Thursday, February 25, 2016

Fifth-generation fighters aren't as easy as they sound

It would appear that Russia is having as much trouble with its fifth-generation fighter aircraft as the U.S. is, given recent reports. Granted, America's latest fifth-generation effort, the F-35, has its problems, as we have mention here, here, and here,  But Russia is approaching the effort from a different starting point. The F-35 has problems because it is intended to fill all roles for all services, which is an unrealistic goal for an aircraft. Not sure why anyone would think that is a good idea, but that is the basis of the F-35 program, so the aircraft is destined for mediocrity at any given role, even if it is adequate at all roles.

The problem for Russia's fifth-generation fighter is different, but equally predictable:
Reporting from the Singapore Airshow 2016, IHS Jane's reports that "Russian industry has consistently referred to the Sukhoi T-50 PAK FA as a fifth-generation aircraft, but a careful look at the program reveals that this is an 'in name only' designation."
This is largely because of a lack of evolutionary technology aboard the plane compared with previous jets that Russia and the US have designed. Indeed, the PAK FA's engines are the same as those aboard Russia's 4++ generation (a bridging generation between fourth- and fifth-generation aircraft) Su-35. Additionally, the PAK FA and the Su-35 share many of the same onboard systems.
 Russia simply doesn't have the technology to field a truly fifth-generation fighter. We might field a fifth-generation fighter, such as the F-35, that can't do everything it is intended to do better than any other fighter in the world, but the F-35 likely will perform any of its individual roles better than any fighter any other nation might be able to put into the air.

For instance, while the F-35C might or might not be the best-ever vertical-takeoff fighter -- I suspect the AV-8B Harrier was better -- it likely is better than anything any of our enemies can put in the field, and by enemies I mean Russia and China, the only potential enemies we have who can field more than armed crop-dusters. Likewise, the F-35 might not be better at ground-support than the A-10 -- an excellent reason to keep the A-10, by the way -- or at air-superiority than the F-15 -- also an excellent reason to keep the F-15 -- but I suspect it will be better at both roles than any aircraft any one else has.

My doubts creep in with respect to ground-support, as the A-10 is magnificent in that role, but I suspect the F-35 is adequate. I don't think that is the standard, of course, but we seem to have settled for that. I would prefer role-specific aircraft that are the best at what they do, but that appears to not be the direction the US is heading in. Pity.

Fortunately, our opponents appear to suck at creating opposing aircraft to take the sky against us. For instance, their stealth aircraft may be something less than that:
The question of stealth is one of the largest factors influencing perceptions of the PAK FA. In 2010 and 2011, two estimates from individuals close to the program estimated that the plane's radar cross section would be 0.3 to 0.5 square meters, RealClearDefense notes.
In comparison, the US Air Force has hinted that the radar cross section of the F-22 is as small as 0.0001 square meters. The F-35's RCS is larger, but it is still minuscule when compared with that of the PAK FA, as it has an RCS of roughly 0.001 square meters.
I guess we'll see how this all plays out. Frankly, I hope we don't, since that would mean our aircraft meet in combat, which can only turn out badly in a strategic sense. To the extent that we have an advantage over Russia, I can only assume we have at least that large of an advantage over China, which usually buys aircraft from Russia and them copies them, either under license or otherwise. For the moment, I believe we still hold an edge technologically. Continuing to squander that edge on stupid shit like do-everything aircraft, though, might not be the way to go. Just because the aircraft is OK at everything doesn't mean we should use it for everything. Our enemies won't be behind us forever.

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