The T-50 – probably soon to be the Su-37 – is Russia’s first true fifth-generation fighter, and will probably enter production just after the first of the year. It’s official designation at this stage is PAK-FA, short for Perspektivny Aviatsionny Kompleks – Frontovoy Aviatsii (literally “Prospective Airborne Complex of Frontline Aviation”), meaning that is an undertaking of their experimental aircraft bureau, rather than purely a Sukhoi project. It is reportedly a low-observable (read: stealth) air superiority fighter that is highly maneuverable and equipped with clean-paper new engines. PAK-FA is, in other words, Russia’s answer to our F-22 Raptor.
It is said to be a Mach 2.3 platform that can supercruise (fly without afterburning) at Mach 1.6, will be armed with six air-to-air missiles, six air-to-mud bombs, and a 30mm cannon mounted in the wing root to the pilot’s starboard. It will reportedly be capable of carrying four anti-ship cruise missiles – all the above mentioned ordinance stowed in internal weapons bays. The platform will also be fitted with six removable (for stealth) under-wing hard-points for externally carrying an additional six missiles or bombs.
This aircraft will be added to the Changdu J-20 (PRC), as will the soon to be procured European fifth generation fighter, as the world’s air superiority fighter platforms. All very capable fighters (assuming all goes well with development and acceptance testing), but when you think about it, if one is clearly better – the other’s aren’t really “air superiority” platforms, are they?
The concept of air superiority became a clear doctrinal aspect of war planning during World War II when sweeping the skies of enemy fighter-bombers in the Pacific and obtaining denial to the Luftwaffe over the Normandy beaches yielded outcome-relevant advantages to blue forces. The idea is uncomplicated – deny the enemy air-access to the battlespace, and you spare your ground forces the perils of vertical assault. You convert the battlespace into a battleplane. You remove the Z-axis as a tactical concern. And if you have air superiority, you can undoubtedly menace the enemy in Z, converting the enemy’s defensive battleplane into a battlespace. Air superiority is a tactics-changing option to have, hence all major powers are trying to provide that capability to its military.
All of these platforms perform in rough equivalency; any qualitative difference will be found in the avionics – the sensor-to-pilot transfer of situational awareness. How far out can I see red forces? How far out can I lock on red forces? How close in can I get before red forces see me? Those kinds of things. The Raptor has the edge in all of these criteria – somewhat narrowly in the case of the European effort, more so with the Russian and Chinese offerings. The AN/APG-77 radars can detect a one square meter target at 150 miles, lock on to it at 93 miles, and fire on it any time after that. This in an aircraft that has the radar cross-section of a marble. The PAK-FA’s radar cross-section is ~0.5 square meter, slightly larger than a basketball. The F-22 will need to get within ~80 miles of a PAK-FA to see it, but can’t be seen by the PAK-FA until it’s within ~16 miles of it. Fatal difference for the PAK-FA. The F-22 would have long ago fired a missile at the PAK-FA and be off engaging another target.
Air superiority opens blue forces up for air-cav and armored-cav operations ahead of walking infantry, and allows for increased aerial surveillance of red force locations (while denying that ability to the enemy). As I say, it becomes an outcome-relevant advantage.
It is important to recognize that our technological advantage is still difference-making, but the window is closing. PAK-FA is a closer match to the F-22s performance envelope than the MiG-29 was to the F-15’s. It is imperative that we not begin to cut back on the research and development of advanced weapons systems at a time when our near-peer adversaries are increasing theirs. We have spent the last six years handing away America’s advantages and leadership, but this one – technological superiority – is of generational importance. Because technology is synergetic in nature (we use high-tech to invent higher-tech), a gap in capability tends to grow exponentially. Losing the lead here could take a generation or more to re-close (and more expensively than just maintaining the lead).
This is not just an Air Force problem. One of the reasons that it’s important that we maintain unquestionable military superiority is for Command of the Commons. As a result of winning World War II, America has assumed responsibility for assuring free travel and trade by providing area-denial to adversarial forces over the world’s sea lanes and within the world’s air lanes. These are known as the Commons – areas of space out of any nation’s control but necessary to peaceful interactions between them. This is why we need a 12-carrier Navy. This is why we need to base air assets in all theaters of national interest. This is why we need a rapid-response force, forward deployed somewhere on each oceanic shore. This is why we need the world’s best hunter-killer submarines. I would far rather have the United States guarding the Commons than, say, the Russians or Chinese. To understand how important Command of the Commons is, imagine how life complicates if Iran gains control of the Straits of Hormuz – 80% of Europe’s oil and 40% of its gas pass through those waters.
Rome, for all its flaws and arrogance, was a better steward of Europe than the Visigoths, Vikings or Hun. I am more comfortable for the world’s people with America, for its flaws and arrogance, being steward of the world’s trade routes than Russia or PRC – or having regional turf battles over them.