The Fastest Hunk of Junk in the Indian Subcontinent

Fly the not-so-stealthy skies

Fly the not-so-stealthy skies

I’m playing catch-up with the weekend news after playing catch-up with my boys and our 2,127-piece Lego R2-D2 that the three of us got for Christmas, when I came along this sad tale (hat tip, Glenn) of India’s procurement woes with Russian aircraft:

Despite initial high expectations, the Indian Air Force appears to be souring on a joint development deal with Russia for a new fifth-generation fighter jet, according to the Business Standard, a major Indian business publication. The Russian prototype is “unreliable, its radar inadequate, its stealth features badly engineered,” said Indian Air Force Deputy Air Marshall S Sukumar at a Jan. 15 meeting, according to minutes obtained by the Business Standard.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s paid much attention to Russian (nee Soviet) aircraft development over the last 50 or 60 years — or longer.

The Russians have focused on three things in their fighters: Maneuverability and simple construction for building lots and lots of aircraft. Those three things have about as much relevance to fifth-generation fighter systems (they’re systems now, not planes) as a white tie and tails have to gearing up for the Superbowl.

The old Russian system worked fine for the Cold War, when they prepared for a short and nasty air-land battle for Germany. The idea was to send up oodles of fast, maneuverable aircraft into West Germany’s tiny airspace, and overwhelm NATO with in the inevitable furballs. And judging by some fine performances of Russian aircraft against us in Korea and Vietnam, it might even have worked. Certainly it was custom-tailored to Russia’s manufacturing strengths. Russian jet engines are built to last for only 2,500 flying hours, maybe 4,000 with a rebuild along the way. Western engines last thousands of hours longer.

The American response to that was to develop stealthy, networked aircraft in very few numbers but with (hopefully) very long lives. A couple of F-22 Raptors can destroy (nearly) as many enemy aircraft as the Raptors have missiles before the enemy even knows there are other jets in the sky. This plays to America’s manufacturing strengths in spending oodles of money of difficult to make (and even more difficult to maintain) exotic aircraft.

Judging by the results during exercises over Nevada, the American way works scarily well.

Russia of course still has a defense industry they need to keep intact, and lots of airspace to defend. They’ve seen what works, so now they’re trying to adapt to the American way.

It’s a difficult transition, if Russia is capable of managing it at all. One indication might be that Russia has yet to fully develop and deploy a completely new fighter airframe since before the end of the Cold War. They’ve built a few stealthy PAK-FA planes for testing and evaluation, but they aren’t expected to perform as well (or be as stealthy) as our Raptors, or even as our F-35 Lightning II.

All their other “new” models since then have been variations and upgrades to MiG-29 and Su-27, which were originally developed to counter early models of our F-15 and F-16. The Russians have done some good work with some highly-maneuverable planes, but in the Fifth Generation, that’s the billion-dollar version of bringing a knife to a gun fight.