As is often the case with Russian military developments, sections of the Western media have at various times sought to cast doubt on the viability of the Sukhoi T50 programme. It has been variously suggested that the whole programme was being scaled down because of budget constraints – with the Russians allegedly deciding to buy more SU35s instead – and that the Sukhoi T50 was not an especially advanced or effective aircraft anyway.
An Indian report that cast down on the quality of the future fifth generation fighter based on the Sukhoi T50 the Russians were proposing to the Indians was given especially wide publicity, with its various claims accepted as facts.
The reality is that the Sukhoi T50 programme seems to have been generally trouble-free, a fact that reflects the careful and conservative way in which the whole programme was conducted, but which is still a major achievement given that the Sukhoi T50 is the first wholly new Russian fighter to have appeared for more than 30 years.
The Sukhoi T50 is nonetheless a distinctively Russian fighter, with many of the features which are traditional to such fighters and which distinguish them from those of other countries. Thus the Sukhoi T50 is geared more towards high performance than stealth, is capable of supersonic cruise without use of the engine afterburners, is highly manoeuvrable, carries a heavy weapons load and is primarily focused on air to air combat.
In all this the Sukhoi T50 contrasts sharply with the much more complex US F35 multi-mission fighter, which sacrifices performance to carry out a variety of different roles and which in an air combat environment relies more on its electronic weapons systems than on its performance.
That is not to say that the electronic weapons systems of the Sukhoi T50 are primitive or backward. On the contrary such information as exists suggests they are highly advanced, with both the Sukhoi T50 and the F35 using Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) Radars. However it is not an aircraft that depends as heavily on its systems as the F35 does.
As for the Indian report, its one substantive complaint – that the Sukhoi T50’s engines are insufficiently reliable – is neither here nor there, since the Russians have always planned to equip the Sukhoi T50 with a more advanced and reliable engine when it becomes available.
The new engine is in fact currently under development and is expected to replace the current engine after 2020. In the meantime, until the new engine is ready, the Sukhoi T50 uses a heavily modified version of the AL31 engine previously used by the SU-27 family. Far from this being a sign of technical backwardness, this is a sensible step for bringing an otherwise complete aircraft into service. There is no sense keeping what is in all other respects a highly potent aircraft lying idle for several more years until a new engine is ready when there is already a perfectly sufficient existing engine available to power it.
The Indian criticism in fact reflects a philosophy that has blighted Indian weapons programmes since the 1970s, which is to insist on the most advanced technology conceivable rather than to accept whatever technology is already available. It is this philosophy which explains why Indian weapons programmes generally take so long. By way of example, India’s light Tejas fighter was first mooted in 1969, first flew in 2001, but did not enter service until 2015, by which time its whole concept had long since become outdated. Similarly development of India’s Arjun tank began in 1972; however it did not enter service until 2004.
In fact there is every reason to think the Sukhoi T50 fighter will be a potent addition to the Russian Aerospace Forces, keeping Russia at the forefront of the world’s military aviation powers.