It’s Russia’s turn to learn that stealth warplanes are hard to do

January 20, 2016

Sukhoi T-50 fighter climbing after takeoff, 2011. Creative Commons

After confronting serious technical and economic difficulties, Russia has dramatically cut back its air force program to field its first radar-evading “stealth” fighter jet. By delaying large-scale acquisition of the Sukhoi T-50 fighter, the Kremlin is tacitly acknowledging a truth that the U.S. military learned decades ago — and that China might also learn in coming years: developing stealth fighters is hard.

But fortunately for the Russian air force, and unfortunately for Washington and its allied air arms that are Russia’s chief rivals, Moscow has a backup plan. Instead of counting on a new stealth jet to outfit its fighter squadrons, the Russian government is buying heavily upgraded versions of older planes — an approach the Pentagon has dismissed as wasteful. It could, however, help Russia maintain its aerial edge.

The T-50, like practically all stealth aircraft before it, has proved expensive to develop, although exactly how expensive remains a closely guarded secret. Radar-evading warplanes require careful design work, extensive testing and exotic materials for their construction — all features that can double or triple their cost compared to conventional, non-stealthy planes.

Even with their high cost, air forces all over the world are scrambling to acquire stealth aircraft because their ability to avoid detection can, in theory, offer a big advantage in air-to-air combat and during bombing runs.

But a competing theory of aerial warfare argues that stealth is overrated — and it’s better to buy greater numbers of cheaper, non-stealthy planes. Moscow’s troubles in developing the T-50 have compelled it to adhere to the competing philosophy.

A F-22 Raptor fighter jet of the 95th Fighter Squadron from Tyndall, Florida approaches a KC-135 Stratotanker from the 100th Air Refueling Wing at the Royal Air Force Base in Mildenhall in Britain as they fly over the Baltic Sea towards the newly established NATO airbase of Aemari, Estonia September 4, 2015.  Four F-22 Raptors and some 60 airmen were deployed to Spangdahlem Air Base, western Germany, to train with allied air forces such as Poland and Estonia. The first-ever training deployment of the 5th fighter generation to Europe is part of the European Reassurance Initiative.    REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay

A F-22 Raptor fighter jet of the 95th Fighter Squadron from Tyndall, Florida, flying over the Baltic Sea to a new NATO airbase in Aemari, Estonia September 4, 2015. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay

Russia arrived late to the stealth-warplane party. The U.S. Air Force fielded its first radar-evading warplane — the F-117 attack jet — in 1983. It added the B-2 stealth bomber to its inventory in 1997 and then the F-22 stealth fighter in 2005. The Marine Corps, meanwhile, was the first U.S. military branch to introduce the latest F-35 stealth fighter, in July 2015. The Air Force anticipates declaring its own F-35s operational in 2016.

The F-117 retired in 2008, but the Pentagon still possesses hundreds of stealth planes and plans to acquire hundreds more in coming years via large-scale purchases of F-35s and the new Long-Range Strike Bomber, a successor to the B-2. Its economy and military crippled by the Soviet Union’s 1991 collapse, Russia didn’t begin serious work on the T-50 until 2002. The first prototype took off on its inaugural flight in January 2010, a year before China’s first stealth prototype — the J-20 — made its debut.

All the U.S., Russian and Chinese stealth aircraft possess special features for minimizing their detectability on radar and other sensors. These include rounded or angular shaping that can scatter radar waves, plus special materials that absorb radar instead of deflecting it.

Stealth plane design is a balancing act. The aircraft must be able to avoid detection while also flying fast and far enough, and carrying a big enough payload, to make them militarily useful. They cannot be so expensive that an air force can’t actually afford to buy them in meaningful numbers. In the 40 years it has been working on stealth technology, the United States has never stopped struggling with this balance.

UNDATED FILE PHOTO - The United States has pledged radar-avoiding B-2 bombers, shown in an undated photo, and F-117A attack jets to a NATO force of up to 430 warplanes that could blast Serbian military targets, U.S. defense officials said October 8. It would be the first combat use of America's batwing B-2s, the world's most advanced, and most expensive, warplanes. Each is capable of dropping 40,000 pounds (18,000 kg) of satellite-guided "smart" bombs and costs around $2 billion. HB/ELD/SB - RTRI4WC

B-2 bombers were part of the NATO force attacking Serbian military targets, October 8, 1998. REUTERS/Archive

The B-2 is hard to detect and flies well, but at more than $2 billion each, it proved too expensive for mass purchase. The U.S. Air Force managed to buy 21 of the bat-shaped planes from manufacturer Northrop Grumman. Lockheed Martin designed the F-35 to be affordable, but that compelled the company to cut back on the fighter’s stealth features. In any event, developmental difficulties have driven up the F-35’s cost to more than $100 million a plane — hardly cheap.

Neither the Russian government nor Sukhoi, the company that makes the T-50, have said how much the twin-engine, single-seat supersonic fighter has cost to develop or how much it might cost to buy once the design is complete. It’s safe to say, however, that development could consume tens of billions of dollars. And each plane could set back the buyer $100 million.

And that’s assuming the T-50 actually works. There are signs that it doesn’t — at least not very well. In six years, the six T-50 prototypes have completed just 700 test flights, according to a recent article in Combat Aircraft magazine by Piotr Butowski, an expert in Russian military aviation. By comparison, Lockheed and the U.S. Air Force built eight F-22 test planes and flew them 3,500 times between 1997 and 2005. It looks like the T-50s aren’t even reliable enough to undergo intensive testing.

That was dramatically apparent on June 10, 2014, when the fifth T-50 prototype — then less than a year old — suffered a catastrophic engine fire while taxiing on the ground. The damage was so bad that Sukhoi had to halt production of the sixth prototype and use its parts to rebuild the burned plane. The Indian air force, which is considering buying a version of the T-50, complained of “shortfalls … in terms of performance and other technical features

Events overtook the T-50’s slow and costly development. With many foreign governments imposing sanctions in the wake of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea, and oil prices plummeting amid a global supply glut, in 2015 Russia entered a recession that saw its economy shrink 3 percent in one year. Perhaps not surprisingly, in March 2015, Deputy Defense Minister Yuri Borisov announced that Russia would reduce its order. The Kremlin said it would buy just a dozen T-50s by 2020, instead of the 60 it originally planned.

An aircraft that is reported to be a Chinese stealth fighter is seen in Chengdu, Sichuan province, in this picture taken January 7, 2011, and released by Kyodo news agency January 8, 2011. China staged a first test-flight of a new stealth fighter jet that could narrow the nation's military gap with the United States on January 11, 2011, while the U.S. defence chief was in Beijing, Chinese Internet accounts said. The U.S. military believes the aircraft is a J-20 stealth fighter prototype. Picture taken January 7.     REUTERS/Kyodo (CHINA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY IMAGES OF THE DAY) FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. JAPAN OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN JAPAN - RTXWFEW

An aircraft reported to be a Chinese stealth fighter in Chengdu, Sichuan province, January 7, 2011. REUTERS/Kyodo News Agency

By then the United States should have more than 500 stealth planes in frontline service. China finished the first production-standard J-20 in December 2015 and is expected to acquire dozens more in the next few years — though it’s unclear how much the J-20 costs and how happy Beijing is with its performance.

To make up for the cuts to Russia’s T-50 program, the Kremlin has boosted production of the Su-35 and Su-30, the latest upgraded versions of the Cold War-vintage Su-27, a powerful twin-engine fighter whose various models are now the standard warplanes of the Russian, Chinese and Indian air arms. The Su-35 and Su-30 aren’t stealthy, but they are fast, far-flying and capable of carrying heavy payloads of missiles and bombs.

A SU-35 military jet performs during the opening of the MAKS-2009 international air show in Zhukovsky outside Moscow, August 18, 2009.  REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin  (RUSSIA TRANSPORT SCI TECH MILITARY) - RTR26UDS

A SU-35 military jet flies during the opening of the MAKS-2009 international air show in Zhukovsky outside Moscow, August 18, 2009. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

The Su-35, in particular, is a very capable warplane. Moscow ordered 48 planes in 2009 and is widely expected to soon place a second order for another 48. “It would be fair to describe this aircraft as the pinnacle of current conventional-fighter design,” wrote Carlo Kopp, an analyst with the Air Power Australia think tank, “blending a superb basic aerodynamic design with advanced engine, flight control and avionic technology”

Based on a proven design, the Su-35 is reliable. It’s also comparatively cheap, as low as $50 million a plane. Which is half as much as a T-50 or F-35. An upgraded classic fighter is at a disadvantage compared to a stealth plane in one regard: the ability to avoid detection under certain circumstances. But the classic fighter actually holds the advantage over a stealth plane when it comes to reliability and cost and some performance parameters, including maneuverability and payload.

Whether the stealth jet’s advantage is worth its disadvantages is a philosophical question for military planners. The Pentagon decided in favor of stealth planes, even cancelling upgrades to older F-15s and F-16s to free up more money for more F-35s. In Russia, circumstances largely settled the issue, forcing the Kremlin to bet on classic fighters over their stealth counterparts.

The world might never know who’s right unless Russia and the United States go to war against each other — a proof of concept no one actually welcomes.


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I am very happy if power countries create something that serve human

Posted by Ponthida | Report as abusive

The pseudo militarism of Putin will drive the Russian economy to failure again. The cold war was won by the US, but only because the Russians destroyed themselves through military spending. That will be the end for the US too, but only because the US now inhibits new products and competitive markets. The old oil/militarist/fascists at least allowed some competition, but the new age fascist is totally without restriction in what they will destroy to enhance their own bottom line.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

There is one issue which I think should be consider if not done so yet. Any object flying at high speeds develops turbulence which can be detected by satellites and pin-point accurately the location of the aircraft with periodic updates to follow the aircraft’s trajectory. The coordinates of the stealth aircraft’s trajectory can be then handed over to the electronics of missiles and on ground radar and hence destroy the stealth aircraft. This can be far superior than being invisible to radar as any bomber can be destroyed at a distance of at least 1,500 km and even at a greater distance.

Posted by Cicuta | Report as abusive

In current times, you don’t need stealth so much. Think inexpensive GPS honed drone swarm with small WMD payloads, bringing the needed nightmare.

Probably, we won’t think that – because inexpensive drones don’t make much money to defense contractors while F-35’s with bloated-budgets, do. Isn’t this what this article is all about?

Posted by Mottjr | Report as abusive

The fact that manned, piloted aircraft are still under such heavy development is a tacit agreement by the USA and Russia/China, that unmanned aircraft (“Drones”), even “stealth” ones, are jammable, hackable and that the GPS satellite system is very vulnerable.

Pre-programmable UAVs that would only rely on GPS for navigation, or even have older nav systems, have the flaw that they are no recallable once programmed and sent if their comms are jammed.

Posted by UgoneHearMe | Report as abusive

Twice as many conventional fighters implies willingness to sacrifice twice as many highly trained pilots on the battlefield.

Posted by AdamMickiewicz | Report as abusive

I’m so glad we dumped $1 trillion into the F-35, and are still left with a polished…ahemm…, instead of silly things like medical research, energy technologies, and space exploration.

Posted by SSDName | Report as abusive

Drones can be jammed but they can be given enough autonomy to be defensive and evasive against jamming as well. Plus the big picture of the modern battle field is gonna be all about getting electromagnetic dominance as a prerequisite for victory. Jamming, stealth and a massive cheep swarm of expendable Drones are all apart of that. Yeah your gonna lose some too jamming and other defenses but that requires them to radiate ungodly amounts of energy that makes for a big target for SEAD Radiation missiles and ECM. So its gonna be all about trading some of your frontal expendable units to locate EW asset like radars, Jammers and communications. so they can be either overwhelmed by said assets with significant casualties to the swarm or by elite stealth stand off assets. Then you have free rein to utilize air, sea cyber superiority. Thing is for the Russians these expendable assets are the mass of these conventional manned strike fighters and will be for a long while meanwhile the US is rapidly shifty too the Drone swarm capability if where not there already with predator Drones if not we will when something like the X-47C comes online.

Posted by logicbomb | Report as abusive

The US put 4 F-15’s up against a single F-22 Raptor, and the F-22 shot down all the F-15’s easily–they never even saw the Raptor. In numerous Red Flag exercises F-22’s and now, F-35’s have decimated opposition. Stealth matters–a lot. It doesn’t matter how fast, maneuverable or ‘pretty’ the SU-35 is–they will fail when matched against true 5th gen. fighters.

It is not just stealth. The avionics and sensor fusion of the F-22 and F-35 will decimate current opposition. Hunter-killer packs of F-35’s will control flights of advanced stealth drones and quickly achieve air supremacy.

The author of this article appears to be fighting the last wars–using outdated calculus and antiquated strategic thinking.

Posted by MaskOfZero | Report as abusive

Gosh, can you imagine what would’ve happened if the US, Russia and China spent all this money on developing a solar-powered passenger plane instead?..

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

…….when millions of people do not get even two times meals!!!!
….all out of fear and suspicions! It’s the tenth wonder of the world how long such rivalry will go on?….at least one wise man is not there with super powers even including a peace Nobel Prize winner like Obama of US.
Many cooks are spoiling the soup to enjoy this bountiful world, otherwise.

Posted by gentalman | Report as abusive

F-35 program is way over budget and performance less than planned, kind of semi-stealthy plane that can’t operate independently. F-22 has never been used in combat. Russian strategy does make some sense, they are fortunate in having real budget constraints to impose some discipline.
Note to author – I don’t think incremental cost of B-2 is $2 billion, that is program cost divided by number produced.

Posted by SaigonQ2 | Report as abusive

That the F35 program is in dire straits isnt odd. Apparently the F111 program lessons were forgotten again : You cant expect 1 plane to do Everything decently.

As such, the Marine STOVL fighter shouldve been on a seperate track, while reusing as many of the F35 components as possible. It forced too many design compromises on the major variants ( Airforce and Carrier based versions ).

Posted by dwwolf | Report as abusive

Stealth is a near-obsolete technology ;the air will belong to drones with 360 degrees vision (already available) remote and proximity radars, BMS systems and intelligent ATA , ATG & ATS missiles. They will be ‘assisted’ by manned airplanes with radar jamming and jamming countermeasures, fault recovery measures and battle-field coordination. Passive discrete signature radars and LOS will ensure low signature target identification (even a bird cannot fly at 0.5+ Mach…..

One $2.5 billion B.2 ‘harassed by 50 drones worth $100 million, each with 4 low-signature laser guided missiles, each with a price tag of $50K, and in war economics, $120 million will take down $2.5 billion…. or a 1:20

Posted by Wolf61 | Report as abusive

Putin will just wait a few years until the U.S. works-out all the kinks in the F-35 and then buy the blueprints from China for a fraction of the cost of developing their own design ….

Posted by mkknewman | Report as abusive

Quantity matters only if you are teeming with expendable personnel.

Posted by GRRR | Report as abusive

I’d back US warplanes over Russian all day long.

Posted by DeanKB | Report as abusive

Nothing more expensive than a second rate air force.

Posted by ideolator | Report as abusive

The F-22 Raptor is stealthy and is a great aircraft when looking at conventional characteristics, other than cost. It turns & burns with the best. The RAM skin is the issue, takes a lot of maintenance. It can fight without that, though, and is still stealthy due to shaping considerations.

Posted by Protester | Report as abusive