The Fifth Generation Fighter race has now picked up considerable speed as Moscow demonstrated two Sukhoi T-50 PAK FA (Perspective Frontline Aviation Complex) stealth fighters at the 10th International Aviation and Space Show, MAKS-2011, in Zhukovsky, near Moscow. MAKS 2011 was held from 15 to 21 August and 800 companies from 40 countries took part in the air show which saw record crowds – reportedly some 600,000 people – watching an intricate programme of highly technical displays.
Introduction of the prototype
Two fighter platforms, the T-50 – 01 and T-50 – 02 from the Sukhoi Design Bureau, made their first public appearance in the air show as they manoeuvred against a backdrop of azure skies, only to return to a remote air base. The stealthy and slightly secretive display took place under the watchful gaze of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and a host of visiting air crew, manufacturers and analysts. There was no static display given that both Sukhoi and Russia’s defence chiefs wish to keep the overall design under wraps.
The T-50 PAK FA, designed by Sukhoi, will trade some stealth characteristics for
manoeuvrability. Image: russianplanes.net
The verdict seems to be clear: it was an impressive performance by any standard, even as the finer aspects of manoeuvrability and stealth are being analysed in greater detail. A bulk of the spectators, comprised mostly of aviation experts, were clearly impressed by what they saw.

The Fifth Generation Fighter competition can thus be declared officially open. The competitors: T-50 PAK FA, the American F-22 Raptor and the Chinese J-20, though some critics feel the last may not really be a worthy competitor in this class. There is also the F-35, but this qualifies as a fighter combat system.

Defining the fifth generation fighter
The term ‘fifth generation fighter’ begs a technical definition. The basic characteristics of this platform include the ability to operate undetected when fully armed, as well as being outfitted with a stable air frame, advanced avionics and the ability to network (via data link, for example) with other components in a combat element. Lockheed Martin’s F-22A is the only fighter deployed that currently meets all these parameters while the T-50 and J-20 are attempting to compete via replicated technology at a lower cost – cost being an issue that has plagued Raptor production.

At first glance, the T-50 clearly scores on manoeuvrability, as many on site analysts would have initially agreed. This will place a greater premium on air crew’s ability to work the systems of the 30 tonne machine to a tactical advantage, and stealth capability, specifically, has reportedly been sacrificed to some degree. Increasing and optimising manoeuvrability has its own challenges and can produce exponentially increased G

G thresholds is another complicating factor for the designers.

Nevertheless, the manner in which the T-50 increases operational limits will considerably reduce costs and ultimately, it is the probability of executing a successful mission that should dictate fighter design. The near 100% sortie success rate for which perhaps the F-22A is designed is not really cost sustainable. The T-50 may not penetrate well integrated air defences, but it should be able to complete its mission and RTB (return to base) before it is detected and acted upon by a potential adversary. This comes down entirely to its high speed and manoeuvrability. Interestingly, this places a greater premium on combat aviators’ ‘stick’ skills.

Assembling an operational picture of the platform
Not much is known about the T-50’s avionics and potential weapon systems and payload. Ordnance is likely to be carried externally, unlike the F-22A, thus lowering the stealth threshold. The AESA radars and super cruise engines required to power the T-50 are also in the pipeline and how these mesh within the overall system remains to be seen.

loads on both the air crew and the aircraft. An interview with a senior ranking Russian test pilot has indicated that the T-50 will not be an easy machine to operate for this very reason. Likewise, the ability of the airframe to withstand higher G thresholds is another complicating factor for the designers.

Nevertheless, the manner in which the T-50 increases operational limits will considerably reduce costs and ultimately, it is the probability of executing a successful mission that should dictate fighter design. The near 100% sortie success rate for which perhaps the F-22A is designed is not really cost sustainable. The T-50 may not penetrate well integrated air defences, but it should be able to complete its mission and RTB (return to base) before it is detected and acted upon by a potential adversary. This comes down entirely to its high speed and manoeuvrability. Interestingly, this places a greater premium on combat aviators’ ‘stick’ skills.

On the day of the demonstration, there was also a temporary setback as a second test flight had to be aborted due to a technical failure. A possible engine overflow due to high humidity was expected to be the reason but then such problems are not unknown at this stage of a project.
Russia and India have negotiated an inter governmental agreement for the future production of the T-50. India has stated a preference for a dual place variant – officially called the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA). This will be jointly developed by Sukhoi Design Bureau and Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL).  HAL is to provide the software, computers, navigation and display components. Metallurgical expertise in composites and titanium structures will be synergised. The FGFA is to be equipped with the Indian Astra BVR missile, but may also acquire additional hard point options. There may be challenges to development of the FGFA due to the requirements of accommodating a second pilot.
As things stand, the American F-22A Raptor remains the only ‘true blue’ stealth fighter in the category. There are, no doubt, huge cost overruns and production lines are likely to be constrained due to funding, with more crunch to come from the on-going financial crisis in the United States. The T-50 and FGFA programmes, however, are well funded and there are likely to be orders of anywhere from 500 to 1000 aircraft, which will be enough to sustain production lines for years. Then there is the Chinese J-20. In a way, Chinese aerospace developers stole the show this year with the display of  the Chengdu J-20. Opinion over its fifth generation capability remains divided, and many are referring to it as a 4th Generation Plus or a 5th Generation Minus fighter.
The Russian T-50, followed by the FGFA with Indian collaboration, may prove to be a winning proposition in the fifth generation class as it has the advantage of cost over the F-22A (and of technology over the J-20). How the project will ultimately shape up remains to be seen.
There is also scope for foreign sales. American aerospace industry may have to opt for such sales to strategic allies in Europe at some point in time in the near future. Russia has already signed up with India and South Korea and Indonesia may also be willing to come on board. The Chinese will field a low cost version and  provide sweetheart deals to countries like Pakistan that already boast strategic partnerships.
In strategic terms, the United States, Russia and China have emerged as the key players in aviation. This appears to be the way ahead as other countries, and particularly European consortiums, may be now looking at the end of their development tunnels in this field.
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