Russia's Lethal PAK-FA Stealth Fighter vs. America's F-22 Raptor: Who Wins?

A PAK FA. Photo by Toshiro Aoki.

Moscow vs. Washington for control of the skies. Who would win?

Step right up, ladies and gentlemen! Entering the ring today are the two ultimate stealth fighters of the day, the F-22 Raptor and the PAK FA T-50. The former has already completed its production run (or has it?), the latter will soon begin hatching from its industrial nest (or will it?)

Today we’ll consider which would have the upper-hand at various engagement ranges—blows long and short, all are permitted! And just to keep the audiences on its toes, we’ll examine the battle in backwards order, like in that one Seinfeld episode.

Within Visual Range—Bringing Invisible Swordsmen To a Gunfight?

Missile technology has long promised to make air combat about slinging missiles over distances well over 100 or even 200 kilometers. But if both aircraft use stealth technology, the range at which they can accurately target each other with radar-guided weapons is drastically shortened. Which in theory could bring back more close-range dogfights.

Let’s first acknowledge that the F-22 and T-50 share many excellent characteristics: both can supercruise (go supersonic without using afterburners) at over one and a half times the speed of sound—the Raptor faster than the PAK FA at Mach 1.8 compared to Mach 1.6. Both can operate at up to 65,000 feet high, higher than the new F-35 Lightning.

So who ends up on top if the two discrete aircraft end up neck and neck in a Within-Visual-Range (WVR) dance of death?

The F-22 Raptor is the most maneuverable fighter the U.S. has ever made.

The PAK FA is even more maneuverable.

The PAK FA uses three-dimensional thrust-vector jets—its engine nozzles can literally tilt independently in any direction to assist it in executing maneuvers. The jets assist it in yaws as well as changing pitch, and permit very high angles of attack—that is, when the nose of the plane is pointed in a different direction than the vector of the plane.

The Raptor uses two-dimensional vector-thrust jets which can only go up and down in unison, affecting pitch only. This is still quite awesome—the Raptor is the only U.S. fighter that is supermaneuverable. But it’s not the equal of the PAK FA’s agility.

What does maneuverability let you do in fighter combat? It can help the plane dodge missiles (useful in any scenario) and position itself in advantageous firing position for WVR combat. However, the most extreme maneuvers also cost a lot of a plane’s energy—and U.S. doctrine has always favored remaining in a high-energy state, and the F-22 appears like it bleeds energy more slowly than its Russian counterpart.

On to weapons! Although the F-22 has a reduced heat signature, the bottom line is that in WVR combat, stealth fighters are still vulnerable to infrared guided missiles. Both aircraft can carry two.

For a long time, Russian aircraft had the advantage of superior short-range R-73 heat-seeking missiles that could be targeted via helmet-mounted sights: the pilot just had to look at an enemy plane to shoot at it. Importantly, the plane did not even have to be pointed at the target.

However, the United States finally deployed its own equivalent of the R-73, the AIM-9X, in 2004, and F-22s are finally planned to have the capability to use AIM-9Xs by 2017. Helmet-mounted sights should come in 2020.

By the time PAK FAs are in operational units, the two planes will have roughly equivalent short-range missile capabilities.

The Verdict: Slight edge to PAK FA. Both aircraft are highly capable dogfighters—but the PAK FA looks like it’s the more agile of the two.

Here’s the thing about WVR combat, though. You only get to do it if you survive the Beyond Visual Range (BVR) encounter first…

Beyond Visual Range—Keeping Your Butt Off the Radar

Let’s immediately address the elephant in the room (or rather, aerospace):

The F-22 is a very stealthy fighter believed to have a radar cross-section of just .0001 meters.

The PAK-FA is a stealthy fighter with a claimed cross-section as low as 0.1 meters…from the front.

The PAK-FA patent claims a maximum of cross-section of 1 meter… those cool three-dimensional thrust vector nozzles in the back have a way of calling attention to themselves.

This may not be a tremendous limitation if the PAK-FA fights defensive engagements in which its opponents are at the edge of their radar net.

However, it’s far less ideal for a penetrating deeply into hostile radar coverage. That may be of less concern for Russia—but it does mean that the PAK-FA will remain more detectable than the F-22 in a variety of situations.

In other BVR capabilities, the two designs are more evenly matched.

Pages