Why everyone should be scared of the PAK FA.

Scared yet?

Given the recent excitement in what used to be part of the Ukraine, now is just as good a time as ever to start seriously discussing the great big bear elephant in the room, the Russian Sukhoi T-50 PAK FA.

When I started this blog, I never honestly thought that I would be writing it under the pretense that Russian expansionism would be a thing.  As a child of the Cold War, I remember watching those silly "duck and cover" films at school and referring to the Soviet Union as "The Evil Empire".  I still remember watching the 7 o'clock news reporting that Soviet Su-15s had shot down a civilian passenger jet, KAL Flight 007.

The threat of nuclear annihilation was still very much a thing in the early 80s.  Movies like WarGames, Red Dawn, and The Day After helped put fear of "The Russkies" into us.  But it turns out the Cold War was even harder on the Soviets.  Years of military buildup, as well as a failed war in Afghanistan had left their economy in ruins and their people demoralized.  Eventually, the Berlin Wall came down, and the Soviet Union was no more.

The west declared victory, of course.  It then found new enemies, and the seemingly never ending Cold War was replaced with the new "War on Terrorism".  Military spending quickly matched, and then surpassed, Cold War spending.  This had the benefit of rejuvenating America's defense industry.

And now...  Here we are...  The U.S. and its allies are fresh off fighting two long, drawn out wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  The economy is reeling from recession and people are demoralized.  Sound familiar?

Anyway...  Back to the jet.

Didn't even bother painting it before flying it.  
Despite its post-Cold War economic troubles, Russia continued to slowly develop a replacement for its Su-27 and MiG-29 fighters.  While this resulted in several interesting looking concepts, like the MiG 1.44 and the Su-47, the money just wasn't there.  There was a substantial user base of older Flanker and Fulcrums, however and a merged Mikoyan and Sukhoi would continue to sell upgraded versions.

In 2007 it was revealed that work on a Russian 5th generation fighter was under way and that a prototype would be flying soon.  That prototype, the Sukhoi T-50 would first fly on January 29th, 2010.  The Russian air force has already taken delivery of its first airframe for testing and plans are for it enter service sometime in 2016.

Coincidently, 2016 is also the planed "in-service" date of the F-35, a date that seems optimistic given its current development.  It should be noted here that the F-35's first flight was December 15, 2006.  Six years earlier than that if you count the X-35.

The PAK FA.  aka:  "The Raptorski"

All one has to do is look at the PAK FA to realize it is a 5th generation contemporary to the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Lightning II.  So how does it compare?


The PAK FA is an air-superiority fighter, more akin to the F-22 than the F-35.  It's a big, twin-engined fighter with nary a thought put towards carrier operations or a STOVL version.  Its thrust-to-weight, wing loading, and speed should be close to the F-22.  Like the F-22, the PAK FA is capable of supercruise, allowing it to break the sound barrier without afterburner.  Judging by its estimated performance, the PAK FA certainly appears to be a match for the F-22.

The Sukhoi has a few extras compared to the F-22, however.  For one, it has movable leading edge extensions (LERX) just ahead of the air intakes.  These help distribute airflow over the wings and body at high angles-of-attack (AOA).  The PAK FA also utilizes three-dimensional thrust vectoring.  This enables engine thrust to be pointed in different directions, providing increased pitch, roll, and yaw control.  The Russian are well versed in 3D thrust vectoring, and its use has already been seen on MiG-35s, Su-35s, and others.  Even though it is still in development, the PAK FA has demonstrated its ability to perform the Pugachev's Cobra maneuver, where an aircraft seemingly breaks the laws of physics.

By contrast, neither the F-22 or F-35 uses anything akin to the movable LERX.  The F-22 does utilized thrust-vectoring, but only two-dimensional (up and down, for pitch control).  The F-35B utilizes thrust vectoring as well, but it is strictly to accommodate STOVL operations.

Both the PAK FA and F-22 are pretty much tied for speed, leaving the non-supercruising F-35 way behind.  Of the three, the PAK FA certainly appears to be the most agile of the bunch, especially at lower speeds where it can take advantage of its 3D thrust vectoring and movable LERX.  Both it and the F-22 are considered to have supercruise and supermaneuverability, but not the F-35.

Advantage:  PAK FA.  The F-22 comes close, but the F-35 isn't even in the same league.


The PAK FA is definitely a stealthy design, using radar absorbing skin, internal weapon storage, and a  radar scattering shape.  

Then again, the Americans practically invented the concept of a stealth aircraft.  While the F-117 was the world's first "real" stealth aircraft, their experience goes back even further than that with concepts like the Have Blue and Tacit Blue.  Even the 60s era SR-71 was painted with a special radar absorbing paint.

Both the F-22 and F-35 are the result of years of stealth experience.  Both are said to have active cooling elements built into their design to help reduce heat signature.  Part of the reason for the F-22 2D thrust vectoring was to reduce it radar signature, as big round nozzles and large moving surfaces greatly increase radar cross section.  The F-22 is still the stealthiest fighter out there, and the best the PAK FA can do is hope it matches the stealthiness of the F-35.

Advantage:  F-22.  The PAK FA is likely closer to the F-35, if that.

View of the PAK FA showing its LERX and IRST.


Sensors are the trump card to stealth, of course.  In this department, the PAK FA certainly seems impressive.  A large nose houses a large AESA radar with about 1,500 T/R modules.  Both sides of the front fuselage house an additional AESA radar with about 350 T/R modules each.  Located in the leading edge of each wing is a L-Band radar.  Its "stinger" located between the engines certainly looks capable of housing an additional radar, similar to the Su-35.

The PAK FA's 5 radars.  Main AESA radar (1), side firing AESA radars (2) and L-band (3).
On top of its impressive array of radars, the PAK FA houses an IRST sensor at the base of its windscreen.  It's cockpit is fairly traditional with two large MFDs, a HUD, and a helmet-mounted display (HMD).  Russia has been using IRST and HMDs for quite some time, starting with the Su-27 and MiG-29s.  While the use of AESA radar is fairly new, Russia was the first to introduce Passive Electronically Scanned Arrays (PESA) radars in the MiG-31 way back 1981.  In all, the PAK FA takes a "holistic" approach, combining new technology with tried-and-true.

By contrast, the F-22 has one AESA radar.  It is the very powerful AN/APG-77.  While it is possibly the best fighter radar currently flying, others are catching up.  More notably, the F-22 lacks the IRST, side firing radars, or L-band radars found on the PAK FA.  There is no HMD.  Recent attempts to add a HMD, along with the ability to fire high-off-boresight (HOBS) missiles have been shelved due to budget concerns.  The F-22's data-link is also notoriously picky about who it communicates with.

Where the F-22 falls behind, the F-35 pulls ahead.  While its AN/APG-81 radar is smaller, it makes up for it with its EOTS (electro-optical targeting system) and DAS (distributed aperture system).  While not outfitted with a IRST per se, the DAS and EOTS do allow the F-35 to detect and track targets all around it.  It also has a new generation HMD that eschews a traditional HUD.  While it all seems very impressive, there is the small caveat that none of it actually works properly yet.

Advantage:  F-35, but only if it can get the bugs worked out.  Otherwise, the PAK FA will run away with this one.  Meanwhile, the F-22 is in serious need of an update and upgrade.

If you look closely, you can see two weapon bays between the engine nacelles.


Two triangular "blisters" under the base of each of the PAK FA's wings hold a single R-77 (the Russian AMRAAM equivalent) air-to-air missiles.  A ramjet powered R-77M1 is in the works, as is a version that used infrared instead of radar targeting.  The PAK FA also has two large weapon bays located in-line between its two engine nacelles.  These longer, larger bays are able to carry a total of 4 R-37 long range "AWACS killer" missiles, similar to the discontinued AIM-54 Phoenix missile used but the F-14 Tomcat.  The PAK FA will also have the ability to carry an assortment of bombs, air-to-ground, and air-to-surface missiles; both internally and on 6 external hard points.  Russian missiles have more or less kept up to their western counterparts over the years.  Underestimating their missile technology could be a grave mistake.  The PAK FA's roomier weapons bays give it a few more options when it comes to internal carriage.  It will also carry a 30mm cannon when all else fails.

The F-22 carries a similar missile load-out, with 6 AMRAAMs and two AIM-9 Sidewinders internally.  Much like its planned helmet mounted display, the current F-22 has fallen somewhat behind and is not yet able to utilize the more modern AIM-9X Sidewinder with HOBS ability.Like the PAK FA, it has the ability to carry ground attack munitions, but it is limited to 2,000lbs worth of JDAMs or SDB (small diameter bombs).  It has 4 external hard points.  The Raptor also carries the venerable M-61 20mm vulcan cannon.  

Being of smaller size, the F-35 simply doesn't have the internal carrying capacity of the others.  It's weapon bays are also somewhat compromised by having to accommodate the F-35B's lift fan (this space is dedicated to fuel in the other versions).  The weapons bays, located aft of the air-intakes can currently carry one AMRAAM and one 2,000lb JDAM (1,000lb for the F-35B), each.  There are plans for the ability to carry up to 6 AMRAAMs internally, eventually.  The F-35 does have the edge on ground attack weapons, however, able to carry up to 18,000lbs total internally and on 6 external hard points.  The F-35 also has the equivalent to a ground targeting pod built into its EOTS.  A 25mm cannon is fitted to the F-35A, and will be outfitted to the other two models as a gun pod.  

Advantage:  PAK FA in the air, F-35 for ground pounding.  

How many?


"Quantity has a quality all its own."  This saying is, ironically enough, incorrectly attributed to Joseph Stalin.  The F-22's production was cut short at 187.  F-35 production planned for over 3,500 units; some find this optimistic, others downright delusional.

How may PAK FA's will there be?  That's the big question right now.  India intends to help develop a version known as the Sukhoi/HAL FGFA, although the relationship has soured somewhat lately.  Russia does have plans to make the PAK FA available for export sales, and promise it will be cheaper than its western 5th generation rivals.

This should be one of the most worrying aspects of the PAK FA.  Not only will it see use in Russia, but it will likely see use in other nations as well.  Potentially stealing sales away from the F-35, or finding its way into the hands of "undesirables".

The fictional "MiG-31 Firefox"
Against an F-22, the PAK FA will be roughly equal, with a slight edge in agility, sensors, and weapons.  A savvy F-22 pilot will need to take advantage of its superior stealth, and hope the U.S. Congress approved of some much needed upgrades.  The F-22 pilot had also better hope that he/she isn't facing 2:1 odds.

The F-35 will not be so lucky.  Whatever stealth advantage it has will be lost thanks to the PAK FA's extra sensors, and the JSF will not be able to outgun, outmaneuver, or outrun the PAK FA.  The F-35's only hope will be to get the PAK FA unaware, and hope its missiles hit on the first try.

What about other fighters?  Even without stealth, the PAK FA looks like a match for any of them.  The goal of the PAK FA is made quite clear in its design.  Where as the F-35 and F-22 place stealth as a priority, the PAK FA practices a more balanced approach.  It can still turn-and-burn with the best of them, and lacks the F-22's close range Achilles' heel.

Now, of course, there is always the chance that the PAK FA's capabilities are overstated.  There is also the chance that it runs into the same type of development and cost problems that seem to be a hallmark of 5th generation fighter aircraft.  Only a foolhardy general underestimates his potential opponent, however.  There is also a good chance that the PAK FA may still have few surprises.

In 1982, Clint Eastwood directed and starred in a movie based on the novel "Firefox" by Craig Thomas.  The premise:  An American fighter pilot is sent to steal a new Soviet fighter.  This fighter is faster, stealthier, and deadlier than anything the west has to offer.

It may have taken 30 years, but Russia now has its Firefox.


  1. Good post, as always.

    In contrast, this is the lemon we will get:

  2. Good post, lots of food for thought. 'F35 for
    ground pounding'. As you mused in another post maybe we should buy some of those
    A10s for that. But this F35 is shaping up to be a none too heroic looking air
    superiority fighter.

  3. https://medium.com/war-is-boring/d89b9ce721de not everyone is impressed

  4. I link to a similar article in the post.

    I find the Indian critiques rather odd. For one, the PAK FA is still in the prototype stage, hence the T-50 designation. The actual production models will be fitted with more powerful engines, as well as many other improvements.

    Also, India isn't exactly known for its high-end fighter aircraft. It's not like the HAL Tejas has turned the industry on its ear. Dassault has also refused to guarantee Rafales built in India, partly explaining delays there.

  5. Only USA could underestimate a Russian fighter aircraft :)

    T-50 design looks promising. Though, Russia will have to avoid the US mistake : unrealistic expectations, especially about schedule. The first prototype made its first flight in 2010, final engines aren't yet integrated (development stage unknown?) as well as electronic warfare and side firing radars. From what I can see on the various pictures, I'm not even sure there are proper radomes on the sides of the nose for these firing radars.
    So, entry into service in 2016 seems as optimistic to me as a Rafale supercruising at Mach 1.4 with 6 Mica missiles... at sea level :-D

    I also find the reported Indian criticism about PAKFA a bit unfair. The project needs time, that's all. But I take this with a pinch of salt : for some other Indian medias Rafale unit cost was multiplied by three... in less than two years...


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