The Buzz

Air War: What If America's Lethal F-35 Battled Russia's Stealth PAK-FA or Su-35?

The Russians are now developing new air dominance aircraft with a long-range strike capability -- the Su-35 and the Pak FA (frequently called the PAK T-50) – which will pose a significant threat to NATO Europe. The U.S. F-35, the only 5th generation aircraft in production today, is critical to countering these threats.

The F-35 has recently gotten bad publicity over its dogfighting capability despite the fact the last dogfight was in 1988.  Since 1988, all air-to-air kills have been by missiles, a type of warfare in which the F-35 is designed to excel.  The F-35 is a strike fighter with multirole capabilities, which makes sense because strike missions happen every day and stealth is necessary against advanced air defenses.  While the Russian Su-35 and the PAK FA “stealth fighter” are both reportedly suffering from technical problems, the long-term threat is significant.  Russia ordered the Su-35 in 2011 for delivery by 2015 but the announced IOC has slipped to 2018.  The PAK FA has been scaled back to a single 12 aircraft squadron by 2017 because of reported cost and technical problems.  Future production will depend on trial results.  Russia constantly brags about the performance of both aircraft but its claims must be taken with caution because Russia seeks to maximize foreign sales of these aircraft.

Setting aside Russian hype, the Su-35 is clearly an improved 4.5 generation fighter aircraft with very high maneuverability (thrust vectoring) and long-range strike potential.  It has a very powerful passive phased array radar (PESA) with a claimed (probably exaggerated) detection range of 350-400-km against “fighter sized targets.”  The Su-35 can reportedly carry 8,000-kg of weapons externally including a wide variety of bombs and missiles.  The Russians say it carries advanced electronic countermeasures Russia boasts a reduced radar cross section (RCS) reportedly to 1 to 3 square meters.  Its radar should give it an advantage over most 4th generation fighters, but not necessarily over modern 4.5 generation fighters designed with elements of stealth technology and equipped with active electronically scanned (AESA) radars.

In a rare moment of candor, Colonel-General Alexander Zelin, then-chief of the Russian Air Force, stated that the Su-35’s avionics and integrated defense system are inferior to “American fighters of the same type.”  It is not in the F-22 class, but the Su-35s will be deployed in Europe while there are no current plans to deploy the F-22 on a permanent basis because there are not enough of them.

The PAK FA is touted by Russia as a fifth generation fighter.  General Zelin said that its mission is air dominance and to “project force over large distances.”  It has a large bomb bay and will carry many types of ground attack weapons.  Sputnik News, a government owned news agency, recently reported that it will internally carry a stealth cruise missile.

According to the Indian press, the aircraft (the basis for the Indian FGFA under a joint program with Russia) currently has significant problems including engine performance, the reliability of its AESA radar, and poor stealth engineering.  Still, if Russia meets its announced IOC date of 2017 for the first squadron, it will be operational before any stealth aircraft are operational in NATO Europe and will enhance Russia’s advantage over its most vulnerable neighbors.  As of now, Norway will be the only state in Northern or Eastern Europe to deploy a fifth generation fighter.

The PAK FA is an effort to build a stealth fighter, but Russian and Indian press reports indicate the actual stealth of the first two versions of the fighter will be marginal.  In 2010, Moskovskiy Komsomolets Online noted, “For all its undoubted merits, the PAK FA (Advanced Aviation Complex for Frontline Aviation)…cannot yet be called a fifth-generation fighter….The T-50’s low observability remains contentious.”  According to Russian journalist Yuriy Krupnov, the PAK FA “is not a fifth-generation aircraft.”  When the PAK FA aircraft was rolled out, General Roger Brady, then-Commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Commander of NATO’s Allied Air Command, said, “I don’t know if it’s really a fifth-generation aircraft.  What I do know is that it’s very clear that they’re working on a fifth-generation technology.”

In 2010, Alexander Davidenko, chief engineer on the PAK FA project, claimed that the F-22 radar cross section (RCS) was about 0.3 to 0.4 square meters and that the PAK T-50’s RCS should be close to that.  The comparison with the F-22 is clearly bogus (it assumes a F-22 RCS that is orders of magnitude less stealthy than any other report on the stealth level of the F-22), but there does not appear to be any reason why the chief designer would understate the stealth level of the PAK FA.