Chair Force Engineer

Friday, January 29, 2010

Flight of the Raptor-ski

Russia's new fifth-generation fighter jet, currently known as PAK-FA, made its first flight yesterday. The Russian media is already billing the plane as a competitor to the F-22.

NATO has already given the plane the reporting name of "FIREFOX," parodying the Russian super-fighter from the Clint Eastwood movie of the same name. (Under the NATO reporting system, all Russian & Chinese fighters get names that start with the letter F.) But the plane's similarities to the F-22 Raptor are enough for me to give it the nickname "Raptor-ski."

The plane's angular appearance and aft-set diamond wing make comparisons to the F-22 easy, at least initially. Unlike it's American counterpart, PAK-FA has tiny vertical stabilizers that move as a single unit for yawing. The size of the vertical stabilizers tells me that thrust-vectoring engine nozzles are essential for yaw stability (and likely for pitch stability too, based on the tiny horizontal stabilizers.) The Russian aerospace industry has been focusing on thrust vectoring for over 15 years as an upgrade to the Su-27 Flanker (Su-35 in its upgraded form.)

But a great airframe alone does not guarantee a great fighter aircraft. Even maneuverability does not guarantee success in flight regimes other than visual-range, close-in dogfighting. If PAK-FA is the Superman of fighter jets, then the F-22 Raptor is Batman covered in armor and packing a lump of Kryptonite. The F-22 is so far ahead of other fighters in the realms of avionics, stealthiness and supercruise that it's scary. Can Russia's Sukhoi design bureau compete with Lockheed-Martin's unrivaled experience in designing stealthy planes? PAK-FA may benefit from the downed F-117 wreckage recovered from Serbia, but the F-22 is still a generation ahead. The only way PAK-FA can compete in the avionics realm is if a Russian mole delivered the plans for the F-22 radar set to the motherland. (It's not unheard of. The same thing happened with the F-18 radar during the MiG-29 program.)

Another impediment to the PAK-FA is a protracted development schedule. The Su-34, a two-seat fighter-bomber based on the Su-27, had a very lengthy development in spite of being a fairly straightforward modification of the Su-27 airframe. (Again, avionics makes the big difference in fighter development and cost; the Su-34 program was no different.) It will be years before Russia fields a squadron of PAK-FA's.

What happens if a PAK-FA "Raptor-ski" gets in a battle with an F-22 Raptor? Using the plane's superior radar and stealthiness, the Raptor pilot fires missiles and takes out the PAK-FA before the Russian pilot knows there's an F-22 around. All the agility in the world won't help if you can't even see the other fighter (although it does aid in shaking off missiles.) The long-range intercept scenario is the reason why the F-14 Tomcat was the only American plane that Russian pilots truly feared. The Tomcat's AWG-9 radar and Phoenix missile system was amazing for its day and still sends shudders down the spines of fighter jocks. It could detect and engage six bogeys at the same time at a range far longer than other fighters could. A similar logic applies with the F-22 today, with the addition of stealth to prevent the fighter from being spotted by its adversaries until it was too late.