17th Dec 2010

With the maiden flight in January this year of Sukhoi’s PAFA (the Russian acronym for Future Complex of Frontal Aviation), Russia has become only the second nation after the US to develop a fifth-generation fighter. Will the PAKFA be as popular in the global market as the MiG-21 Fishbed or the Su-27 Flanker? Or will these legendary types be replaced in service with the air forces of purchasing nations preferring cheaper Chinese alternatives? Beijing has been investing heavily into the development of its own fighters and promoting their sales worldwide – with low pricing and attractive financial packages being China’s main advantages.

Can Moscow preserve some of its traditional markets? Our answer to that is “yes” - but with a rider: Russian manufacturers must offer better quality aircraft at reasonable prices. Drawing New Delhi into a tighter strategic alliance may help, especially with India’s rising defence budget, it’s growing purchasing power and rapidly developing industrial base. The PAKFA may not sell in large numbers, but it must surely strengthen the image of the Russian aeronautical engineering industry in the eyes of both new and traditional buyers of Russian equipment. (KYM TO TASHA, BPS)

Market analysis

Stocks of MiG-29 (original Fulcrum) “whitetails” at Lukhovitsy and Nizhny Novgorod factory aerodromes have depleted following shipments in 2008-2010 timeframe. The Su-27 (original Flanker) is no longer in production. The “Chinese line” of the twin-seat Flanker (models Su-30MKK, Su-30MK2 and their derivatives) will soon be discontinued after fulfillment of the remaining Vietnamese and Indonesian orders. Sukhoi’s largest plant in Komsomolsk-upon-Amur (KnAAPO) is shifting its focus to the newer Su-35 single seat multirole fighter and is also preparing a PAKFA assembly line. The company’s plant in Novosibirsk (NAPO) is primarily focused on the Su-34 interdiction aircraft, with the target to raise the production rate from the current one-to-two a year to 12-20. But so far neither the Su-35 nor Su-34 has managed to achieve an export sale. These improved Flankers are a lot more sophisticated (and expensive) than the original Su-27. The MiG-35, a further evolution of the MiG-29, likewise, has yet to find a foreign customer. With an empty weight of 11,300kg and maximum of 23,500kg, the MiG-35 is notably heavier than the original Fulcrum (by weight it surpassed the Rafale and reached the Eurofighter EF2000 Typhoon). Not surprisingly, it is far more expensive than its predecessor.

New Russian fighters rolling off the assembly lines are also more expensive than contemporary Chinese machines. This can be illustrated by the figures of the Egyptian tender, where the US $35 MiG-29M (a transitional model between MiG-29 and MiG-35) is competing against a US $10 FC-1 (powered by a Russian-made Klimov RD-93 engine). With the J-11 and J-15 unlicensed Flanker copies already flying, it will not take China long to make them available on the open market. As time goes on, the situation with new sales of Russian fighters will become more serious.

The Kremlin understands this and is taking measures accordingly. The first move is a constant increase in spending on acquisition for the Russian air force of improved fourth generation fighters. Not only does this help in both national defence and industry, but also prompts foreign customers to reconsider acquisition of these types (despite price escalation). Some of the buying nations are inclined to purchase only those systems that are in active service with the manufacturing nation’s own forces. The second move is additional spending on the PAKFA research and development program in order to establish and refine next-generation fighter technologies and respective products sooner than China. Today, half of Russia’s defence export business is through sales of Sukhoi and MiG aircraft, weapons and spares. (KYM TO TASHA, BPS)Moscow will certainly not allow Beijing to steal this business without a fight.

After buying almost nothing in the past fifteen years, the Russian MoD started placing orders from December 2008 onwards. The first purchase was for 28 MiG-29SMT and 6 MiG-29UBT aircraft. These had been built for Algeria but rejected by the intended customer on the ground of poor manufacturing quality. The second order was for 32 Su-34 interdiction aircraft. At the MAKS-2009 airshow the MoD announced new orders worth Ru 100 billion (US $3.2 billion): 48 Su-35S, 12 Su-27SM and 4 Su-30M2 aircraft.

These orders immediately encouraged more foreign buys: India purchased an additional 40 Su-30MKIs and firmed up options for 29 MiG-29K/KUB deck fighters in addition to 16 previously ordered; Myanmar signed for 20 MiG-29s; Vietnam for additional Su-30MK2s and Syria for MiG-29Ms. Combined, local and foreign orders helped the ailing Russian aviation industry survive in the difficult times of the world-wide economic recession. At Farnborough International 2010 Mikhail Pogosyan - General Director at Sukhoi and General Director – General Designer at MiG, and the man appointed to lead the Combat Aviation business unit of Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation – told journalists that 33 new Sukhoi and MiG fighters were delivered in 2009 to the Russian MoD and 18 were opgraded. “Now, the domestic market is comparable with the export”, he concluded, adding that his jet fighter backlog is 300 units. By comparison: since the mid-1990s, when the Su-27/30 won export clearance, approximately five hundred Flankers have been sold to China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Algeria, India, Malaysia and Venezuela.


The designation “Fifth-Generation Fighter Aircraft” (FGFA) was invented by New Delhi. Today it serves to identify an Indian air force version of the Sukhoi PAKFA. Talks about joining forces and sharing expenses on the FGFA development have been ongoing for more than five years. General Director of Russia’s state arms vendor, Anatoly Isaikin thus summarized the whole story: “Russia has so far received proposals to cooperate on joint development of fifth-generation weapons systems from India only. The Indian initiative was met positively. Now, Russia and India are working together on the Fifth-Generation Fighter Aircraft and also the Multirole Transport Aircraft.”

New Delhi and Moscow are in agreement on the FGFA, which has received senior political sign off. Meanwhile, the defence establishment and industrial enterprises on both sides are still working through the following questions. How to do it? Who does what? Who is responsible for what? Who is paying for what?

In an interview with the Russian media, Raj Kumar Singh, Secretary of defence production for the Indian Ministry of Defence, presented this view on the subject: “The FGFA is a joint development project in which we will see Indian and Russian designers and engineers working side-by-side from the beginning until its completion. The FGFA will be a joint product whose intellectual property rights will be held fully and equally by both parties”.

New Delhi insists that half of the work on the FGFA must be given to Indian companies. Furthermore, the Indian companies must make not just the nuts and bolts, but also such critical items as avionics, onboard computers, sighting and weapons systems, large composite structures for the airframe etc. (KYM TO TASHA, BPS) In turn, certain Russian industry leaders say that although this is a good idea, it will be difficult to put into practice, since the Russians have largely completed the PAKFA design and continue with assembly of the PAKFA prototypes and have flight test them without any Indian involvement to date. Rather than do the same work over again, some Russians believes the Indian partners should focus on “Indianisation” by setting up customer support centers and so on. But such a proposition from the Russian industrialists does not make the Indian partners happy. Negotiations continue, while the PAKFA clocks flying hours.

The story in brief

The long-awaited PAKFA maiden flight finally happened on 29 January 2010. Originating from the aerodrome of the KnAAPO plant in Komsomolsk-upon-Amur, the 47-minute mission was successful. Congratulating Sukhoi and KnAAPO on this occasion, Russian PM Vladimir Putin said a batch of these aircraft will go to the Russian air force’s Center for Combat Usage and Personnel Retraining in Lipetsk during 2013. He added that deliveries to the RusAF line units shall commence in 2015. So far, USAF has been the world’s only air force to operate fifth generation fighters when the F-22A Raptor became operational in 2005. The delayed F-35 Lighting II looks likely to enter service in 2014.

Research into next generation fighter technologies commenced on both sides of the Atlantic almost simultaneously towards the end of the Cold War. (KYM TO TASHA, BPS)The first feasible results appeared in the form of full-size technology demonstrators. In the US these were the YF-22 and YF-23. On the other side of the world, the Mikoyan design house rolled out Article 1.44, and sometime later, Sukhoi followed with the S-37 Berkut. The two design houses intended to evolve these demonstrators into combat capable platforms and then mass-produce them. The prevailing economic situation and political circumstances worked against the Russian manufacturers. After an indecisive series of flight trials, both Article 1.44 and the Berkut were grounded after the RusAF found the respective projects not worthy of continued funding.

After Vladimir Putin replaced Boris Yeltsin as Russia’s president, work on next-generation combat systems resumed. Sukhoi was favored because of the company’s success stories with Flanker exports. Although several formal competitions were held, Mikoyan always trailed Sukhoi. The loser tried to turn the tables by attempting to establish a union with Indian – when Pranab Mukerjee was acting Defence minister, he preferred working with Mikoyan. The matter was brought to the highest political level, and Sukhoi won again. Even after this, Mikoyan did not give up completely. The company tried its luck in unmanned air strike vehicles using next-generation technologies: it unveiled the Skat at MAKS’2007. This did not help either and Sukhoi went on to make its mark on Russian aeronautical history.

Mikoyan’s MFI

Although Mikoyan lost the battle, the company deserves praise for the work done on developing technologies for future warfare fighters. The story started in 1981, when the United States launched the Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF) program to replace the ageing F-15A Eagle (the program later saw the YF-22 winning over YF-23 in the 1991 fly-off). In reply, the Soviet Union launched, in the same year, the “Purpose Comprehensive Program for Development of Fighter Aircraft of the Nineties” (“I-90” for short). This program focused on new technologies rather than specific airframes. After a two-year research effort, there appeared a draft specification for the Soviet air force’s next-generation aircraft. It required the aircraft to have supercruise (the ability to cruise supersonically without afterburner), low radar signature, longer firing range and improved serviceability.

In 1983 the Mikoyan design house was named project leader. Two years later the firm came up with two draft designs, MFI (Russian for Multirole Fighter) and LFI (Light Frontal Fighter). Both featured “canard” aerodynamics layout, next-generation engines, completely new architecture of onboard systems, “on condition” maintenance and extended service life. In 1986 the Kremlin gave the “go-ahead” for construction of Article 1.42 operable prototype as part of the MFI effort.
Mikoyan decided to start flight trials with the Article (Project) 1.44, a full scale operable technology demonstrator – a somewhat simplified 1.42, to prove the aerodynamics concept, assess flight control algorithms and test the engines. Grigory Sedov acted as chief designer for this project. In 1991 it passed a critical design review, but the work slowed down due to the economic troubles experienced in Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union. For a period the project continued under its own inertia, exploiting previously made governmental investments.

The Article 1.44 performed high-speed taxi runs in December 1994, but an acute funding shortage kept it grounded until 29 February 2000, when test-pilot Vladimir Gorbunov took it to the air for the first time. Mikoyan designers insisted the Article 1.44 needed to be flown at least 20 times to collect all necessary data, but the accountants found sufficient money for only one more mission. The second, and final, Article 1.44 flight happened on 27 April 2000.
Mikoyan tried to rescue the project by simplifying the original customer specification, mostly confined to weapons and onboard systems, while committing to deliver against promises on flight performance. To draw public attention to the project, Mikoyan demonstrated the Article 1.44 to a group of Russian journalists on 12 January 1999. Media reports were favorable, but the investors did not come. The company tentatively approached China in a hope to get a launch customer for an export version, but to no avail.

Although ill fated, the MFI program made a valuable contribution to the success of other advanced Russian fighter programs - namely the Su-35 and PAKFA. (KYM TO TASHA, BPS) Apart from being used for testing advanced avionics and onboard systems, the Article 1.44 was also used as platform for testing and perfecting the NPO Saturn AL-41F engine (also referred to as the Item 20). This engine is in the 18-tonne class of thrust and provided critical technologies for the Item 117 that today powers two Sukhoi designs. A total of 28 AL-41Fs were assembled; half of them underwent thorough testing on rigs and in the air, including aboard a Tu-16 and MiG-25 test beds (101 flights altogether, 1,600 hot hours). MNPK Avionika developed a fully digital flight control system (fly-by-wire) whose algorithms and components later found their way to other Sukhoi and MiG aircraft. Phazotron NIIR created a powerful radar with a detection range in excess of 250km, able to simultaneously track twenty targets and shoot at six of them.

Sukhoi S-37 Berkut

Even though the Soviet government made the early selection of Mikoyan to lead the next-generation fighter project, Sukhoi too, was able to get sufficient state funding for research and development work on the same theme, mostly through state investments into new technologies. After early studies into forward-swept wings (FSW), jointly with dedicated research institutes, the company managed to persuade the Russian air force to fund construction of an experimental fighter to evaluate the FSW concept. In its turn, the Navy added to this and were persuaded that FSW may improve carrier-basing qualities of perspective deck fighters. Mikhail Pogosyan acted as Chief Designer for this program before becoming Sukhoi General Director – General Designer in 1998, and Sergei Korotkov after him.

The collapse of the Soviet Union also put Sukhoi under pressure, but the company appeared to be much faster in adapting to the new economic realities. (KYM TO TASHA, BPS) It shifted its focus to export business and invested the earned funds on the development of key technologies. As an economy measure the earlier considered AL-41Fs gave way to the less expensive Perm D-30F11 (derivative of MiG-31’s D-30F6) in the 16-tonne class of thrust. Perm engines were meant as an interim solution, but have remained as the installed standard.

The S-37 featured many new things, including large composite structures in addition to long-and-curved airframe panels made of advanced aluminum alloys created by special metal cutting machines. In 1997 the aircraft was ready for flight tests. It flew on 25 September with Igor Votintsev at the controls. Nearly a hundred flights had been made by 2003. After a major repair, the black-painted aircraft with “wrongly set wings” resumed flying. It has performed 330 flights so far.

Happy with Berkut’s behavior in flight tests, Sukhoi tried to persuade the Russian air force to accept this aircraft as the platform for a next generation fighter. This attempt was made after the service realized it did not have enough money to continue with the MFI. For marketing purposes the S-37 was renamed the Su-47, with tales on its tail about “pending” installation of new weapons and onboard systems. Among other things, Sukhoi proposed powering the Su-47 with AMNTK Soyuz R-179 engines, which are in the 20-tonne class of thrust. The R-179 was a derivative of the promising R-79V300, already tried on the Yakovlev Yak-141 deck fighter.

In comparison to the MFI, the Su-47 was less expensive. It had lower structural weight, made use of attested (yet very modern) materials, test-proven onboard systems etc. There was one more important argument. Should the air force make the decision to give up the long-standing “two types” strategy (heavier Su-27 plus lighter MiG-29) and employ a single fighter type for all Frontal Aviation units, The expected normal takeoff weight fell into the corridor of 20-22 ton, and hence the Su-47 was the right size - as Sukhoi insisted.

Although the customer did not accept the Su-47, it liked the “one-type” idea. There was one more consideration, that of export. Had the MFI been developed and launched into production, it would have found fewer customers abroad than the would-be lighter and cheaper alternative, closer in the size to the popular MiG-29. It was at that time that the Indian air force expressed interest in a next-generation fighter with medium (normal) takeoff weight, and at approximately 22 tons, which favored Sukhoi. Shortly after Vladimir Putin succeeded Boris Yeltsin as Russia’s president in 2001, Sukhoi was asked to come up with a new, clean sheet design.

LFI: a lighter option

Both Mikoyan and Sukhoi conducted studies into light fighters in the 1980s and 1990s, trying to make use of the new technologies being developed in the heavier fighter programs. Standing at the drawing board, Russian designers continued to think of what they could offer in reply to the latest US projects: JAST, F-22 (since 1994) and, finally, F-35 (since 2001). The F-35 has an empty weight of 13.3 tons, and maximum weight of 32 tons. Naturally, the Russian engineers challenged themselves with designs of similarly sized fighters. Sometimes these activities were attributed to LFI, the Light Frontline Fighter program. When a new command came from the Kremlin in 2001, the designers were prepared.

Initially, a single engine design was under consideration. At air shows, Sukhoi exhibited a large desk model of the Sukhoi S-54 (until the model was stolen during ILA). The model served to convey a message that Sukhoi was now interested in light fighters – something it had never been before. The S-54 had a single AL-31FN with vectored thrust. Other suitable engine options for similarly sized aircraft were: improved AL-41F, a further developed R-179 and a boosted RD-33 (including its derivatives RD-93 and VS-10).

As time went on, various concepts were offered and criticized. Gradually, the single engine designs gave way to twins. At that time the Russian air force was increasing the intensity of training flights and had suffered a series of crashes. Concerned about flight safety, the service again expressed a preference for twins over singles. Mikoyan offered a MiG-29 derivative with more powerful Klimov engines. Sukhoi responded with a clean sheet design with NPO Saturn AL-41F derivatives, downsized to AL-31F’s dimensions. The engine was initially referred to as the AL-41F1A, but later renamed Item 117. A mix of something new (from AL-41F), something old (AL-31F’s hull and modules); the engine promised 14,500kgf of thrust at full afterburner or 8,800kgf at military power.

Several competitions between Sukhoi and Mikoyan were run, but the organizers appeared to have a preference as to who should win. Mikoyan continued suffering from funding shortages, while Sukhoi was earning good money from foreign sales. (KYM TO TASHA, BPS) One by one, the latter company won governmental contracts in 2001, 2003 and 2006. Resulting aircraft started to be called PAKFA.

A critical design review was passed in 2004, and detailed design won approval in 2006. First metal was cut for an operable prototype in 2007. For the first time in Russian practice, the prototype of a new fighter was built by a mass production plant (KnAAPO in Komsomolsk-upon-Amur) rather than an experimental aircraft factory of a Moscow-based design house. Igor Dyemin, Chief Designer for the Su-35, also seemed to be in control of the newer design, since the two shared many of the onboard systems. However, Aleksandr Davidenko appeared before Russian media as the PAKFA Chief Designer in January 2010.

Sukhoi PAKFA

Having passed a number of successive development phases in early 2009, the project proceeded on to assembly of prototypes. The flight test program calls for using six airframes, two for ground testing and four for flights. In the summer of 2009, the T50-0 airframe entered the static test program. The second airframe was something new in Russian practice, being a fully functioning test aircraft. It comes equipped with two Item 117 engines, KSU-50 comprehensive control system (its responsibility also includes control of the engines which do not have their own control systems), electrics, hydraulic and fuel lines. This aircraft was used for high speed taxi runs (including lifting the nose wheel off ground) on 23 December, as part of preparations for the PAKFA maiden flight.

The first operable prototype, T50-1, commenced ground testing in the fall of 2009 and proceeded with taxi runs on 21 January 2010. To get the “go-ahead” for flying, additional engine testing had to be performed on a test-bed. In January a “wry” aircraft – a Su-27M (side 710) with one of its two Al-31F engines replaced by an experimental Item 117 – performed several missions for that purpose.

On its first flight lasting 47 minutes the T50-1, with Sergei Bogdan at the controls, was accompanied by a Su-27UB. On 1 March 2010 Vladimir Putin inspected the T50-0 undergoing static tests in the Central AeroHydrodynamics Institute (TsAGI) and then watched the T50-1 fly from Ramenskoye aerodrome in Zhukovsky. He said over two thousand more flights shall be performed on PAKFA prototypes for test purposes in order to produce “a modern machine having no analogues abroad”.
So far, there have been two PAKFA public flight performances. One took place on 17 June, when Vladimir Putin visited Zhukovsky accompanied by a hundred carefully selected Russian journalists. The second occasion took place on 1 September. On that occasion the target audience were members in the subgroup on aviation of the Indo-Russian interstate committee for military-technical cooperation.

For the very early phase of testing, the PAKFA’s prototype demonstrated truly astonishing flight performance. It maneuvered as well as a Su-30 and according to Mikhail Pogosyan, the aircraft attained a 25-degree angle of attack. The head of the Sukhoi company confirmed that the first prototype does not carry a whole set of avionics and systems. This is because the first operable prototype is intended for proving the aerodynamics, flight controls and engine operational envelope. The second and third operable machines, to be completed by the end of 2010 will come equipped with a more comprehensive set of onboard equipment.

The PAKFA cockpit features a new ejection seat from NPP Zvezda as well as a central stick and a wide-angle HUD. The pilot’s information field is complemented by two large LCDs and a smaller LCD to the right of the HUD’s screen. The radar set is from Tikhomirov NIIP. It will have an active electronically scanned array (AESA) and comes supplemented by a number of additional antennas to operate in L- and X- wavebands. Reportedly, a functioning radar set will go onto the third operable prototype. At MAKS2009, Tikhomirov NIIP exhibited an experimental AESA sized 700 vs 900 mm. Its element base makes use of GaAS nanostructures.

The Russian MoD is considering placing an initial order for “over fifty” PAKFA aircraft as part of the State Weapons Program 2020. This production series shall be preceded by a pre-production batch comprising six to ten deliverable aircraft [for RusAF special establishments].

Speaking to journalists on 17 June, Vladimir Putin said a total of about Ru 30 billion (US $960 million) had already been spent on the project, and a similar amount is to be added to that. He further said that a series aircraft will cost Moscow 2.5 - 3 times less than Washington paid for a series F-22A Raptor. “Taking account of a better quality - and we will, certainly, try to get that better quality – our product shall give us a serious competitive advantage”, the Russian PM added.

Outwardly, the PAKFA and Raptor look similar. This comes mainly from the side and upward views, except that the Russian product has smaller vertical surfaces. A look from the front or the aft reveals more differences. The F-22A has its PW119 engines set close together and well shielded, to reduce radar and heat signatures. The PAKFA has its Items 117 well separated from one another, each one in its own distinctive nacelle with no shielding.

This raises questions about PAKFA’s radar and infrared signatures – they must be higher than Raptor’s. But Chief Designer Aleksandr Davidenko claims these are “similar”. In some pictures taken in front of the parked aircraft, including those available from the June 17 demonstration, it is easy to see (and count) fan blades of the PAKFA’s engines. Shall this entail longer detection distances for enemy radars? Or the quality of the Russian anti-radar coatings is so great that it can completely dissipate the enemy’s electromagnetic waves? Or, perhaps, next airframes would feature reshaped intakes with S-like channels, to decrease exposure of the engine fans to outside viewers.


Despite being early in its flight-testing, the PAKFA flies very well. It shall easily win top place in the hearts of frequent show visitors who take for granted Sukhoi’s leadership in aerial tricks and “super maneuverability”. Combat worthiness of the new Russian fighter is difficult to estimate now, due to a shortage of trustworthy information available on its onboard systems and weapons.

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