by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
Just a short time ago, Russia planned to have 52 advanced T-50 stealth fighters by the end of the decade. At least, that was the plan.
Now the T-50 program appears to be in serious trouble, and Russia may cut back the fighters to a fraction of the planned strength.
The first sign something was very wrong appeared last month. On March 24. Yuri Borisov, Russia’s deputy defense minister for armaments, told the Kommersant newspaper that the military is drastically cutting its number of T-50s. Instead of 52 stealth fighters, Russia will build merely 12 of them.
That’s hardly anything.
The Kremlin has produced five T-50 prototypes so far — and one was heavily damaged in a fire. Meanwhile, India is co-developing the plane with Russia, and New Delhi’s funding helps keep the project alive. But now Indian Air Force officials have also stopped talking to their counterparts in Moscow.
Which all puts a spotlight on Russia’s problems building so-called fifth-generation fighter jets — which the country needs to compete with the best the United States and China have to offer.
It’s easy enough building prototypes, but developing a truly capable aircraft — all during a major economic recession — isn’t so simple. That’s especially the case when talking about more than a handful.
“Given the new economic conditions, the original plans may have to be adjusted,” Borisov said. “It is better to have the PAK FA kept as a reserve, and later move forward, while squeezing everything possible for now out of the 4+ generation fighters.”
He was referring to Russia’s modern — but non-stealthy — Su-30 and Su-35 multi-role fighters. Borisov said these fighters will fill the gap left by the T-50’s dwindling production run.
In theory, the T-50 will serve as Russia’s competitor to the U.S. F-22 and F-35 fighters. On the surface, the T-50 appears to be a capable and deadly jet. It’s big, fast and has a long range. At air shows, the blended winged-body plane has demonstrated a high degree of maneuverability.
It has huge, mean-looking twin engines — set wide apart for stability — and a 50-foot wingspan. The T-50 has a large internal weapons bay and stealthy, radar avoidance features. If there are technical problems, Russia doesn’t disclose them.
Officially, Russia’s economic turmoil is responsible for the production cut. The plane’s total development cost is unclear — anywhere from $10 billion to $30 billion. India has already spent about $5 billion. But all is not well on the technical front, either.
Because we know the Indians will disclose problems with the aircraft.
For more than a year, the Indian Business Standard newspaper has reported on New Delhi’s misgivings. The Indian version of the T-50 is known as the FGFA.
“The FGFA’s current AL-41F1 engines were underpowered, the Russians were reluctant to share critical design information, and the fighter would eventually cost too much,” the paper reported, based on briefings from Indian Air Force officials in December 2013.
A month later, more bad news leaked to the press. India wanted a bigger share of the project. But the engine was still bad, it still cost too much, the plane’s radar was “inadequate” and its “stealth features badly engineered.”
Then in June, a T-50 landed at the Zhukovsky testing grounds near Moscow … and its engine caught fire. Russian officials said the damage was minor — but photographs depicted much of the rear fuselage blackened by the blaze.
“What added to the controversy … was Russia’s refusal to share any details of this failure, to the extent that a technical evaluation team of the Indian Air Force that reportedly was present at the site was refused access to inspect the damaged platform,” Monika Chansoria of the Center for Land Warfare Studies in New Delhi told Defense News.
India and Russia should have continued negotiations for the development contract. But now New Delhi is incommunicado with Moscow. The Russian defense ministry wanted meetings with their Indian counterparts between February and March. India didn’t respond.
“[Indian Air Force] marshals fear the FGFA undermines the rationale for buying the Rafale fighter from France, an $18–$20 billion contract that is sputtering through so-far unsuccessful negotiations,” the Business Standard reported.
Russia media outlets suggested the drop in oil prices is largely responsible for scaling back the T-50. The Kremlin is short on cash and might not be able to justify spending billions of dollars on a fancy new stealth fighter — or at least 52 of them.
If so, once the Russian economy improves, the T-50 could return to its original schedule — albeit a bit later than expected. That’s probably the best-case scenario.
The worst case involves serious — but mysterious — technical problems. And if India goes farther and ditches its share of the program, the T-50 will go from having major issues into being a catastrophe.
It would mean billions of dollars of hoped-for investment washing down the sink — and the loss of Russia’s largest potential buyer on the international market.
The Russian air force largely dates to the Soviet era — and it’s getting older every day. Russia simply can’t replace its aging fighters fast enough or build the most advanced jets at the same rate as Washington or Beijing.
But Russia can make evolutionary improvements to existing designs, such as the Su-30 and Su-35. Which is all to say that building a more revolutionary aircraft such as the T-50 might be one step too far.