to work with (size of the aircraft) the engineers were able to increase internal fuel loads thus extending the aircraft’s combat radius and time on station.  Also, a larger aircraft will typically have room to carry more external weapons.  A big jet equals a big missile truck – the PAK-FA has eight additional external stations upon which to hang stores.  It can carry an arsenal of both air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons on these stations.

The smoke emanating from the engines isn’t an advantage, but the engines themselves are not too shabby.  The engines – taken from the Su-35 – are capable of three-dimensional thrust vectoring, and put out between 19,400 and 32,000 lbs of thrust (Mil power/Afterburner) each.  APA speculates the engines may be replaced later as the engine nacelle design may be tweaked to further decrease the aircraft’s radar cross section.

As far as comments on my assessment of the radar cross-section, stealth capabilities, etc I will refrain from discussion in this area as OPSEC remains paramount (what can be said about the RCS of one aircraft can probably be said of another!)

Let’s talk sensors and avionics.  The PAK-FA will be sporting not one, but two AESA radars – one in the nose and one in the tail.  This is a big deal, as it will give pilots 360-degree radar coverage – and likely 360-degrees of weapons solutions.  It is also assessed the jet will host an array of active and passive sensors.  The key, as in any incredibly smart jet, will be processing power.  Sure, the computers may be getting a lot of good inputs from the various sensors, but there needs to be sufficient processing power and software capable of handling the inputs and packaging them appropriately for pilot interpretation.

In addition to the formidable threat posed by the PAK-FA, we can’t forget about the successful line of fighters already produced by Sukhoi and in service.  I found a couple videos of other Russian fighters (to include their latest supersonic jet trainer) I thought I would pass along.  We may post additional information on them in the future if enough interest exists.

Here is a video of the Flanker series fighters:

Here is a video (all in Russian) of Sukhoi’s latest jet trainer:

In summary, I believe the Russians are making impressive advances in their airborne warfighting capabilities.  Now, more than ever, do we have a need to pursue our own advances in high-tech fighters if we want to maintain air dominance and thus freedom of maneuver both in the air on the ground.  Remember, these aircraft are going to be sold around the world, and we have no control over where they go.  I truly believe a military is only as strong as its airborne weapons systems.  We need to make an honest assessment of our capabilities and not let ourselves fall into complacency if we wish to preserve our dominance of the skies.