If you listen to Russian media coverage of the PAK-FA. You will hear nothing but good things. Russia has spent time sending prototypes to airshows to perform tricks and stunts. It has used it’s propaganda platforms like Sputnik and RT to cast the F-22 and F-35 as incapable, slow and lacking. The new Sukhoi is being framed as a serious challenge for American fifth generation fighters and air superiority, a weapon that could truly upset the balance of power. In reality, the program is a modern day Potemkin village. It’s a warplane that looks impressive but doesn’t stand up to close examination.
Russia’s fifth generation fighter program has had its share of problems. Developmental delays, technical issues and financial problems have plagued the program for years. Due to a recent decline of the Russian economy orders have been severely cut for the Russian Air Force. Instead of fielding 52 aircraft the Russians will build 12. This means there will only be enough Sukhois to supply a single squadron with next generation aircraft. This reduction has killed the PAK-FA as frontline fighter.
That seems like quite a pronouncement so let me explain. Planes, especially stealth planes, require a lot of maintenance. The stealth coating has to be constantly checked to make sure it is still effective .In addition, the planes themselves have to be maintained. Depending on the airframe, after a certain number of hours flight time plane must be grounded and examined. Everything from the engines to the airframe has to be looked at and the aircraft deemed airworthy.
This means that although there may be 12 operational fighters, not all of them can be airworthy at the same time. There is also rearming and refueling after missions. A fleet of 12 does not mean 12 warplanes in the air.
For example, let’s look at the F-22 Raptor. The Raptor has a readiness rate of about 70 percent. This means that of all combat coded Raptors 70 percent are capable of combat operations at any given time. For Russia, with less experience with stealth aircraft, it’s likely to have a much less ready force. With only 12 operational aircraft you have to assume only 8 or 9 will be operable at a given time even in the best case scenario. Given the fact that Russian engines are not known for their reliability and stealth technology is very new to them I would expect less. Teething problems are extremely likely. It is more probable the number of available planes will be closer to 6 to 7. In other words; Russia will probably only be able to field two flights of Su-50s at the same time.
With only two flights capable of running simultaneously the Russian air force will be incapable of using the new aircraft to its full potential. In a defensive war it will only be able to cover one region at a time depending on the timing of the flights and the distance from their bases. In a first strike the Su-50s will have very limited capability. The Russian Air Force will be extremely constricted as to how many targets it can hit before the enemy reacts, scrambles its fighters, and closes its airspace.
Operationally these factors will destroy the PAK-FA’s ability to function as a front line fighter. The Russians can’t afford to risk their only 5th generation fighters attacking F-22s and F-35s over Europe. The loss of even a single fighter would be a serious blow and vastly decrease the flexibility of their already small fleet.
The irony is that the Russian stealth jet was clearly designed to be a close range air superiority fighter. 3D thrust vectoring, supermaneuverability, two massive engines, and a speed that matches the F-22. Its stealthy shaping has been tuned toward frontal air to air engagements at the expense of all aspect stealth and deep strike capability. No nation in their right mind would spend money on these features if it did not expect the system to engage in air to air combat at close range.
Their limited numbers also create a basing problem. There are not enough aircraft for Russia to break up the fleet. If the entire fleet only has 7 operational aircraft at a given time. Russia can only divide the fleet into a maximum of two sections. Even with their impressive range the PAK FA force will be severely diluted by any attempt to spread it out. However, putting all of aircraft together would put them at risk. A single flight of Raptors or F-35s carrying Small Diameter Bombs could wipe out the entire PAK -FA fleet two times over in a single sortie.
A potential solution might be to base them closer to Asia or the Urals where they would be safer from foreign attack. This of course creates its own set of problems; the jets would have to travel over a thousand miles just to get into the theater of battle. It would create more latency and induce more wear and tear on the already limited number of airframes.
In addition to the problems presented by it’s small numbers the PAK FA has some serious technical deficiencies .The PAK FA is certainly not an all aspect stealth fighter. Its radar signature has been described as like a Pac Man. Air Power Australia has suggested that it’s front radar signature is actually inferior to the F-35 at -20 Dbsm (roughly 0.01 m^2) . From the sides and from the back the situation worsens. If it follows the lead of the F-35 and F-22 the radar return from the sides will be an order of magnitude greater than the front. This would put it in the same RCS class as the front of a Super Hornet at 0.1 m^2.
As a strike fighter it simply isn’t capable of deep penetration. As soon as the Sukhoi passes a certain angle the radar return will spike. It can only approach from the front.
The PAK-FA will probably end up as a seldom used strike aircraft in Russian Service. In the best case scenario it might be Russia’s B-2. In that sense, it may be used for special missions that require its unique capabilities. At the same time, there is a chance that it will be another Admiral Kusnetsov, a weapon held as point of pride, but with no real operational capabilities. Something that looks impressive used to make statements and rattle sabers. Look forward to seeing them at air shows and parades; not flying over Eastern Europe.