By Zachary Keck, The National Interest
Russia’s fifth-generation Sukhoi PAK FA fighter jet, which is also known as the T-50, is like a flying robot with greater stealth capabilities than its American counterparts, according to Russian state media.
On Tuesday, Sputnik outlined some of the specifications of the PAK FA, which is currently undergoing the testing phase and will enter into production next year.
“The PAK FA is already to some degree a flying robot, where the aviator fulfils the function not only of pilot, but is actually one of the constituent parts of the flying apparatus,” Vladimir Mikheyev, deputy head of the Concern Radio Electronic Technologies [KRET] unit of Rostech, which helps manufacture the plane, is quoted as saying. "That is, the reaction of the aviator is a part of the control loop."
An unnamed KRET official is also quoted in the article as saying that the PAK FA may be stealthier than American fifth-generation fighter jets like the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
"In order to achieve this level of stealth, designers moved all weapons to the inside of the plane and also changed the shape of the air intake channel, also lining its walls with a material that absorbs radio waves,” the source begins by saying, adding: “The T-50 is the first Russian combat aircraft made from a high proportion of composite materials, making up 25% of the mass of the aircraft and covering 70% of its surface."
As a result, according to the same source: “The T-50 is now ahead of not only all other fighters of the Russian Army, but also foreign models. For example, the visibility of the American fifth-generation F-22 fighter is 0.3-0.4 square meters.” By contrast, the PAK FA’s visibility is between 0.1-1.0 square meters, according to the report.
Senior U.S. military officials have also expressed alarm that the PAK FA may be superior to U.S. fifth-generation fighter jets.
“The analysis that I have seen on the PAK-FA indicates a pretty sophisticated design that is at least equal to, and some have said even superior to U.S. fifth-generation aircraft,” former U.S. Air Force intelligence chief Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula told The National Interest last year. “It certainly has greater agility with its combination of thrust vectoring, all moving tail surfaces, and excellent aerodynamic design, than does the F-35.”
“Performance-wise it certainly looks to compete with the Raptor,” another senior U.S. military official told TNI, referring to the F-22.
Gen. Mark Welsh, the head of the U.S. Air Force, is only slightly more optimistic. “China and Russia are two good examples of countries who will be fielding capability in the next three to five years; if they stay on track, that is better than what we currently have in many areas.” Welsh recently told Fox News. “Fighter aircraft in the next three to five years that have more capability than what we currently have sitting on the ramp. The F-35 will stay a generation ahead of them. F-22 will, too. Everything else we have will not stay ahead. The gap has closed.”
Like the F-22, the PAK FA appears built as an air superiority fighter, rather than a multi-role aircraft like the F-35. This includes being able to sustain incredible speeds. As TNI has explained before: “Like the F-22, the Russian machine is expected to be able to cruise supersonically for extended periods of time—probably faster than Mach 1.5. The aircraft’s maximum speed should be greater than Mach 2.0—assuming its low observables coatings can handle the stress.”
The PAK FA is being built to replace Russia’s aging Sukhoi Su-27 and Mig-29s, both of which were built by the Soviet Union in the 1980s. As noted above, the aircraft are expected to enter production next year, and 55 planes will be delivered to the Russian Air Force by 2020.
Zachary Keck is managing editor of The National Interest. You can find him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.