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Op-Ed: Russia’s new T50 fighter a match for Raptor, Lightning 2?

By Paul Wallis     Jan 30, 2010 in Technology
Russia isn’t exactly being coy about its first new fighter since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The plane is an announcement of Russia’s return to the forefront of arms manufacturing, and is being treated accordingly.
It’s not a bad looking plane, either, but this design is somewhat unexpected. The T50 is made by Sukhoi, makers of the highly respected Flanker. Sukhoi make tough airframes, and have a tendency to stick them on high performance aircraft. Flanker can turn literally on its wing root, not easy for a jet, nor recommended for peace of mind of other pilots within 20km.
So T50, which is nearly a wide delta design with some angle cutaway, is a bit out of the ordinary, because it's so un-stylized. The wing profile is one of the most fundamental jet fighter designs. This thing is built like a platform, lots of wing area, and a no-nonsense angled tail assembly which is obviously strictly engineer-inspired.
T50 isn’t a fashion statement in design terms. T50 has a large number of hardpoints, so the concept imperatives are clear. It looks very much like “Make us a reliable plane” was the basic instruction. According to the hype, T50 is intended to carry a lot of hardware and avionics, and it makes sense that the design is tough rather than flashy. Given that the plane is also intended to be a multi role fighter, having somewhere to hang things is a major design consideration.
The Russians are making a point of comparing T50 to America’s F22 Raptor, the “nobody else is allowed to buy it” fighter which Congress in its wisdom recently shut down.
T50 is touted as a lightweight, long range, supersonic fighter (Mach 2) which pretty much sums up Russia’s basic tactical and logistic needs for a modern fighter. The comparison to Raptor, however, means comparison to a plane which is intended to provide air superiority in a very unambiguous way. The T50 is also said to be able to use short 1000 foot runways, an obvious indicator of deployment capabilities in combat.
The plane is built of composite materials, and the Stealth aspect is based on creating a low acquisition profile, an alternative to the F117’s dramatic angles and lines. The economics of this in manufacturing and assembly are interesting, because it means the demand for specialist assembly capabilities is obviated.
India, which is a partner in the T50’s development, is expected to provide manufacturing for its two seat version of the plane. The Indians are hoping to acquire 250 of these aircraft, and Indian Air Force commentators have been reasonably enthusiastic. The Indian T50 is expected to be operational in 2017.
The big fuss, however, is about the “fifth generation” fighter capabilities. T50 is also being referred to as being a fifth generation fighter in the same sense as America’s laboriously developing and expensive Lightning II, aka Joint Strike Fighter, (JSF). It’s not yet proven, in any sense, that T50 is an actual equivalent of JSF, but the Russians are making a point of emphasizing the generational element.
Realistically, a basic model like T50 could survive a lot of upgrades without any particular need for redesign, so if it's not an equivalent now, it could become one, and carry whatever it needs to match combat systems.
The current stage of development is more likely to be good marketing than actual technology because the high loaded technically ultra-everything JSF is taking its own sweet time getting operational. If T50 is seen as the generic equivalent, or cheaper option, Russia can pick up quite a lot of business with this approach. They might be able to deliver operational planes while JSF is still teething.
T50 isn’t a design freak show, which should be a lesson to aircraft designers around the world. “It works, it flies, it does the job” is the obvious message, and it sends the message very effectively. Don’t be surprised if this unpretentious little plane becomes the aerial equivalent of an AK47.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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