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Just Like US(AF)?

Russia's fifth generation fighter.

11:00 PM, Jan 8, 2009 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
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For more than a decade the world has been waiting for Russia's aerospace industry to produce a fifth-generation fighter aircraft -- a replacement for the more than 25-year-old designs of the Mikoyan MiG-29 and Sukhoi Su-27/Su-30 models and an analogue to the Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptor and F-35 Lighting II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). Organised as a cooperative program involving almost the entirety of the Russian military aircraft industry, the project is known as the PAK-FA (Perspektivnnyi Aviatsionnyi Kompleks - Frontovoi Aviatsyi, or Future Air System for Tactical Air Forces).

The design bureau designation for the prototype is T-50, with this airplane in the beginning stages of assembly at the Komsommolsk-na-Amure Aviation Production Association (KNAAPO) plant in the Russian Far East region of Kharabovsk. "Metal is being cut at the KNAAPO plant" and the plan is now for the aircraft to fly in 2009 -- or 2010 at the latest -- said a source knowledgeable of the program.

The emergence of a Russian fifth-generation fighter airplane should be music to the ears of the U.S. Air Force (USAF), which has long sought to use the specter of such a program to justify increased procurement of the F-22A and funding for the F-35. But, no one on the Air Staff in the Pentagon should be putting champagne on ice just yet. Ironically, the PAK-FA seems to be taking the same labourious route from first flight to actual deployment that started with the selection of the YF-22 prototype in the early 1990s.

"During the flight evaluations of the YF-22 and the [Northrop-McDonnell-Douglas] YF-23 the Lockheed design was picked as the 'winner,' but this was despite the fact that the prototype airplane did not demonstrate stealth, did not have a working radar or avionics suite for testing, and did not supercruise. So, all that was really evaluated and 'won' the fly-off was an aerodynamic paint job," said US aviation and stealth technology analyst Jim Stevenson. Stevenson has authored numerous articles on the F-22A and has written extensive histories of both the F-18 and ill-fated A-12 program.

"The USAF essentially picked a winner and then said 'now that you have officially won go and develop the airplane,' which took another 14 and half years between this fly-off of virtually empty prototypes and the official acceptance of the F-22A into service at the end of 2005," said Stevenson.

The PAK-FA seems destined to meet a similar fate. The prototype will fly sometime within the next 12 to 18 months, but -- like the F-22A -- it seems that these demonstration flights will meet almost none of the Russian Air Force's (VVS) operational requirements.

Russian industry representatives close to the program tell THE WEEKLY STANDARD that "the radar to be flown in the aircraft from NIIP design bureau will be a variant of the same Irbis-E passive electronically scanning array (PESA) radar technology that is in the Sukhoi Su-35 Super Flanker and not the next-generation active array (AESA) that program requirements call for. The engine will be the Saturn/Lyulka 117S modernised derivative of the Su-27's AL-31F-Series 3 engine and not the next-generation AL-41F1 design. There will also be few new-age on-board systems in the avionics suite."

As early as mid-2007, Sukhoi General Director Mikhail Pogosian and other senior Russian industry officials were downplaying expectations when they hinted that these on-board systems might not be ready when the first prototype aircraft flies and would only come on line later. When asked about the engine development at the Le Bourget air show outside of Paris in June 2007, Pogosian responded "that since the serial production covers a period of 30 years and 30 more years for operation, the engine and other systems will change considerably in the course of serial production. That is normal."

According to the division of labour that has been agreed to for the PAK-FA, the KNAAPO plant will be the lead final production assembly point. The Chkalov NAPO plant in Novosibirsk will supply the nose section and other carbon composite sections for the aircraft. But, officials in Novosibirsk have previously told THE WEEKLY STANDARD "there are no plans to place a large share of the [PAK-FA] production at NAPO, largely due to the nature of the local workforce here in Siberia. Because there are no so many commercial trading companies now here in Novosibirsk it is too difficult to retain enough skilled engineering talent with this kind of competition from the private sector."