Its sensors may be slightly less advanced, but Sukhoi PAK-FA will be more agile than American fighters
This is an excerpt from an article that originally appeared in the National Interest
The Russian Sukhoi T-50 PAK-FA stealth fighter could prove to be a formidable competitor to American fifth-generation combat aircraft such as the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
Indeed, in some measures, the new Russian warplane will exceed both U.S.-built jets, but the PAK-FA is not without its flaws.
“The analysis that I have seen on the PAK-FA indicates a pretty sophisticated design that is at least equal to, and some have said even superior to U.S. fifth-generation aircraft,” former U.S. Air Force intelligence chief Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula told the National Interest.
“It certainly has greater agility with its combination of thrust vectoring, all moving tail surfaces, and excellent aerodynamic design, than does the F-35.”
Indeed, the PAK-FA appears to be optimized for the air-superiority role like the F-22 more so than the multirole, strike-optimized F-35.
Like the Raptor, the PAK-FA is being designed to fly high and fast to impart the maximum amount of launch energy to its arsenal of long-range air-to-air missiles—which would greatly increase the range of those missiles.
“Performance-wise it certainly looks to compete with the Raptor,” one senior military official with extensive experience on U.S. fifth-generation fighters told the National Interest.
Like the F-22, the Russian machine is expected to be able to cruise supersonically for extended periods of time—probably faster than Mach 1.5.
The aircraft’s maximum speed should be greater than Mach 2.0—assuming its low observables coatings can handle the stress.
However, unlike the American fifth-generation aircraft, the PAK-FA places less emphasis of stealth, and much more emphasis on maneuverability.
While it could compete with the Raptor in terms of raw kinematic performance, the PAK-FA greatly exceeds the F-35. And that performance margin might increase.
The Russian aircraft is currently powered by modified versions of the Su-30 Flanker’s engines called the Izdeliye 117 or AL-41F1, which produce about 33,000 pounds of thrust.
The engine, which runs far hotter than the original AL-31 engines from which it was derived, is not proving to be as reliable as initially hoped.
But the current engines are only temporary. Later production variants of the PAK-FA are expected to be powered by a new engine called the Izdeliye 30, which should enter service in 2020.
The Russian jet is also equipped with a powerful avionics suite, which is an evolution of Sukhoi’s work on the Flanker-series fighters.
“Indications are that the avionics are derived from the Su-35S with the addition of a very high power-aperture X-band multimode AESA radar,” Deptula said.
Further, there are indications that the PAK-FA is also equipped with L-band radar arrays, which are able to detect the presence of a fighter-sized stealth aircraft.
While the L-band radar would not allow the PAK-FA to target a stealth aircraft, it would allow the pilot to focus the jet’s other sensors on a particular area of the sky.
In addition to radars and electronic support measures, the PAK-FA is equipped with infrared search and track capabilities.
While the Russians have made enormous leaps in their sensor capabilities, U.S. warplanes still hold the edge in terms of sensor and data-fusion, which is critical for modern warfare.
Comprehensively assessing the PAK-FA before it is fielded is a difficult proposition even for those with access to military intelligence data.
“It's tough to tell until the PAK-FA goes into production,” another senior Air Force official said.
“I doubt they'll be on par with our fifth-gen. fighters, but we don't have many and they'll likely overmatch any fourth-gen. [fighter like the F-15, F-16 or F/A-18.]”