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.
The F-22 and the PAK-FA both have Active Electronically Scanned Array radars—or rather, once the N036 Byelka AESA radar completes its development. AESA radars are stealthier, are more resistant to jamming, and boast higher fidelity. The F-22 and PAK FA will be able to detect each other as they close within fifty kilometers—though which one first is a subject of debate.
The T-50 does boast a modern Infra-Red Search and Track (IRST) system with a maximum fifty-kilometer detection range. The F-22 currently has none, though it is slated to receive one by 2020. However, the F-22’s engines nozzles are designed to reduce heat signature, diminishing detection range, while the PAK-FA’s engines are indiscrete. So, it’s less than obvious who will detect who first, given that the PAK FA may be radar observable within that range.
In any event, the IRST does not offer the means to target other aircraft, it merely gives an idea of their general position.
The T-50 also has its own L-Band radars in the wings which theoretically would be effective in determining the general position of stealth fighters. However, their range is fairly limited and they are not precise enough to lock on weapons. Unlike the IRST, they have the disadvantage of making the T-50 highly observable on radar when activated.
If U.S. Air Force exercises pitting Raptors against F-15s and F-16s are anything to go by, long-range missiles will ravage Fourth Generation fighters at distances at which they have little to no ability to detect and shoot back at stealth fighters. But when two stealth fighters clash, the maximum applicable range will be much shorter
Both planes carry deadly long-range radar-guided missiles of comparable effectiveness. Russia has its cutting-edge K-77M missiles with a reported range of two hundred kilometers and the United States has the AIM-120D Scorpion with a range of one hundred sixty. (The greater range of the K-77M may be an advantage, but not against a low-observable stealth fighter.) Superior ramjet-powered missiles, such as the Meteor and PL-15, are already being fielded, though it is not clear if either the F-22 or PAK FA will receive them.
The F-22 can carry six AIM-120s in its internal bays, whereas the PAK-FA is limited to four. This does give it a modest edge, as future aerial clashes are likely to involve a lot of missiles flying back and forth, and likely more than one will be launched to ensure a kill.
Many experts are skeptical that the PAK FA boasts fifth-generation avionics and networking technology used in the latest U.S. fighters. Intriguingly, networking with a sufficiently powerful low-band AESA radar, such as that on an E-2D AWACs plane, might allow radar-guided missiles to target stealth fighters! However, F-22 datalinks are also outdated and have only recently been slated for upgrade.
Operationally, F-22s will work in concert with an extensive network of supporting sensors and electronic warfare platforms, both at sea and in the air. There is even talk of using stealth fighters to cue potential targets to be hit by super long-range missiles launched from B-52 “arsenal planes.”
In contrast, Russian analysts insist that ground-based low-bandwidth radars and long-range surface-to-air missiles such as the S-400 are a sure solution against stealth fighters. These tie the T-50 to operate closer to ground-based positions, which may be acceptable given Russia’s security posture.
Verdict: Edge for F-22. History shows that the side that shoots first in vehicular combat usually wins, and the stealthier F-22 seems more likely to do so—though their capabilities may be more even in a head-on approach.
“What is this?” I hear you cry. “How dare I despoil the purity of this noble duel of falcons with vulgar commercial gossip?”
The reason is very simple. The PAK-FA will only prove a significant opponent to the F-22 if it is produced in meaningful numbers.
Which is to say: more than the twelve which are currently on order for delivery by 2020.
It’s not as if the F-22 is particularly numerous—at 178 operational aircraft, a somewhat slender-thread on which to rest the United States’ hopes for air superiority in the next twenty years.
However, because the PAK-FA and Raptor are close enough in capability, a small number of T-50s will not suffice to radically challenge the Raptor’s reign—or even the F-35’s.
So why has the PAK-FA order been so radically downsized? It’s because it’s proving extremely difficult to deliver on all the design specifications, particularly the engines. The development costs keep on mounting, while the Russian economy has been in a recession for the last few years, decreasing the appetite for such an expensive offering.
This leads to another important caveat regarding the T-50: many of its capabilities are planned-for rather than extant. The AESA radar is still undergoing testing. The current crop of PAK FAs is equipped AL-41F1 turbofans which are fuel inefficient and produce insufficient thrust, so the plan is to replace them with superior Izdeliye 30 turbofans once they finish development—which may take as long as 2027.
In short, the PAK FA is a work in progress, its final capabilities unclear. And it’s very expensive work, leaving large question marks on how many will actually be produced.
This leads to another major issue: India, an investor in the PAK FA program, is complaining quite publically about cost and quality issues in the program; quality-control failings such as misaligned fittings may potentially increase the PAK FA’s radar cross-section. Indian FGFAs would potentially be more sophisticated than the Russian versions—but if India withdraws its order for over hundred aircraft, that project may prove even more difficult to finance.
Nonetheless, Russia’s defense policies and economic fortunes may well change in the future and additional orders will likely be forthcoming one day as more of the stealth fighter’s systems are refined. It’s hard to imagine the project ending with just twelve produced after so much money was put into it.
For the time being, however, the evidence suggests that only a small quantity of PAK FAs will enter Russian service this decade—too few to alter the balance of air power in the near term.
Verdict: As the quote goes, “Quantity has a quality all of its own.”
Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.