The Russians just cut back — way back — on their PAK FA T-50* stealth fighter procurement. And it’s not because Moscow is short on cash, but because the fifth-gen fighter isn’t living up to expectations:
The first sign something was very wrong appeared in March. On March 24. Yuri Borisov, Russia’s deputy defense minister for armaments, told the Kommersant newspaper that the military is drastically cutting its number of T-50s. Instead of 52 stealth fighters, Russia will build merely 12 of them.
That’s hardly anything.
The Kremlin has produced five T-50 prototypes so far — and one was heavily damaged in a fire. Meanwhile, India is co-developing the plane with Russia, and New Delhi’s funding helps keep the project alive. But now Indian Air Force officials have also stopped talking to their counterparts in Moscow.
Which all puts a spotlight on Russia’s problems building so-called fifth-generation fighter jets — which the country needs to compete with the best the United States and China have to offer.
That bit about China is unfair. The Chinese can’t build a fourth-gen fighter without ripping off somebody else, and their engines aren’t even up to Russia’s Second World standards.
But back to the T-50’s teething problems, which we’re hearing about from Russia’s development partners in New Delhi:
For more than a year, the Indian Business Standard newspaper has reported on New Delhi’s misgivings. The Indian version of the T-50 is known as the FGFA.
“The FGFA’s current AL-41F1 engines were underpowered, the Russians were reluctant to share critical design information, and the fighter would eventually cost too much,” the paper reported, based on briefings from Indian Air Force officials in December 2013.
A month later, more bad news leaked to the press. India wanted a bigger share of the project. But the engine was still bad, it still cost too much, the plane’s radar was “inadequate” and its “stealth features badly engineered.”
Then in June, a T-50 landed at the Zhukovsky testing grounds near Moscow … and its engine caught fire. Russian officials said the damage was minor.
Moscow claims money problem are to blame for the scaled-back procurement, but that lie is revealed by this report:
Putin is allocating unprecedented amounts of secret funds to accelerate Russia’s largest military build-up since the Cold War, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The part of the federal budget that is so-called black—authorized but not itemized—has doubled since 2010 to 21% and now totals 3.2 trillion rubles ($60 billion), the Gaidar Institute, an independent think tank in Moscow, estimates.
Stung by sanctions over Ukraine and oil’s plunge, Putin is turning to defence spending to revive a shrinking economy.
If the PAK FA program were any damn good, Putin would find the money for it in his black budget. The Russian Air Force has been living off the scraps of the Sukhoi Su-27 — an airframe which first flew five days before Star Wars premiered in 1977. It has since been upgraded into fourth-generation “plus” planes like the Su-30 and Su-33, but the fact remains that Moscow hasn’t been able to develop a world-beating fighter in nearly 40 years.
And even back then, their engines sucked — less powerful and much less reliable than Western jets, and with maybe 2/3rds the service life.
The safest guess as to what happened to that burned-up T-50 is that something went very, very wrong with the engines. And if Moscow really wants to build a fighter as big as the T-50 — all weapons are stored internally and it has a massive wingspan nearly six feet wider than our F-22 — then they’re going to need big, powerful, and reliable engines to power that pig.
But they don’t, and throwing billions of dollars at it isn’t going to solve a problem which Russian aircraft have suffered from for 50 years or more. The Soviets could paper over that problem by building thousands of expendable jets, hoping to overwhelm NATO with sheer numbers. But the advent in the ’70s of airborne radar platforms and long-range air-to-air missiles obviated much of the Soviet’s numerical advantage. Stealth complicates things for the Russians even further. The Soviets responded to the challenge by trying to build fewer models of better aircraft — the Su-27 and the MiG-29. The MiG-29 never lived up to its promise, and the Russians must still depend on variants of the Su-27 well into the 21st century. It may be true that Western air forces are far too small, but the Russian Air Force is far too old.
Building fifth-generation fighters is hard, and the Russians so far just aren’t up to the challenge.
*NATO reporting name: Fuggidaboudit.