Independent military observer Vladimir Tuchkov outlines why the T-50 PAK-FA fighter's new, truly fifth-gen engines are set to turn the aircraft into easily the best fifth generation fighter aircraft in the world.Last week, speaking to reporters on the sidelines of the MAKS-2017 air show, Russian Aerospace Defense Forces Commander Col. Gen. Viktor Bondarev told reporters that the first stage of state testing on the T-50 (PAK-FA) fifth generation stealth air superiority fighter have been completed, and that the first flight tests would be finished before the end of the year.
Trials will continue into 2018, and mass production of the T-50 for introduction into the air force is slated to begin in 2019.
One of major obstacles widely reported to have held the T-50 back from production in the past was the absence of a true fifth-generation engine for the aircraft, with prototypes of the aircraft using a derivative of the AL-41F1 engine, similar to the one used in the Sukhoi Su-35S 4++ generation multirole fighter.
But now, Russian designers are on the brink of reaching a breakthrough on a totally new, truly fifth-gen engine, known as Izdeliye 30 (Product 30), a design which experts say has no equivalents in the world of engine construction.
Ground tests for the engine have already been completed. Now, following its installation aboard the T-50, the second stage of testing, both for the engine and the plane, can begin. This process is expected to start in the fall.
Commenting on the significance of this development, military journalist and Svobodnaya Pressa contributor Vladimir Tuchkov explained that the long-awaited pairing of the T-50 with a fifth-generation engine will be a milestone, one giving Russia not only a true next generation fighter aircraft, but undoubtedly the best plane of its kind in the world.
For starters, the analyst noted, "in terms of maneuverability, the T-50 is second-to-none. This was predestined by the design of its airframe," as well as the plane's three dimensional thrust vector jets, a design which the US does not have.
© Sputnik/ Vladimir Astapkovich
T-50 jet performs a demo flight at the MAKS 2015 International Aviation and Space Salon in Zhukovsky outside Moscow
However, Tuchkov emphasized that the rcs indicators are "a subject wide open to conjecture, based on disinformation provided either by developers for advertising purposes…or for the purpose of disorienting the enemy (so that he cannot predict in advance the tactics of air battles and interception by air defense forces)."
© Flickr/ US Air Force. F-35
In other words, while the idea of a magic plane invisible to enemy air defenses may be relevant when fighting small countries with Cold War-era radar and air defense technology, in combat with larger powers, other factors, including a plane's target detection systems, as well as its range of their missiles, are far more significant.
“First, it must be said that the angle of the T-50's active phased array is installed on an incline. Because of this, the aircraft's rcs is reduced. Going with this design, which also makes possible a reduction in power usage during operation, was made possible thanks to the excellent characteristics of the N036 Belka radar, developed to replace the N035 Irbis passive phased array antenna system.”
© Photo: Allocer
N036 Belka advanced active electronically scanned array radar system
Altogether, the T-50 has six radars onboard – including one on the plane’s nose, two on its sides, two on the wings and one in the aft section. They are capable of monitoring up to 60 targets at once, and targeting up to 15.
“In addition to the radar-based visibility, the T-50 features the OLS-50M optic-electronic sensor system, which includes a thermal scanner using a QWIP-matrix with unique resolution and range characteristics. In this area…Russia is considered to be the absolute world leader,” the military observer stressed. A similar system, which enables the pilot to detect targets which have their radar systems turned off, is fitted on the F-35, albeit the US design has a smaller range. The F-22 does not have this technology.
Among all the world's existing and prospective fifth-generation fighter aircraft, “the T-50 has the most extensive missile and bomb arsenal. A total of 14 high-precision missiles and smart bombs have been developed specifically for the plane. Half have already been adopted into service; the other half are undergoing testing. The KS-172, the longest-range air-to-air missile, has a maximum range up to 400 km. This is double that of the US AIM-120D missile, which has a maximum range of 180 km."
The KS-172 air-to-air missile