Russia’s new T-50 stealth fighter is fast, maneuverable, heavily-armed and hard to detect on radar. In theory.
But according to Indian air force officials, in practice the Sukhoi-made stealth jet is also too expensive, poorly engineered and powered by old and unreliable engines.
The Indians’ complaints illustrate the yawning gulf between stealth warplane design and the actual production of radar-evading jets. In other words, it’s one thing to sketch an advanced warplane on paper. It’s quite another to build one and get it to work.
All new aerospace development is difficult and many planes get poor reviews early in testing. But the gripes coming out of New Delhi are particularly worrisome for the Russians.
Sukhoi is working on two variants of the T-50—one for Russian use and another for the Indians. The Indian air force has ambitions to purchase 144 of the stealth jets, and the money from this sale underpins the entire T-50 development effort. New Delhi is also kicking in $6 billion for design work.
Without the Indians’ cash, there wouldn’t be a T-50. And Russia would have basically no hope of acquiring a stealth jet to counter the Americans’ F-22s and F-35s and Chinese J-20s and J-31s.
The Russian version of the T-50 is reportedly simpler than the Indian version, which includes Indian avionics and a wider range of compatible weapons. Five Russian T-50 prototypes are flying. The Indian model still exists only on paper.
But that hasn’t stopped the Indian air force from voicing its unhappiness with the T-50. According to transcripts of December and January meetings obtained by Business Standard, air force and defense ministry officials listed at least four “shortfalls … in terms of performance and other technical features”:
The AL-41F engines currently fitted to the T-50 are unreliable. The radar is inadequate. The airframe is poorly built, with serious implications for the jet’s stealth profile. And in light of these defects, $6 billion is too much to pay up front.
According to Business Standard, Russian officials countered, saying the AL-41F engines are a temporary fit until brand-new and more powerful motors can be developed. The radar, too, is temporary—pending new sensors being developed specifically for the Indian version of the warplane.
But the allegations of sloppy construction appear to be particularly serious. Besides posing an accident risk, low-quality construction can result in gaps and mismatched angles that elevate a plane’s radar signature.
Press reports in 2013 indicated that Sukhoi was having problems with quality control in the T-50 effort. At least one of the prototypes needed patches on its wings to keep from falling apart during high-stress maneuvers.
All the same, Business Standard speculates that the Indian complaints could be somewhat politically motivated, as New Delhi is also planning to buy 126 new Rafale fighters from France for an eye-watering total price of $18 billion. Scrapping the T-50 could help India pay for the French jets.