Last month, Russia announced the development of another air-launched weapon likely to find its way into the payload bay of the PAK DA, the Kh-95 long-range hypersonic missile.
Does the PAK DA Pose a Real Threat?
Stealth bombers like the B-21 Raider and Russia’s PAK DA offer a different kind of capability than stealth fighters, flying completely different mission sets than you’ll find even among air-to-ground focused fighters like the F-35. The B-21 Raider, for instance, is expected to have global strike capabilities, the most advanced stealth technologies ever fielded, and a payload many multiples of that carried internally by fighters maintaining their stealth profile. Because of their specialized role, long-range bombers like these are often referred to as “strategic” bombers.
Strategic bombers are tasked with flying deep into enemy territory where their targets are (you guessed it) strategic in nature. While an interdiction or fighter-bomber might engage enemy targets on the battlefield, a strategic bomber flies medium to long-range missions to engage enemy infrastructure, hardened facilities, and military installations. Strategic bombers compromise a nation’s ability to fight a war at the fundamental level.
With that in mind, one might think the PAK DA poses the most potent threat to America of any Russian defense program short of their nuclear ICBMs, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. Just how stealthy this bomber is remains to be seen, and in fact, the bomber may never even come to fruition at all.
Russia’s stagnating economy is hindered considerably by sanctions placed on the nation by the international community for aggressive acts around the world like the military annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the attempted assassination of a former Russian intelligence officer on UK soil in 2018. As a result, the nation is forced to pick and choose where to invest its military spending–often leaning toward publicity-garnering “doomsday weapons” that create a perception of Russian military might, despite being unable to repair or field their lone aircraft carrier or to push other advanced programs off the chalkboard and onto the assembly line in any meaningful numbers.
Russia’s troubled history with stealth platforms and poor funding both suggest that Russia’s claims that their forthcoming PAK-DA will roll into production by 2027 are pretty questionable. When you consider Russia has also announced another stealth fighter in the Checkmate and has still yet to establish funding for their standing order of Su-57s, it starts to look like Russia is doing little more than collecting plans for aircraft they hope to build someday.
Further complicating matters for the PAK DA effort are new production Tu-160 Blackjacks, which are long-range supersonic bombers capable of carrying a whopping 88,000 pounds of weaponry while traveling at speeds in excess of Mach 2. If the PAK DA proves not to be all that stealthy, it seems unlikely that Russia would divert funding away from the TU-160 effort to produce their flying wing in any significant numbers.
For now, despite a full-sized wooden mock-up and talks of a prototype under construction, Russia’s PAK DA exists as little more than another Russian paper plane. Whether or not it someday becomes more remains to be seen.
Alex Hollings is a writer, dad, and Marine veteran who specializes in foreign policy and defense technology analysis. He holds a master’s degree in Communications from Southern New Hampshire University, as well as a bachelor’s degree in Corporate and Organizational Communications from Framingham State University.
This article first appeared in Sandboxx News.