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Think tank: Russian stealth fighter is superior to the F-35

Wed, 04/23/2014 - 1:00pm
Jason Lomberg, Technical Editor

Air Power Australia is no fan of the F-35. Let’s get that out of the way. For years, they’ve been panning the Joint Strike Fighter, praising the F-22, and warning about emerging threats from Russia and China — threats that could best the F-35 in single combat. And a new scientific analysis of the Sukhoi T-50 prototype’s specular radar cross section (RCS) performance is none too kind to the American jets.

Read: Will the United States lose its air supremacy?

APA’s paper quickly establishes the T-50’s credentials as a “fifth-gen” stealth fighter — stealth, supersonic cruising speed, thrust vectoring, integrated avionics, and active and passive sensors, features shared by the F-22 Raptor, America’s “aerial supremacy weapon”.

But the T-50 (a prototype of the PAK-FA) bests the F-22 in several categories, including fuel load — 18,000 lbs internally for the F-22 vs. 25,000 lbs for the T-50. And the Sukhoi fighter also boasts something called “extreme plus agility.”

While the T-50 lacks the “critical all-aspect stealth performance” of the F-22, its “extreme plus agility” could make the PAK-FA the “most lethal and survivable fighter ever built for air combat engagements.”

See: Photos of the Day: The T-50 Russian stealth fighter prototype

And while the F-22 exhibits superior shaping, the F-35 and T-50 have similar RCS behavior. But the T-50’s unusual shape could actually prove advantageous — in a separate analysis, American radars have an exceedingly hard time detecting the PAK-FA, while Chinese “counter-VLO radars” spot the T-50 best — bad news on all fronts.

The T-50 prototype is still in the early stages of development, and the PAK-FA won’t enter service until at least 2016 (and even then, probably not in large quantities). As it stands, the T-50 wouldn’t satisfy the requirements of a very low observable (VLO) design, crucial to modern fifth-gen aerial warfare.

But the T-50 still has room for improvement. Unlike the United States — and half the free world — Russia hasn’t subordinated its entire aerial defense strategy, endured countless delays, and experienced the ugliest personification of “requirements creep” with their newest stealth fighter. Nope, we enjoyed that experience with the F-35 (and we still haven’t seen the worst of it).

According to APA, “with proper application of materials technology, detail feature RCS reduction treatments, aperture structural mode RCS reduction measures, the T-50 had potential to yield viable VLO performance in the forward sector, and with a nozzle design similar to the F-22A, had potential for viable VLO performance in the aft sector.”

... which is very bad news for the United States and its presumed aerial supremacy (if such a notion can still be discussed without stifling a chuckle).

And considering America’s difficulty in detecting the T-50 — to say nothing of successfully engaging it — the skies could get a lot less friendly for the Joint Strike Fighter in the next decade.

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