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Updated 11:29 AM EDT, Tue, Jun 16, 2020

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Hefty Costs Might Shoot Down Russia’s PAK FA Fifth Generation Stealth Fighter

Not ready for prime time

(Photo : Russian Aerospace Forces) Russian PAK FA stealth fighter.

Russia is ordering an initial run of only 12 of its much hyped Sukhoi PAK FA fifth-generation stealth fighter, a sign it has doubts about spending hundreds of billions of dollars on the most expensive plane in its history when its economy has been in recession for the past 18 months.

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Media reports say the Russian Aerospace Forces is expected to sign a contract for an initial batch of a dozen of the stealth fighters with JSC United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) this year. UAC is the state-owned firm that will manufacture the jet. Delivery of this initial lot is expected to begin in 2017.

Established only on Aug. 1, 2015, the Russian Aerospace Forces (Vozdushno-Kosmicheskiye Sily) consist of three sub-branches: the Air Force; Air Defense Troops and Space Forces.

PAK FA remains controversial because the cost of the six prototype T-50 aircraft built so far exceeds $50 million per jet, according to Russian sources. American analysts claim the cost per plane is actually $100 million.

Despite the hefty price tag for the PAK FA, Russian defense sources were quoted as saying last June the T-50 has "reached a stage where it's combat capable and ready for mass production and for use by the Russian Aerospace Forces."

The fate of future orders for the PAK FA, however, will depend on the outcome of what's being described as interesting debates on whether Russia really does need a very expensive stealth fighter like the PAK FA when the country might not be able to pay for it. Russia will probably need over a hundred of these fighters and foreign orders (which are uncertain) to drive down the cost per plane.

Opponents of the PAK FA claim the Russian fourth generation fighter, the Sukhoi Su-35S Flanker-E, has the enhanced combat capabilities that make it capable of holding its own against American stealth fighters such as the F-35 and the F-22 Raptor.

Russian military analysts have kept harping on their belief the Su-35S can outmaneuver both American aircraft due to its thrust vectoring engines. The Su-35S can also detect them using an infrared search and track system that can identify American stealth jets out to 80 km. It's also faster and has greater range than both American jets.

Another negative for the PAK FA are its engines. The PAK FA and its prototype, the T-50, are powered by a pair of Saturn Izdeliye 117 afterburning turbofan engines developed for the Su-35S.

The Izdeliye 117 is intended as an interim engine for the PAK FA and its production engine, the Izdeliye 30, is expected to come off the production line only between 2025 and 2027. That means the PAK FA will become woefully underpowered compared to the American stealth fighters until 2025 at the earliest.

These shortcomings of the PAK FA are the main reasons the Russian Aerospace Forces has taken a wait-and-see approach towards the new jet.

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