03 Maret 2016

Why the PAK-FA May Win the Stealth Dogfight

03 Maret 2016

As the F-35’s over-hyped “stealth” evaporates, it will be handicapped by its short range and small weapon load, while Russia’s T-50 will benefit from low visibility but will also have a full weapon load and uncompromised maneuverability and sensors. (photo : iadnews)

Stealth is the elemental difference between 4th and 5th generation fighter aircraft. But believing that it is the cloak of invisibility is living in a false reality.

The Americans claim their stealth aircraft have “first look/first shot/first kill” air dominance capability. The aim is to see the enemy first while avoiding detection. To be sure, the hundreds of billions of dollars spent have paid off in reducing the radar cross sections of the F-22 and F-35. In comparison, the Russian PAK-FA has a larger profile on radar.

But the stealth advantage of the US aircraft doesn’t seem to worry the Russians. For, the PAK-FA embraces an entirely different combat philosophy where super maneuverability – first mastered by Sukhoi engineers – is considered a vital weapon.

The PAK-FA patent document published by Russia’s Federal Service for Intellectual Property shows the aircraft’s design is heavily influenced by low radar visibility requirements. At the same time, the Russians are prepared to sacrifice some stealth in their quest for super maneuverability and excellent flight characteristics.

The aim is to provide an aircraft having low radar visibility, super maneuverability at high angles of attack, and simultaneously preserving high aerodynamic efficiency at subsonic speeds.

Prototype T-50 in flight (photo : Dmitry Pichugin)

Creating an aircraft that is capable of performing tasks in a wide range of altitudes and flight speeds and also has a low radar signature is a technical challenge, the Russians admit. “All these requirements are contradictory, and the creation of an airplane that meets these requirements represents a compromise.”

The Russian view is that it never hurts to have dogfighting abilities. At some point stealth aircraft will have to close in for the kill and that’s when a knife fight is inevitable. That’s also when super maneuverability comes into play. Slow, ponderous and poorly armed stealth aircraft such as the F-35 are likely to be clubbed to death in a fight with the PAK-FA.

Sweetman writes in Aviation Week that the Russians have envisaged a “kick the door down” mission for their stealth fighter. Referring to two of the PAK-FA’s weapons – an anti-radiation missile (ARM, that targets radars) and an air-to-air missile (AAM) – he writes: “This is all interesting to say the least, because since Day One of stealth in the US, a guiding principle has been that stealth gets you close enough to use precise, short-range, low-cost weapons. And here come the Russians, equipping their first stealth fighter – already fast and high-flying – with a 1400 pound ARM that can run out to 245 km at up to Mach 4, and a 1125 pound, 200 km range AAM.”

T-50 with external weapons (photo : Alexei)

Instead of playing hide and seek like the Americans, a Russian pilot would rather be the wolf of the sky. The hundreds of sorties being carried out by the Russian Air Force against terrorists in Syria is an indicator of how intensely their pilots have internalised this view.

Going for the kill

The PAK-FA patent document is an unusually candid assessment – by the normally secretive Russians –of the challenges of creating a stealth aircraft. In contrast, US aircraft manufacturers and their partners in the military have lied to their public and lawmakers.

According to the new philosophy of air combat that is being defined by US Air Force (USAF) and Lockheed-Martin careerists, the one-size-fits-all F-35 will replace all other fighters as well as ground support aircraft.

In their view, American pilots would toy with enemy aircraft and shoot them down as if playing a video game. They would be able to detect enemy aircraft up to 1000 km away and take them out with beyond visual range (BVR) missiles. These science fiction scenarios got many US allies excited and they signed up for the $1 trillion dollar F-35.

PAK FA armament infographic (image : the Avionist)

In practice, air combat is like a knife fight. According to Defense Industry Daily (DID), the F-35 is very likely to wind up facing many more “up close and personal” opponents than its proponents suggest, while dealing with effective BVR infrared-guided missiles as an added complication.
India’s Ministry of Defence summed it up perfectly after an air combat exercise between IAF and British air force pilots in Waddington, in 2007: According to the MoD, because there are plenty of counter and counter-counter measures available to make “modern missiles with claims of inescapable parameters redundant by using ‘chaff’ and other active/passive measures, a ‘gun kill’ is invariably a most certain kill”.

That is, even the best jet fighter equipped with long range missiles may have to rely on its cannons to ensure a kill.


Stealth is not really an invisibility cloak. The Americans believe since their stealth aircraft are able to deflect engine emissions upwards, they can remain undetected longer.

T-50 PAK FA and Su-35 (photo : Stepanov Yury)

But there is no such thing as one radar in war. “There are lots of radars,” points out aerospace engineer Pierre Sprey in an interview to Dutch television. “And you can’t be nose-on or dead-level to every radar in the theatre. There are always going to be radars that are going to be shining up (from below) or looking from above – they can all see you.”

Also, as long as aircraft have engines, and engines produce heat, aircraft can be detected. Airframes also get heated considerably during flight and their heat signatures can be registered. Russian aircraft such as the Sukhoi Su-30 have infrared radar that can detect engine emissions from hundreds of miles away, without giving any indication to the enemy to their presence.

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