Is the New Russian Stealth Jet Fighter a Super Weapon?

A Sukhoi TA-50 PAK-FA flying at the MAKS 2011 air show.

Scheduled to go into production in 2016, a new Russian stealth jet fighter, the Sukhoi TA-50 PAK-FA, is already being hailed as a “super weapon” that could outclass US jet fighters, thereby making Russia supreme in the skies.

Appearing to be a direct competitor to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, the PAK-FA is optimized for air superiority, with an expected maximum speed of over Mach 2.0. At that speed, it could transfer a large amount of launch energy when firing air-to-air missiles, greatly increasing their range. The only question is whether the aircraft’s stealth coatings can hold up at that speed.

In an interview with National Interest Magazine, Lt. General Dave Deptula, former US Air Force intelligence chief, said “The analysis that I have seen… indicates a pretty sophisticated design that is at least equal to, and some have said, even superior to US fifth-generation aircraft. It certainly has greater agility with its combination of thrust vectoring, all-moving tail surfaces, an excellent aerodynamic design, than does the F-35.”

In addition to power and maneuverability, the PAK-FA shows that Russia has made enormous progress in the area of sensor capability. The plane is equipped with radar arrays which can detect stealth aircraft the size of US fighter planes. In addition, the PAK-FA can perform infrared searching and tracking.

Not all US officials are sold on the Russian plane’s supposed superiority. The PAK-FA’s Achilles’ heel may be its underdeveloped sensor and data fusion technology, which is used to process information about the fighter’s surroundings and transmit that information to the pilot for him to aid his combat decisions.

Deptula was also quoted as saying “Even more important (than aerodynamic performance) will be the ability to ubiquitously share knowledge to the point that we have a faster decision advantage than any adversary.”

In fact, when that inferior sensor-data fusion is considered in combination with the lessened stealth measures, it’s not surprising that one senior official in the US aviation industry anonymously said, “Some may claim that the PAK-FA is a 5th-generation fighter, but it’s more of a 4.5-generation fighter by US standards.”

That assessment aside, there is no denying that the 33,000 pounds of thrust power and maneuverability supplied by the Izdeliye 117 engines and the next-evolution avionics suite give the Sukhoi TA-50 PAK-FA a level of flight performance and in-the-air presence a mechanical advantage over what is currently found in the US arsenal.



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