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Evaluating the PAKFA

AirPowerAustralia, the most authoritative source of information on military aircraft and air defense systems, has recently released an excellent analysis of the Russian 5th generation stealth fighter PAKFA (Prospektivnoi Aviatsonnyi Kompleks Frontovoi Aviatsii), also known as the T-50, by two respected scientists, Dr Carlo Kopp and Dr Michael Pelosi. Their analysis, while omitting a few key weaknesses of the PAKFA, nonetheless demonstrates that this Russian fighter, scheduled to enter service in 2016, is superior to every Western fighter but the F-22 Raptor.

APA’s analysis focused on the T-50′s airframe design and specifically, its stealthiness (i.e. Very Low Observability). In other words, APA analysts wanted to determine how stealthy the PAKFA is/will be. To do that, they first looked carefully at the PAKFA’s shape, looking at each section of the fuselage and assessing whether it would render a strong or a weak radar return. They then used photos and publicly-known dimensions of the PAKFA and used it in a model whereby the PAKFA was tested against radars of various bands.

The result? The PAKFA will be very stealthy in most radar bands, from the S down to the L band, although not stealthy against UHF radars such as the E-2 Hawkeye’s APS-145 and the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye’s APY-9 or the UHF-ground based radars used by some Chinese air defense systems. Thus, penetrating Chinese airspace will be problematic if UHF radars are encountered: they will send 1-2 meter radar waves which will easily detect the PAKFA. Such radar waves would be way too small to detect a large stealthy aircraft such as the B-2 bomber or the USAF’s planned Next Generation Bomber, but sufficient to detect much smaller aircraft such as fighters. That includes the PAKFA.[1]

Similarly, E-2 aircraft of all variants will have no problem detecting the PAKFA. The problem is that the PAKFA (or other Russian fighters) will likely use Novator “AWACS-killer” A2A missiles to kill the Hawkeye and thus strip the opponent of the ability to detect the PAKFA.

In all  higher radar bands, however, from the S to the L-band, the PAKFA will be highly stealthy, thanks to its shaping, but with the following two exceptions:

1) The PAKFA’s conventional engine nozzles are not stealthy and would thus produce a large radar wave return. This is a problem the PAKFA shares with the F-35, but it can be solved by producing slit engine nozzles, as Lockheed Martin did for the F-22.

2) The PAKFA’s beam fuselage component is deeply sculpted and therefore not stealthy. To quote APA:

8. Where the PAK-FA falls well short of the F-22A and YF-23 is the shaping design of the lower fuselage and side fuselage, where the general configuration, wing/fuselage join angles, and inlet/engine nacelle join angles introduce similar intractable specular return problems as observed with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter design. These are inherent in the current shaping design and cannot be significantly improved by materials application. …. the PAK-FA prototype design will produce a large specular return in any manoeuvre where the lower fuselage is exposed to a threat emitter, and this problem will be prominent from the Ku-band down to the L-band.

9. This problem is exacerbated by the inboard ventral wing root fairings, claimed by some Russian sources to be pods for the concealed carriage of folding fin close combat AAMs, such as the RVV-MD/R-74 series. While these fairings do not introduce large RCS contributions from fore or aft aspects, they will adversely contribute to beam aspect RCS, especially for threats well below the plane of flight of the aircraft.

10. The tailboom shaping is reminiscent of the F-22 and F-35 designs, and will not yield significant RCS contributions from the front or aft aspects.

11. In the lower hemisphere, it will suffer penalties due to the insufficiently obtuse join angles between the wings and stabilators, and outer engine nacelles.

The PAKFA also has a few other weaknesses which APA has not mentioned in any of its analyses of this fighter to this day.

Firstly, despite APA’s claims to the contrary, the PAKFA, like the F-35, can carry only 4 A2A missiles internally, while the F-22 can carry eight (i.e. twice as much). Thus, in any A2A combat, the F-22 gets four freebie shots at the PAKFA, and given that the Pk of any missile will never be 100%, this can be compensated only with a large missile load. By virtue of carrying twice as many missiles as the PAKFA, the F-22  stands a twice higher chance of killing the Russian fighter than of being shot down by it.

Secondly, the Irbis-E radar with which the PAKFA will likely be equipped is inferior to the F-22′s APG-77 radar.

Thirdly, despite APA’s claims to the contrary, the PAKFA has a WORSE thrust/weight ratio and a WORSE wing loading ratio than the F-22. At 50% fuel plus a full internal missile load, the PAKFA has a T/W ratio of 1.19:1 and a wing loading ratio of between 330-470 kg/sq m, more likely closer to the higher than to the lower figure, while the F-22 has a T/W ratio of 1.26:1 and a wing loading ratio of 375 kg/sq m.

So, by 2016, the Russians will be flying an aircraft that will still be inferior in terms of aerodynamic and kinematic performance, radar, and especially missile load, to the F-22, and which, absent significant redesign, will not be stealthy at all if viewed from below or from the rear.

It will be produced in much greater numbers than the F-22, however. The RuAF alone plans to procure at least 200 of these fighters and may buy more than that. Exports outside India will likely also go into the hundreds, as was the case with previous commercially successful fighters such as the Flanker family and the MiG-29 Fulcrum.

The premature closure of the F-22 production line this year, and political opposition to its reopening, mean that the only fighters capable of defeating the PAKFA that the US will have at its disposal will be its 180 or so F-22 Raptors.

That portends trouble for the US and indeed the entire West, because, as analysis by APA and by myself has concluded, the ONLY Western (not just American – Western) fighter capable of defeating the PAKFA is the F-22 Raptor.

No other Western fighter stands even a ghost’s chance of defeating this Russian fighter. Not the F-35, not the Super Bug, not other legacy aircraft, and not the Eurocanards.

The F-35′s radar signature will be, at best, the same as the PAKFA’s, its internal weapons load (4 A2A missiles) is the same as the PAKFA’s, while its combat radius, persistence, aerodynamic, and kinematic performance are all decisively inferior to that of the PAKFA, not to mention the fact that a single round from the PAKFA’s GSh-301 gun to the F-35′s single engine would bring it down.

So, while the F-35 might be a good competitor for the PAKFA in BVR combat (although even that is doubtful given its inferior speed and combat ceiling), it stands no chance of competing in WVR combat.

The Super Bug and the F-16 are decisively inferior in both combat regimes, and owing to their huge radar signatures, would be shot down by the PAKFA (or other Russian fighters) long before they could begin the WVR game.

The Eurocanards could, in theory, compete with the PAKFA in WVR combat, thanks to their very low wingloading ratios, good T/W ratios, and low weight, but even with jammers, they would be easily detected and shot down long before they could begin the WVR game with the Russian fighter, as their radar signatures are huge even in a “clean” configuration, and even more so with external stores. Jamming can only reduce the distance from which they can be detected, not prevent detection entirely. Once they’re detected, they’re toast.

Finally, an advantage the PAKFA will have over everyone except the F-15, and perhaps the Typhoon, will be to run the opponent out of gas.

In sum, the PAKFA renders every Western fighter other than the F-22 Raptor impotent, irrelevant, obsolete, and useless, in a fashion no different than the one in which the HMS Dreadnought rendered all previous battleships obsolete when she was commissioned in 1906. Despite the false claims of Robert Gates, Harry Reid, John McCain, POGO, and the CATO Institute, the F-22 was needed in 2009 and is even moreso needed now, as it is the only Western fighter capable of defeating the PAKFA.

The material reality is simple. The US will either resume F-22 production or it will lose air superiority sooner rather than later, with all the military, diplomatic, and economic consequences following from that. And then, America will get a rude awakening, just like it did 71 years ago.

[1] Even the most advanced counter-stealth radar in the world, the Nebo SVU, can send radar waves no longer than 2 meters, which is not even close to being enough to detect large stealthy aircraft like bombers. To detect them, the radar waves would have to be at least 5-6 times longer, but radars emitting such huge waves would be extremely and prohibitively costly.

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Comments (4)

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  1. Joe the king says:

    Blah blah blah about f-22 raptor.why everyone says f-22 is superior 2 PAKFA.WE all know exactly dat at this point F-22 is way more superior 2 PAKFA.
    PLEASE 4′ur Info.PAKFA is not yet operational n still need more treatmdnt to become fully operational plus stealthy…it has many defect as of now.
    But dnt ignore the fact that west fears PAKFA.N in coming years PAKFA will fuck F-22 badly……..bt 4′now…all hail king F-22 raptor !

  2. Rkapo says:

    Who is this guy – Zbigniew Mazurak?
    Only 4 X A2A missiles internally? – Reliable Russian Source Please!
    We have not seen the new improved Missiles yet for the Pak Fa – all developed or near finished according to Russian sources.
    The Irbis-E radar – Since when? Why then are they testing there new ASEA in the third prototype?

    The PAKFA has a WORSE thrust/weight ratio and a WORSE wing loading ratio than the F-22. At 50% fuel plus a full internal missile load, the PAKFA has a T/W ratio of 1.19:1! Where did you get that?
    Source please? – We don’t even know its exact size or weight yet – not released. The SU35 achieved considerable weight so most assume the Pak Fa will be very lighter also using all Titanium or Composite.
    Its first Stage One engines are about 400kg lighter than the F22 engines [Each]- Released by Russian sources. Recently they announced the Second Stage engine with more thrust will be lighter again – maybe ready in about 2016 and designed to fit all there older SU series aircraft as well as the Pak Fa.
    The overall superiority of the F22 may be correct but it also may be wrong? Only time will tell.

    • Subbu says:

      I completely agree with rkapo. The usage of irbis pesa instead of a zhuk derivative or similar aesa is ludicrous. Simijarly tw claims are highly suspect. I also found the radar band stealth claims especially in the l-band pretty funny. All in all, the article is very amateurish.

  3. Raptor1 says:

    If you look at where we stand right now, we are at the same point we were in the early 1980s.. The F-15 was clearly the best fighter out there, and the Russians were test-flying the RAM-K, which would become the SU-27 line of today. The big differences are, the F-15 was deployed in big numbers and the F-16 was already fielded too, and the SU-27 did not make a big global appearance until only recently. The situation today is much more serious because it LOOKS like the Russians are rapidly approaching fielding of a fighter which seems very formidable, with the express intent being to mass produce and field world-wide. With only 190 Raptors total, and the F-235 program only now making real progress, what will the “red vs blue battle map” look like in say 6-7 years? The way we’re going now, I’d say we’d have taken a MAJOR step backwards, regardless of what the Pak Fa and J-20 and -31 individually are capable of – They’re stealthy, they have AESAs. they’re cheaper, and they are designed for mass production and export… a deadly combination of attributes. especially given the expected price and delivery of full-up capabilities for the -35.