Since its public debut four years ago, Russia’s first stealth fighter has quietly undergone diligent testing, slowly expanding its flight envelope and steadily working out technical kinks. But for all this hard work there have been precious few indications just how many copies of the Sukhoi T-50 Moscow plans to build … and how it means to use them.
Fresh reporting from Aviation Week’s Bill Sweetman, one of the world’s top aerospace writers, offers tantalizing hints regarding Moscow’s intentions for the big, twin-engine T-50, an answer to America’s F-22 stealth fighter.
If Sweetman is correct—and he usually is—the angular warplane with the 50-foot wingspan could be bought in small numbers and used as a sort of airborne sniper, elusively flying high and fast to take down enemy radars and support planes using powerful, long-range missiles.
The T-50's design and apparent weapons options seem to lend themselves to this niche role, which could exploit critical vulnerabilities in U.S. and allied forces and level the air power playing field for the first time in a generation.
Especially considering the Chinese are apparently taking the same approach with their own new stealth fighter.
At the MAKS air show near Moscow this week, some of the five T-50 test models possessed by Sukhoi made appearances—and manufacturers also showed off missiles that could be fitted into the T-50's voluminous weapons bays or under its wings and fuselage.
But Sweetman, wandering the show, detected restraint on the part of the stealth fighter’s boosters. He declared the T-50 exhibits “tamer than some people hoped.”
“I suspect that the fighter won’t be in service for some years, except possibly in the form of a small test squadron,” Sweetman noted. Indeed, Moscow recently pushed back the T-50's first frontline use from 2015 to 2016.
But when it does enter service, even in limited numbers the T-50 could have a big impact on rival forces. Scanning the missiles on display at MAKS, Sweetman concluded that the T-50 could be armed with two powerful main weapons: a version of the Kh-58UShE anti-radar missile and the new RVV-BD air-to-air missile.
Both nearly 15 feet long, the Kh-58UShE and RVV-BD can hit targets 120 miles away or farther. The Kh-58UShE homes in on enemy radars; the RVV-BD is for destroying other warplanes.
The smaller AGM-88 anti-radar missile and AIM-120 air-to-air missile are the American analogues of the new Russian weapons. Both several feet shorter and hundreds of pounds lighter than their Russian counterparts, the U.S. munitions reflect a specifically American air-warfare philosophy. American stealth jets including the B-2 bomber, the F-22 and the still-in-development F-35 carry relatively small, lightweight weapons with short ranges.
The B-2's main munition is a 2,000-pound, satellite-guided gravity bomb. For attacking ground targets the F-22 and F-35 rely on a 500-pound, winged guided bomb that can glide up to 60 miles under optimal conditions.
And the F-22 and F-35's AIM-120 air-to-air missile, 12 feet from tip to tail, has a range of probably only 50 miles or so, although the precise distance is classified. Remarkably, no American stealth jets can carry anti-radar missiles like the T-50 probably can.
Air war philosophies
The differences in weapons-loadouts point to opposing U.S. and Russian concepts for using stealth planes. With the exception of the F-22, American radar-evading jets are not particularly fast and must constantly sneak around in order to use their lighter, shorter-range weapons—therefore they need all-around stealth that makes them hard to detect from any angle.
The B-2 can fly thousands of miles but the F-22 and F-35 have modest fuel loads, forcing them to frequently refuel from aerial tankers.
The T-50, on the other hand, is apparently being designed to blast through defenses in a fairly straight line, relying on front-only stealth features, high altitude, sustained speed and long range to swiftly fire long-reaching missiles at vulnerable targets deep behind enemy lines—without the help of aerial tankers, of which Russia possesses few.
Which is not to say the T-50 isn’t also highly maneuverable when it needs to be.
The Russian fighter’s preferred targets might include spy planes, Airborne Warning and Control System/Airborne Early Warning and Command (AWACS/AEW&C) aircraft, tankers and ground-based radars—in other words, all those vital systems that comprise the pricey, high-tech back-end in any U.S.-led air campaign.
Snipe the support systems and their crews and you hobble the enemy’s aerial war effort.
Moscow is not alone if indeed that is its approach to defeating its rivals in technological battle. China, too, has a new stealth fighter, the J-20. It’s big, heavy and potentially fast like the T-50, likewise concentrates its stealth features up front and also has apparent new weapons.
According to the Air Power Australia think tank, the J-20 could be “employed offensively, to punch holes through opposing air defenses by engaging and destroying defending fighter combat air patrols, AWACS/AEW&C aircraft and supporting aerial refueling tankers.”
It’s a sound strategy. A 2008 war game conducted by the U.S. Air Force-sponsored think tank RAND pitted F-22s against older Chinese Su-27-style fighters in a hypothetical air battle over Taiwan. After Chinese bombardment of American airfields, just six F-22s were available to fight 72 Chinese jets.
Backed by support planes, the defending F-22s got in close and shot down 48 Su-27s, but the remaining Chinese planes managed to power through and destroy six tankers, two AWACS, four P-3 patrol planes and two Global Hawk spy drones, effectively crippling the U.S. force. With no tankers to refuel them, the F-22s crashed for lack of gas despite surviving the missile exchanges.
If older Su-27s firing older weapons could do that, newer and better T-50s and J-20s with longer-range missiles might inflict even more devastating losses with fewer casualties of their own.
With these methods, it wouldn’t take many of the new Russian or Chinese jets to make a huge difference in any future air war. So Sweetman’s prediction that the T-50 won’t be built in large numbers any time soon is cold comfort. With its powerful performance and weapons, Russia’s new warplane could tip the balance of power in the air.
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