The Russians have made the first test flight of their answer to the F-22, the Sukhoi PAK-FA (Future Front-line Aircraft System). Coming after decades of development, the flight on January 29 was filmed and broadcast on Russian national television. The single-seat, two-engine T-50 prototype in silhouette resembles the F-22, with its radar-deflecting shape, though no further information is readily available on what other types of radar-absorbing materials it contains. In addition, the Russians plan for it to have supercruise capability, AESA radar, and be capable of networked-linked communications. Whether it ultimately will have the maneuverability and actual speeds of the F-22 is a key unknown. Russia is co-developing this fifth-generation fighter with India, whose military is interested in a two-seat version for longer-range missions. Apparently, the final versions for both nations will be different, raising the question of how far joint development will go beyond the prototype stage.
Despite the maiden flight, of course, the PAK-FA is years away from operating capability. Nonetheless, it is perhaps ironic that just days after the Russian flight, Defense Secretary Gates has fired the Pentagon’s manager of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and withheld over half a billion dollars from Lockheed Martin, stating that accountability was required for the delays and cost increases in the program.
Even though no foreign fifth-generation fighter will be deployed anytime soon, Russia isn’t sitting still, and once the PAK-FA is ready for foreign sales, China, Iran, and other nations will undoubtedly want their share. That’s just one reason to make sure not only that the F-35 is fielded on time, but that we know as much as possible about the new Sukhoi’s capabilities, since the F-35 may be facing its variants for years to come, supplemented only by America’s small force of F-22s.
Michael Auslin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.