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Who's Afraid of the F-35? Russia Unveils Plans for 6th-Generation Fighter Jet

Russia's advanced T-50 fighter jet is expected to begin service with the Russian Air and Space Forces next year. But Russia's aviation industry is already planning for what comes next.

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This post first appeared on Russia Insider

Moscow has big plans for revolutionizing its air force -- and hopes to re-write the rules of modern air combat in the process. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin announced earlier this week that the Sukhoi Design Bureau had begun developing a sixth generation fighter as part of a long-term strategy to modernize Russia's air capabilities.

It sounds like an impressive plan, but some remain skeptical: After all, Russia is still testing its 5th-generation fighter, the T-50, which has suffered from technical setbacks and isn't expected to begin service until next year at the earliest.

<figcaption>Sukhoi is looking to the future</figcaption>
Sukhoi is looking to the future

But even if Russia's 6th-generation fighter takes a decade to develop, the T-50 is hardly obsolete: The jet, designed to compete with Lockheed's F-22 Raptor, can  reach Mach 4 in seconds. Even with its incredible speed, the T-50 can carry anti-ship bombs capable of hitting maritime targets over 150 miles away and has storage space in its fuselage so that the aircraft can fly sorties without appearing armed.

A Sukhoi T-50
A Sukhoi T-50

Even if the plan for a 6th-generation fighter seems premature, or impossibly expensive, Russia has shown that it can compete with the United States using just a fraction of the Pentagon's budget:

The race for air superiority had heated up in recent years, since Moscow began a $700 billion, 10-year defense modernization program designed at achieving parity with the U.S. military. While it’s clear that Moscow is unable to spend as much as Washington on defense, setting aside $52 billion in 2016 compared with $575 billion by the U.S., it has generally been able to push out weapons, tanks, ships and submarines that compare favorably with American versions.

Of course, the F-35 has set the bar so low that Russia's 6th-generation fighter could literally just be "anything new that flies and doesn't cost $1 trillion."

However, given the extreme costs and expertise involved with advanced jet fighters, Russia has always lagged behind. For example, Russia could never match the near $1 trillion costs involved in the development of the U.S. military’s F-35 multirole fighter.

The International Business Times seems to think that not being able to spend $1 trillion on a plane that doesn't fly is a bad thing for Russia. We disagree.

Actually, because of the F-35's failure, any US plans to develop a 6th-generation fighter is likely to be met with extreme suspicion. As the Fiscal Times notes:

Any U.S. proposal would face incredible scrutiny both inside the Defense Department and on Capitol Hill after the F-35’s troubled development. The program has been, and remains, plagued with technical glitches that have driven its price tag up to around $400 billion, making the jet the most expensive weapons effort in U.S. history.

A sixth-generation fighter program would be another multibillion addition to the Air Force’s development “to-do” list, which already includes finishing the F-35 effort and developing new tankers and bombers.

Moscow doesn’t seem to have those fiscal concerns, though, and is moving ahead.

Russia has always done more with less. Yes, its 6th-generation fighter is years away from realization. But with NATO massing on its border, and ceaseless provocations from the west, controlling the skies is likely a top priority for Moscow.


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