For most of the 1990s and 2000’s the Russian Air Force’s primary Air-Defence fighters were the Sukhoi Su-27 and MiG-29 ‘Fulcrum’, with lesser numbers of MiG-31 Foxhounds also deployed. Although the MiG-25 Foxbat remains in service its numbers have been immaterial for years. The MiG-31s suffered from poor maintenance but a significant portion have been brought back to operational status and many upgraded. Estimate of operational air-defence assets as of 2010:
Su-27 Flanker - 322
Su-30 Flanker – 12
Su-35BM Flanker – 4
MiG-31 Foxhound - 286
MiG-29 Fulcrum – 194
MiG-25 Foxbat (fighter versions) - 0
Total - 818
Note: Estimate as intended as indicative. My estimate is somewhat higher than some others, particularly for MiG-31s returned to operational service, but lower than others for example Su-35BM induction to service.
Generally speaking the Russian Air Force remains very large and potent by world standards, though relative to American/ NATO, air-defence assets, the Russian Air force is small. In part this is because, relative to NATO militaries, a far greater emphasis is placed on long ranged SAMs in Russian military (see below), allowing fewer air defence aircraft. A bigger factor perhaps is that following the collapse of the Soviet Union Russia scaled back its military and the fleet that remained suffered years of underfunding and consequently poor readiness and air worthiness.
The lost years of the 1990s also means that the Russian Air Force is behind the curve with operational deployment of truly multi-role and swing-role types. Russian MiG-29s and Su-27s are primarily air defence aircraft, with multirole models mostly confined to export brochures. Even with the advent of the Su-35BM aircraft will not shift this paradigm significantly. Russia’s strike aircraft assets, whilst formidable in their own right, have little material air-defence value. Therefore, relative to Western air forces where truly multirole F-16s, F-18s, F-4s and Mirages make up the backbone of strike assets, Russia has a much less ‘emergency’ re-tasking potential at times of crisis to boost air defence fighter assets.
Background: Russia’s economic woes delayed progression of Russia’s 5th Generation fighter aircraft until the late 2000’s, with the first prototype of the next generation PAK-FA fighter not flying until January 2010. PAK-FA is the program name and stands for “Perspektivny Aviatsionny Kompleks Frontovoy Aviatsii” (Future aviation complex - frontline aircraft) and the actual aircraft will likely get a regular Su- designation and NATO reporting name. Contrary to many speculations, the T-50 prototype designation does not automatically make it the Su-50 in service. Sukhoi normally reserves even numbered designations for strike aircraft. If I was a betting person I’d wager the in-service designation will be Su-41. The NATO reporting name is also subject to much speculation, with “Firefox” being a popular choice. Firefox was of course the name attributed to the fictional Soviet “MiG-31 Firefox” super-fighter of the 1982 box-office blooper of the same name.
If air combat was won on looks, the sleek Sukhoi PAK-FA would be the undeniable king of the modern battlefield. Aesthetically often compared to the universally popular Northrop YF-23 Black Widow (which lost to the YF-22 to become USAF’s 5th generation stealth fighter), the Sukhoi is both elegant and menacing at the same time. The PAK-FA has been hyped for several years and the recently unveiled the prototype has exceeded expectations in many corners and increased speculative comparisons to F-22 and F-35.
The T-50 has a generally conventional layout with tailplanes, but additionally moving LERX above the engine intakes. The tail fins are unusually small, and all-moving. The engines are mounted far apart, optimizing the impact of the 3D thrust vectoring control, and allowing for two large weapons bays mounted in tandem between them.
At this time it seems likely that here are three airframes, one being a static test unit. It is not clear if both of the others are flying, but at least one has received a RuAF style splinter camouflage scheme and non-standard Russian Star emblem on the tail (note that it is not the now-standard and generally unpopular tri-color star of the RuAF).
Comparison: Raptor killer?
It has been suggested that for the PAK-FA to be successful it does not need to exceed the F-22, merely come close enough to shift popular perception of the F-22’s unrivaled dominance of the 5th Generation stage. There will always be die-hard proponents of both planes and any definitive analysis is certainly premature. The following observations should be taken within the context of amateur analysis based on scant reliable information. I think it makes little sense to dive into details, any meaningful comparison must remain high-level.
Stealth: There can be no serious doubt that the PAK-FA is a stealth aircraft; stealth shaping is a compromise and the T-50 clearly shows design decisions which make no sense if stealth was not the aim. Frontal aspect stealth is likely very good. The rear of the engine nacelles has more questionable stealth however and suggests a focus on frontal aspect stealth with rear aspect-stealth clearly being a feature but less-so than F-22. Alternatively the engine nacelles may be remodeled when the production standard engine is introduced (the prototype likely flew with interim Saturn 117S engines to reduce risk). PAK-FA clearly uses shaping to deflect radar waves, and presumably will be painted in a RAM paint. It may also employ ‘Plasma stealth’, particularly within radomes. Although the cockpit canopy is sloped as per the F-22s (ie not ‘bubble’), it is not clear if it is radar reflecting like the F-22’s, and does not have the brown tinge of gold-lined cockpits. Radomes and cockpit canopies are said to be amongst the most difficult parts of an aircraft to make stealthy and it may be that this technology is proving more difficult to develop.
Both aircraft are credited with super-cruise, the ability to fly at supersonic speeds without using afterburner, and thus increasing range and reducing heat signatures compared to other fighters at equivalent speeds.
Air-Air Weapons: Russia has unveiled the RVV-SD missile, an updated version of the AA-12 Adder missile with folding fins, as the main missile of the aircraft. Although the PAK-FA’s weapons bays can likely carry larger missiles, they are probably not large enough for the massive KS-172 (RVV-L) weapon which has an expected range of about 400km. Reports indicate that this missile, or one with similar performamce, can be carried externally. The ramjet powered version of the AA-12 Adder promoted in the 1990s seems to have been dropped. The RVV-SD is likely a good match for the latest AMRAAM variants, though both may be eclipsed by the ramjet powered long range Meteor missile which will be fielded on ‘Eurocanards’ like the Gripen and Typhoon by the time PAK-FA enters service.
The above comparison with the F-22 shows the larger main weapons bays of the PAK-FA (red). The F-22 can carry 6 AMRAAM missiles in the main bay. Reports indicate that the PAK-FA can carry 8 equivalent AA-12 (RVV-SD) missiles, giving it a 2 missile advantage. The side bays (orange) are of similar capacity with both aircraft carrying just one short-range missile per bay. For the PAK-FA the two smaller weapons bays are probably for the RVV-MD version of the AA-11 Archer short range missile. The RVV-MD is probably capable of rear-firing, a unique feature whereby the missile flips immediately after launch and flies at a target behind the plane. AA-12s with this feature have been tested and are possibly operational within the Flanker community.
The F-22 is currently equipped with relatively outdated AIM-9 variants, and lacking a helmet mounted sight for off-boresight targeting. This is likely to be rectified before the PAK-FA enters full scale service and so F-22 and PAK-FA will likely be closely match in this technology.
Both aircraft are equipped with a single cannon; 20mm Vulcan for the F-22 and probably a Gsh-30-1 (as per the Flanker) for the PAK-FA. Many reports suggest that PAK-FA will have two cannons but this seems unlikely and the T-50 prototype appears to only have one gun port, situated on the starboard forward fuselage.
Air-Ground role: The F-22 started life as a straightforward air superiority fighter (later rebranded “Air Dominance”) but has been evolved to carry a potent strike capability. Part of the drive towards the multirole capability was the conspicuous absence of a credible “5th Generation” air threat from the Russian side. The F-22 was conceived in the 1980s against the background of the cold war, facing off to a generation of Soviet fighters which never came. For a while the F-22 looked somewhat spare and a strike capability was added, made possible by US advances in GPS weaponry. The F-22’s internal weapons bays were not large enough for substantial loads so special smaller-diameter bombs have been developed. The F-22’s air-ground weapons load is modest to say the least, but its ability to deliver them to the target seems unrivalled and more than makes up for this deficiency.
The PAK-FA too is reportedly a multi-role design. The internal weapons bays appear larger than on F-22, but are of unconfirmed depth and may not be capable of carrying many of the weapons speculated. Various Kh-31 (AS-17 Krypton) family supersonic missiles seem plausible albeit on the large side, as do satellite guided bombs and KAB-500 series bombs. The weapons bays are about 5m long.
A folding fin version of the Kh-58 ‘Kilter’ anti-radiation missile has been shown and this seems a reasonable fit, though may be more relevant to the MiG SKAT UCAV program rather than the PAK-FA.
Avionics: The PAK-FA has several features of particular interest here. In the nose there is likely to be active electronically scanned array radar (AESA) as per F-22. This may actually have additional mechanical steering, although that would add weight. What’s virtually unique to the PAK-FA however is rear-facing radar in the tail. This too may be AESA and could simply be an additional array for the nose-mounted radar, or possibly a completely separate set. The PAK-FA therefore has true 360 degree coverage. Additionally the PAK-FA is thought to have L-Band radars mounted in the wing leading edges. These would have both passive and active emitting roles and may be the key to ‘seeing’ stealth aircraft such as the F-22. Alternatively these may be located in the wing LERX sides – the exact location is subject to some speculation. The F-22’s stealth is generally optimized against X-band radars as that is what fighters generally use – L-Band is a much longer wavelength and can more easily detect stealth aircraft but is also less accurate -hence X-band radars are still used for routine intercept and virtually all fighters use X-Band.
There is serious doubt of Russia’s ability to mass produce key computer components such as micro processors. This may prove a deployment bottleneck, or Western off-the-shelf processors may be used. Russia has proven capability to produce Phased array radars, datalinks etc and may attempt to sidestep technological deficiencies.
Unlike the F-22 the PAK-FA will feature an IRST optical/IR search and tracking system. The decision not to fit an IRST to the F-22 may be reconsidered to rectify this gap. IRST promises to be the best way to target stealth aircraft since regardless of the IR stealth claims made of the F-22, jet engines are fundamentally not conducive to IR invisibility. The trail of hot air behind the F-22 is likely the first thing the PAK-FA may see, perhaps as far as 25km.