Russian fighters

Two years have passed since Russia’s fifth generation fighter flew for the first time on January 29, 2010. Previously in Defence Review Asia we evaluated the Sukhoi PAKFA and looked into its historical background a year ago. Since then, the number of operable prototypes rose to three, with two more completed at Sukhoi’s KnAAPO plant in Komsomolsk-upon-Amur during 2011. The fourth [T-50-4] is prepared for flying in early 2012. Two more shall follow in the 2012-2013 timeframe. On November 3, 2011 the number of flights passed the 100th mark. Most of them were performed by Sukhoi test-pilot Sergei Bogdan. He has proven his skills on several occasions by safely curtailing test sorties after experiencing engine malfunctions. These took place on the eve of and then during MAKS’2011 air show in August - so far the only public event where PAKFAs showed up.

17th Jan 2012


 Russian fighters

 RUSSIA’s 5th generation PAKFA makes progress
 Vladimir Karnozov / Moscow

Introduction

Two years have passed since Russia’s fifth generation fighter flew for the first time on January 29, 2010. Previously in Defence Review Asia we evaluated the Sukhoi PAKFA and looked into its historical background a year ago. Since then, the number of operable prototypes rose to three, with two more completed at Sukhoi’s KnAAPO plant in Komsomolsk-upon-Amur during 2011. The fourth [T-50-4] is prepared for flying in early 2012. Two more shall follow in the 2012-2013 timeframe. On November 3, 2011 the number of flights passed the 100th mark. Most of them were performed by Sukhoi test-pilot Sergei Bogdan. He has proven his skills on several occasions by safely curtailing test sorties after experiencing engine malfunctions. These took place on the eve of and then during MAKS’2011 air show in August - so far the only public event where PAKFAs showed up.

Embarrassment

On the eve of MAKS the manufacturer stated in its press release that PAKFA flight count came to seventy. As the show was drawing to a close, the number reached 84. However, both operable examples available at that time, the T-50-1 and the T-50-2, were temporarily grounded due to various technical reasons at the end of the MAKS closing day. This fact points at teething problems the new airplane experienced, especially with the NPO Saturn Item 117 engines. In particular, on Sunday August 21, the T-50-2 experienced a surge of its starboard motor when it was running at full afterburner on takeoff run.
That day two bursts of flames erupted from the starboard Item 117 and two loud “bumps” were heard. Thanks to the length of the Ramenskoye runway - over 5,000 meters - Sergei Bogan managed to bring the airplane to a stop well before the aerodrome fence, for which he not only applied wheel brakes, but also deployed the brake parachutes. The pilot’s actions were right and timely, as he was dealing with crippled and skidding airplane which had already accelerated to 100km per hour. The incident happened at 13:57 local time when the show site was most crowded with visitors who gathered for flight display. Next day Saturn acknowledged the surge and traced its cause to a sensor supplying wrong readings to the airplane’s control system.
It is interesting to note that the Su-35 examples powered by broadly similar Item 117S motors performed immaculately during the show, stunning the public with most spectacular flight displays. The latter’s purpose was to demonstrate the quality of the Su-35’s recently modified flight control system and the merits of thrust-vectoring. The Item 117S is a FADEC version, whereas the PAKFA has a centralized comprehensive control system for flight controls, onboard systems and powerplant. The latter is a feature of fifth-generation fighters, not found in the previous generation.
Trying to play down what had happened during MAKS, Saturn executive director Ilya Fedorov told the media: “It was a test for the new machine. During flight trials on any brand-new aircraft – and this airplane is undergoing flight trials – malfunctions such as this one are not only possible, but even mandatory”. Fedorov stated that flight trials are meant for finding and fixing would-be malfunctions “so that these do not happen after the new type becomes operational”. He further insisted that “the motor did not fail – in fact, it was put by erroneous control input into a wrong mode that caused a surge… this is not an engine failure, but the wrong data input caused by a malfunctioning sensor feeding data to the flight control system. After what had happened, the motor was checked with dedicated equipment, the malfunctioning sensor was replaced by a good one. Today, there is no issue with this engine”.
Within a month PAKFA resumed flying, leaving MAKS’2011 as both a big PR success and embarrassment at the same time.

Air force commander

A number of high-ranking military and industry leaders addressed the theme of new indigenous fighter designs at MAKS and after the show. The first to speak on the occasion was the Russian air force commander. General Aleksander Zelin said the first example of PAKFA shall be submitted for assessment to military units in 2013. Answering journalists’ questions on whether the customer sees any problems with this program, Zelin answered: “Personally I do not see any with this machine, even though I regularly meet with the [PAKFA’s] chief designer and visit the [manufacturing] plant in Komsomolsk-upon-Amur. It may happen that some problems can arise later on, but at this stage we do not see them. We expect to take the first example in 2013. Then, I think, we will start taking series examples starting in 2014-2015”.
Zelin agreed with the statement that the PAKFA is a direct replacement to the Su-27 family of heavyweight fighters. When asked about future light fighter that would replace the aging MiG-29, he said: “Our first priority is the PAKFA. Russia needs an airplane like that one, to project force over her large distances, for maneuvering, for fulfillment of the various tasks set for the air force. At the same time, a lighter fighter like the F-35 [Lightning II] is also needed. In the given size our industry offers the MiG-35. We have not yet dropped the MiG-35D from consideration”.
Speaking of advanced air superiority fighters, Zelin paid special attention to recent developments in pilot training. “In order for the line unit pilots to master and fully exploit the capability of new fighters, the air force is thinking of using a modern centrifuge. Using such a centrifuge, we plan to conduct training of our flight crews in maneuverable and super maneuverable aircraft. An appropriate program has been put in place and is being executed. We have reached an understanding [with the industry] and are now working to settle financial issues pertaining to this program in order to proceed with its execution”.
The technologies of modern centrifuges as part of advanced flight simulation have been addressed by the Flight Test and Research Institute named after Mikhail Gromov (with the Russian acronym LII). This institution is based at the Ramenkoye aerodrome. LII operates a very advanced centrifuge built in late 1990s – early 2000s. This device has been intensively used in the interests of the Su-35 and PAKFA development and also in programs to improve flying skills of Sukhoi and LII test pilots.

PAKFA in a broader context

Zelin gave journalist a rare opportunity to view the PAKFA in a broader context. He helped them better understand what place this new airplane has among other fighter programs being executed in the interests of the Russia air force.
Orders for MiGs have been running low. In 2006-2008 the Russian MoD purchased 24 ex-Algerian MiG-29SMT/UBTs. This boosted the air force’s MiG-29 inventory to about 200 units. Protracted negotiations on the MiG-29K/KUB and MiG-35 have not yet brought about any additional contracts. In the summer of 2011 the local customer signed for 30 MiG-31BMs, but these are not new but rebuilt MiG-31 interceptors from line units. The work involves deep upgrade of the MiG-31’s onboard systems and restoration of its airframe. The MiG-31BM is already operational, with some twenty aircraft having been upgraded out of 180 MiG-31s in the inventory.
Sukhoi heavy weight multirole fighters occupy the central place in the Russian MoD procurement plans. The customer continues taking newly built and upgraded Su-27SM single seat fighters and accepts newly built Su-34 twin seat interdiction aircraft. It will soon be receiving the more advanced Su-35 single seat multirole fighter, for which it reportedly placed orders in excess of one hundred units. KnAAPO assembled the first deliverable Su-35 and flew it in May 2011. Deliveries to customer are not expected earlier than 2013 as the type is yet to complete manufacturer and customer acceptance trials. In addition, the MoD is close to firming up orders for 18 Су-30SM twin seat multirole aircraft to equip naval aviation units. Like the Su-35, the Su-30SM features thrust vectoring, but is built at Irkut’s IAZ plant rather than Sukhoi’s KnAAPO.
The service has already received a considerable number of upgraded Su-27SM fighters. Recent additions come in the form of the Su-27SM3, one example of which was on display at MAKS 2011. The SM3 airframes are assembled from parts originally manufactured for what was meant to be “second batch” (95 airframes) of the big Chinese Su-27SK order (totaling 200) but not executed by the intended customer (which decided that “first batch” of 105 Su-27SM was enough). In 2009 the Russian MoD awarded Sukhoi an order for 12 Su-27SM3s. In December 2011 Sukhoi reported that deliveries were complete. The airplanes were assembled at KnAAPO.
The Su-27SM3 is a multirole fighter capable of conducting ground strikes using precision guidance munitions such as GLONASS/GPS guided bombs. It differs from earlier Su-27SM variants in having a beefed-up airframe to permit an increase in MTOW by over 3 tons. It has additional hard points for weapons carriage. Heavier weight is compensated for by higher-thrust AL-31F-M1 motors manufactured by MMPP Salut plant. As an added bonus, these engines have an extended service life. The Su-27SM3 has improved sighting and weapons package that includes new missiles. Sukhoi does not specify types, but says new air-to-air and air-to-surface missiles in the Su-27SM3 arsenal have longer ranges. A new EW suite improves survival chances in conditions of heavy enemy counteraction. Maintenance is eased through introduction of KIS “comprehensive information system” which monitors the condition of onboard systems.
The crew station is now a glass cockpit of four MFDs in lieu of 13 dial indicators on the original Su-27S. A new onboard communications system is jam-proof and provides secured data links with ground command posts and airborne assets. Sukhoi claims that, compared to the Su-27S, the Su-27SM3 is over two times more effective against aerial targets, and three times against ground targets.
Although the Su-27SM, Su-35 and PAKFA are all multirole fighters capable of ground strikes, the Russian air force prefers using dedicated interdiction aircraft, the Su-34, classed as “frontal bomber”. The Su-34 shall replace the aging Su-24 swing-wing aircraft, currently the most numerous type in the Russian air force’s combat aircraft inventory and the backbone of its frontal bomber fleet. Zelin said that one squadron was already rearmed with the new type. Plans call for acquisition of 120 Su-34s to equip five squadrons each of 24 aircraft. “This airplane has given a good account of itself in local conflicts and during the fulfillment of other important assignments. It looks like our industry has succeeded in the creation of one more “soldier airplane”. The air force will continue taking such airplanes, six in 2011, twelve more in 2012 and so on”. Sukhoi’s NAPO plant handed over four newly assembled Su-34s to the air force on December 12, and two more on December 22.
The very fact that the Russian air force continues to take Su-27-family aircraft and gradually increase orders for their recent mutations, provides some ground to assert that the customer still sees considerable technical and industrial risks in timely completion of the PAKFA development and streamlining its manufacture.

Industry leaders about PAKFA

The most interesting of recent statements from defence industry was the claim by Mikhail Pogosyan, formerly head of Sukhoi and now president of Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation (UAC), that PAKFA will have an international market of six hundred units. Bearing in mind earlier predictions about a total of 400-500 sales in the anchor markets of Russia and India, this leaves 100-200 airframes needing to be sold to other countries. When giving the figure of 600, Pogosyan spoke of solvent demand in the PAKFA and its export derivatives. This makes one think that lots of export restrictions are expected to stay in place for long time, regarding the fifth generation fighter technologies being developed jointly by Russia and India.
Sukhoi says the PAKFA is unique in many things, including an “electronic pilot” built-in function, a long-range multi-mode AESA radar, data gathering and a management system allowing real time information exchange with ground stations and airborne platforms. The developer further claims the airplane features “unmatched” low radar, optical and infrared signatures. The fighter house further claims that in addition to equipping Russian and Indian air forces with advanced airborne assets, the PAKFA program will also bring big benefits to the Russian aircraft manufacturing and other industries. It will secure Russia’s place among world’s leaders in aviation, boost her production and development capabilities, and will give further impulse to Russia’s ability to developed advanced aviation assets.
One of the challenges that Russia faces, is to develop modern construction materials and use them in quantity production. Today, Russian fighters, although quite weight efficient, have relatively low percentages of composite materials in their airframes. The PAKFA shall be different. According to the project’s chief designer Aleksander Davidenko, the share of composite materials in his airplane’s construction weight shall come to 25%, while forming 70% of the airframe’s outer surface. He further stated that using large panels in the PAKFA shall decrease airframe parts count by four times compared to the Su-27. As a result, the newer fighter would require less labor to be built and thus less expensive to assemble.
The N-036 radar on the PAKFA is an active electronically scanned array (AESA) unit with 1,526 solid-state modules in its antenna, sized 700 versus 900 mm. At MAKS 2009 Tikhomirov’s NIIP demonstrated an experimental unit. Two years later at MAKS 2011 the company exhibited a further improved model. Tikhomirov continues the PAKFA radar development in a competitive environment. Competition is provided by another prominent local maker, Phazotron-NIIR. The latter has created the Zhuk-MA, also an AESA radar, for use on the MiG-35D. During flight trials, the Zhuk-MA demonstrated significant capabilities, including ground-mapping modes and the ability to detect, track and shoot at aerial targets. In the course of demonstration flights, the MiG-35D prototype equipped with the Phazotron’s new radar was able to detect an aerial drone and destroy it with an air-to-air missile.
Taking account of these and other recent developments, we can come to a conclusion: in the past few years Russia achieved significant progress in radar technologies while developing both passive electronic scanning (improved Zaslon on the MiG-31BM, the N-011M Bars on the Su-30MKI/MKM, Leninets B-004 on the Su-34 and N-035 Irbis on the Su-35 respectively) and active electronic scanning (Zhuk-MA on the MiG-35D, N-036 on the PAKFA and yet-to-be-named unit on the Super 30) technologies.
At the same time, engines seem a bit of a problem, in the view of a number of surges and other malfunctions developed by experimental Item 117s. PAKFA prototypes and initial series production aircraft are likely to rely on these engines due to the shortage of other options. Perhaps, only the AL-31FM3 from MMPP Salut may serve as a contingency. It has similar performance, including thrust at full afterburner of between 14.5 and 15.0 tons, but is still undergoing bench testing. In the longer run a completely new motor is needed. Salut and Saturn are in a competition for the best design.
In September 2011 Salut general director Vladislav Masalov said that his company and the United Engine Corporation (ODK) which controls Saturn came to terms on joint development of “second phase” PAKFA motor. When ready, this unit will replace the Item 117 as PAKFA production gears up. In early 2012 two design proposals shall be submitted to MoD for comparative evaluation. ODK and Salut agreed in general to cooperate on the new engine’s R&D and production regardless of which of the two design proposals is selected. Salut’s area of responsibility will cover low and high-pressure compressors, as well as the swivel nozzles.
Besides, ODK and Salut came to a decision to concentrate their engineering resources in Moscow. For this purpose the Salut’s main site on the Budenovsky prospect is selected for placing a united engineering team composed of its own engineers and those from ODK’s A.M.Lyulka design house (developer of the AL-31F and Item 117), as well as the Chernyshev plant’s design bureau. At the same time, the issue of merging ODK and Salut is not on the agenda, Masalov stressed.
In turn, Saturn executive director Ilya Fedorov told Russian media that the PAKFA production examples will be getting the Item 129 motors starting in 2015. So far little is known about this model except that it shall deliver more thrust at afterburner than the Item 117.

India

In December 2010 Russia and India signed a contract worth US $295 million for the draft design of an advanced fighter for the Indian air force, referred to as the Five-Generation Fighter Aircraft, FGFA. More recently Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) published, on its Internet site, the following information about this project. It reads as follows: “The proposed FGFA will have air combat superiority, high tactical capability, group action capability in the regions even with poor communication support. The aircraft will have advanced features like Increased Stealth - Low radar cross-section (RCS), Internal deployment of weaponry, supersonic cruise and supersonic maneuvering capability, Data link and network centric warfare capability. FGFA will be co-developed with Russians. Sukhoi Design Bureau (SDB) has been selected as the Russian agency for this development project.”
According to Indian sources, the FGFA shall carry 2.25 tons of weapons internally and up to 5.75 tons externally. The first flight is scheduled for 2015, with entry-into-service for 2017-2018. In October 2011 Indian officials said their air force was planning acquisitions of 214 FGFAs. Defense minister A.K. Antony was quoted as saying his country is going to spend US $25-30 billion on the respective procurements. Single-seaters would count 166, the remaining 48 FGFAs would come in two seat version. HAL sources gave an estimation of FGFA development cost at US$ 6 billion, and said the Indian share in the project would be 35-40%.
It must be noted that the Indian view on the next-generation fighter often differs from that of Russian MoD and Sukhoi. This is due to differences in specifications from the respective air forces, and the Indian desire to have a considerable production share in their customized version. In particular, local manufacturers want to supply onboard computers, navigation systems, multifunctional displays and self-defense equipment. Also, there are talks of another shape of the wing and control surfaces, and their local manufacturing. At this stage of FGFA development, it is rather early to speculate whether the Indian industry would manage to make its big aspirations come true.

APPENDIX.

Table from HAL site:

FGFA Technical Parameters
Length : 22.6 m
Height : 5.9 m
MTOW : 34 Ton
Range : 3880 km
Speed : 2 Mach
Max Weapon Load : 2.25 Ton (Int.) & 5.75 Ton (Ext)
Thrust Vectoring : With Jet Nozzle (±15)
Engine Thrust : 2X14000 kgf


 

Defence Review Asia at a glance