Russia has begun a major air force modernization program in an effort to upgrade its aging and antiquated fleet of warplanes. Under the auspices of the State Armament Program (SAP-2020), Russia seeks to make major strides in improving its air capabilities, procuring new airframes and upgrading at least half of the aircraft not being replaced (1). The crown jewel of this modernization effort is the PAK FA fighter (also referred to as the T-50): a warplane designed to compete with the newest generation of American aircraft. As U.S. and European relations with Russia continue to remain cool at best, this warplane has generated immense angst and fascination amongst Russia experts and military observers. The following report will provide a detailed analysis of the PAK FA and consider the severity of the threat it poses.
Perhaps the most striking feature of the PAK FA is its stealth capabilities. Designed to evade high-frequency radar, this fighter will represent the first stealth aircraft operated by Russia. This is significant because it indicates that Russia seeks to compete with the U.S. and China – the two major stealth aircraft powers – in terms of air capabilities. The PAK FA will not be as stealthy as the F-22 or F-35, its primary American competitors. Its rear section, in particular, lacks effective radar-blocking features. Nevertheless, the PAK FA represents an enormous leap forward in Russian fighter capabilities.
In terms of raw performance, the PAK FA performs exceedingly well. Its airframe is highly agile and maneuverable, utilizing lightweight composite materials, and its Saturn 117 engine is capable of supercruising (flying supersonic without the use of afterburners) (2). These capabilities will only improve as certain features are upgraded. For example, the Saturn engine is expected to transition to a Product 30 engine by 2020, granting substantial enhancements to fuel efficiency, thrust, and reliability. The PAK FA will also incorporate advanced avionics and sensor technology, increasing survivability and responsiveness on the increasingly networked and complex battlefields of the future (2).
The PAK FA thus represents a significant threat to the U.S. and NATO. With a cruising speed of Mach 1.7 and a top speed of around Mach 2.5, the PAK FA is comparable to the F-22 and significantly faster than the F-35. In terms of range, the PAK FA is slightly inferior to the F-35 (2,200 kilometers) and roughly on par with the F-22 (2,000 kilometers) (2). In short, the PAK FA fares well when compared to its American competition. It is less stealthy, meaning it will struggle to survive as long in contested environments. However, its superior maneuvering capabilities suggest that it might be a better dogfighter than its competition, giving it a slight edge during close-in air combat.
While these alleged capabilities are indeed impressive, PAK FA development and procurement have been plagued by cost overruns, technical difficulties, and systems malfunctions. One area of particular concern is engine development. Saturn 117 engines have an exceedingly poor thrust to weight ratio when used in the PAK FA, and they can experience severe fires and burn-outs (3). Of course, designing 5th generation fighter aircraft is an incredibly challenging and complex task. Even the U.S. – a country with an enormous defense budget and a mature aircraft industry – struggles to procure large numbers of advanced stealth aircraft. The drama over F-35 procurement alone could fill an entire book (4). That being said, Russia has proven particularly inept at creating a large and reliable fleet of advanced combat aircraft. To this day, not a single combat coded PAK FA has been produced. For comparison, the U.S. has already built 171 F-35s and 195 F-22s (5). Between a decrepit air manufacturing base and a shrinking economy beset by Western sanctions and endemic corruption, Russia faces serious questions regarding its ability to produce a meaningful number of PAK FA fighters.
These concerns are only further magnified by Russia’s seeming inability to acquire foreign partners. Originally, Russia was supposed to collaborate with India to create a two-seater version of the PAK FA for the Indian Air Force. India has been working to counter the Chinese and Pakistani acquisition of J-20 and J-31 fighters. However, reliability questions and continued delays mean that India is no longer willing to heavily invest in the current iteration of PAK FA development and procurement (6). This suggests that Russia will struggle to generate a large foreign market for the PAK FA, keeping costs high by forestalling benefits from economies of scale. By contrast, the American F-35 program is a massive, multi-country project spanning from the U.S. to Canada to Norway to Italy. This ensures the project is highly complex and political, as Lockheed Martin, the developer of the aircraft, seeks to hold together a large and ungainly supply chain. However, it also ensures that the F-35 maintains strong global support, guaranteeing that there is sufficient funding and political will to warrant large-scale production (7). The same cannot be said of the PAK FA, a plane so plagued with issues that no country is willing to risk signing a long-term contract with Russia to acquire it.
The PAK FA will be a potent and highly capable fighter if the Russian economy is able to rebound, and if Russia’s feeble aircraft industry is able to restore its long-eroded capabilities. However, it is far from clear that either of these developments will materialize in the near future. Designing a highly advanced and capable plane is an impressive achievement, but it is largely meaningless unless the design can be actualized, yielding a large force of warplanes. Russia has yet to demonstrate its ability to fund or build meaningful numbers of PAK FAs, and until it does, these planes will largely be relegated to novelty air shows and Russian propaganda.
(1)- Gorenburg, Dmitry. “Russian Air Force capabilities and procurement plans.” Russian Military Reform. January 27, 2015. Web.
(2)- Gorenburg, Dmitry. “Russian stealth fighter will enhance air force capabilities.” Russian Military Reform. November 5, 2015. Web.
(3)- Majumdar, Dave. “Russia's New PAK-FA Stealth Fighter Might Have a Fatal Flaw (or Two).” The National Interest. June 17, 2016. Web; and Beckhusen, Robert. “Russia’s Stealth Fighter Is in Serious Trouble.” War is Boring. April 5, 2015. Web.
(4)- See, for example, Gertz, Bill. “F-35 software problems.” The Washington Times. March 30, 2016. Web; Trevithick, Joseph. “The F-35 Is Still Horribly Brocken.” War is Boring. February 9, 2016. Web; and Axe, David. “Test Pilot Admits F-35 Can’t Dogfight.” War is Boring. June 29, 2015. Web.
(5)- Farley, Robert. “So, Is Russia’s Stealth Fighter Any Good or Not?” War is Boring. July 17, 2016. Web.
(6)- Bahadur, Manmohan. “Indian Air Power: Ambitions to Secure Aerospace.” Air Power Journal, 11(2) (April-June 2016): 41-61.
(7)- Pike, John. “F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) Lightning II.” Global Security. July 1, 2016. Web.
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Sam Seitz is a student at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, where he studies International Politics, German, and European Studies. He has served as an analyst for the Roosevelt Institute at Georgetown University, specializing in defense and diplomacy, and runs the blog Politics in Theory and Practice. Sam’s areas of interest are, broadly speaking, security studies, alliance networks, European politics, and the intersection between comparative politics and international relations. Sam is also a devoted fan of the University of North Carolina’s men’s basketball team.