Russia's Sukhoi starts construction of fifth generation aircraft

A few years ago one of top managers of Sukhoi, the company developing Russian fifth generation combat aircraft (PAK FA), said that “it would be probably not the first (giving the way to the US F-22 and JSF), but the best plane for sure”. Time shows that Russians are eager to keep the word. Several weeks ago the heavily advertised JSF (Joint Strike Fighter), the main version of the American 5th generation combat aircraft, did not manage to fly to Japan due to technical reasons. The first international show off collapsed.

Meanwhile Russia's Sukhoi, the world’s only competitor of America in  aircraft technologies of the fifth generation, started the construction of its first PAK FA (perspective aviation compl ex of front air force). The construction will take place at two plants simultaneously, Novosibirsk (NAPO) and Komsomolsk-on-Amur (KnAAPO). According to NAPO’s general director Feodor Zhdanov final assembly will take place at the latter. His company will be responsible for the front part of the aircraft. Let’s remind that what is meant is not the world’s only aircraft with the forward-swept wings (Su-47), which was used as a flying laboratory for the fifth generation, but a totally new machine, which nobody has seen so far.

After Sukhoi took the project Russian PAK FA somewhat left the news reels in the past two years or so, therefore it could have remained associated with a bit negative contexts that used to accompany it: competition between the designers, financial problems, technical difficulties etc. However, today the situation changed drastically and everywhere for the better.

In 2006 the head of Sukhoi Mikhail Pogosyan said that the main volume of design works under PAK FA project would be made in 2006-2007, which will be followed by making experimental models and tests. Despite many negative forecasts today it is clear that the project is developing according to the schedule. It is common knowledge for the experts that a lot of skepticism in this part of the world is born among journalists living according to the principle “good news are bad news” and specialists who promote their own “better” technical solutions.

Few years ago with a tiny state budget and no international partners the main problem of the project was financial. Today Russia has billions of extra money in stabilization and investment funds, although there is no need to use it in the conditions of the well developing economy and the agreements reached with India, Russia’s strategic partner in the 5th generation aircraft project. The conditions of the agreement, which has been repeatedly delayed totally suit Russia. According to different assessments at different periods the designers totally needed from 5 to 10 billion US dollars to reach the stage of serial manufacturing. Today this sum seems like peanuts. So there are no serious reasons to doubt that by 2010 there will be several experimental PAK FAs flying.

As is known a 5th generation aircraft has to meet several key requirements, like super maneuverability, supersonic cruise speed, transparency, multi-role functionsetc. Insome of these spheres Russian aircraft traditionally lead. For example, the key element of super maneuverability is the adjustable thrust control. For the first time it was implemented on Russian engines and today Russian pilots have a whole range of aerobatic figures which cannot be repeated by any foreign competitor aircraft.

However, 5th generation aircraft will not come in the market tomorrow, even the American. There will be certain period when “transitional models” or so called generation 4+(+) will fight for financial “air superiority”. Mr. Pogosyan is sure that Su-35 (Su-27SM2), the last step before PAK FA, will have a niche in the international market and will be commission with the Russian Air Force (RFAF) before PAK FA enters full fledged service. In 2009-2010 along with upgrading the existing fleet of Su-27 RFAF intends to buy new aircraft. Su-27SM2 will have an increasing number of the hardware typical for the 5th generation - new sensors, 14 tons thrust engines, active radars (AFARs) and new far range missiles of different classes. Noteworthy, there were enough skeptics who claimed that it is impossible to create Russian AFARs in the foreseeable future. Today there are two companies, Fazatron and Technocomplex, who can suggest their own competing models. Another niche where Russia is rapidly getting rid of technical inferiority is engines. Experts are sure that the first versions of PAK FA will have 117C (NPO Saturn, Rybinsk) or Al-31F-M3 (Salyut, Moscow) engines. Over the past few years both managed to stick to the previously announced rates of the development of new engines.

“Transitional” Su-35 has been already presented at the Air Show China 2006. Although today it is still not an aircraft which flies and sells itself. This is a concept, everything which Russia is able to make for the fifth generation aircraft before PAK FA is commissioned. Su-35 is also named Su-27M2. It has front horizontal canards, refilling system, new avionics and extended range of arms. According to the representatives of Sukhoi it is their policy to participate in the tenders with the aircraft which is being created, because Su-35 in particular is easily modified for individual customers.

The last but not least: PAK FA is not the only fifth generation aviation complex being created in Russia. (The experts prefer to use “aviation complex” or “combat aircraft” because it assumed that the same aircraft has the properties of a fighter, attack plane and bomber). PAK FA is the state supported program fulfilled at the order and in the interests of the national MoD. RSK Mig recently announced the program of creating own, lighter version of the fifth generation aircraft. The flight program of Mig-29OVT is superior even to that of Su jets. The RD-33OVT engine of Klimov installed on Mig-29OVT (the new code for the same aircraft is Mig-35) is the 360 degrees adjustable, which outperforms even AL-31 of Sukhoi.

It is obvious that the fifth generation is about to become a hot topic in the news reels again, especially as the time nears MAKS-2007, Russian main aviation and space salon.

Yuri Seleznyov

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Author`s name Dmitry Sudakov