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Transcript of backgrounder no.2494
What Russias Stealth Fighter Developments Mean for America
Mackenzie Eaglen and Lajos F. Szaszdi, Ph.D.
Abstract: Russias development of the PAK FA fifth-generation stealth fighter could challenge American airsupremacy, especially if Russia sells the PAK FA to itsusual buyers of military equipment. In the U.S., closure ofthe F-22 production line has severely limited Americasability to respond to PAK FA proliferation by buildingmore F-22s and potentially selling them to U.S. allies. TheU.S. needs to revise its assessment of U.S. air superiorityneeds and then explore ways to modernize and strengthenthe U.S. tactical fighter force.
With Americas closure of the F-22 production lineand the recent debut of Russias PAK FA fifth-genera-tion stealth fighter, American air supremacy for theforeseeable future is not as assured as the U.S. Depart-ment of Defense once predicted. Indeed, LieutenantGeneral David A. Deptula, recently departed DeputyChief of Staff for Intelligence, Surveillance andReconnaissance in the U.S. Air Force, recently madethe startling announcement: For the first time, ourclaim to air supremacy is in jeopardy. The domi-nance weve enjoyed in the aerial domain is no longerours for the taking.1
To preserve traditional U.S. margins of militarytechnological superiority, Congress should reviewpotentially outdated requirements and projections,and policymakers should push defense officials toenact more forward-looking budgeting and acquisi-tion strategies for U.S. fighter fleets. Increased invest-ment in modernization and new partnerships with
No. 2494December 1, 2010
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Russia recently unveiled its PAK FA stealthfighter, which may prove superior to all fight-ers except the U.S. F-22.
Russia will develop the PAK FA in partnershipwith India and could sell it to China, Libya,Venezuela, Algeria, Syria, and Iran, whichwould be destabilizing and have unintendedconsequences.
With the closure of the F-22 production lineunderway, the U.S. has effectively lost its abil-ity to hedge against PAK FA proliferation.
Delays and other problems plaguing the F-35Joint Strike Fighter program are worrisomebecause the F-35 may be less effective as aforce multiplier for the F-22 if it is built ininsufficient numbers.
American air supremacy is no longer asassured as the U.S. Department of Defenseonce predicted.
To preserve a favorable balance of power inthe skies, the U.S. will need to increase invest-ment in modernization and explore new part-nerships with its allies, such as Japan and Israel.
December 1, 2010
allies like Japan and Israel will be necessary to pre-vent the airpower balance from tilting in favor ofthe Russian and Chinese air forces and to hedgeagainst the potentially destabilizing proliferation ofRussias PAK FA fighter to unstable actors, non-stategroups, and/or terrorism-sponsoring rogue statesaround the world. For example, if Syria or Iranacquires the PAK FA, it could provide the fighter tothe non-state group Hezbollah to form a proxy airforce against Israel.1
U.S. Air Power Assumptions ChallengedDefense analysts, officials, and industry person-
nel have long believed that the U.S. F-22 Raptor andthe F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter would notface serious threats from foreign fifth-generationfighters for the next 20 years.2 In September 2009,Secretary of Defense Robert Gates repudiated claimsof a looming fighter gapa deficit between theservices fighter aircraft inventories and their opera-tional requirements. [T]he more compelling gap,he argued, is the deep chasm between the air capa-bilities of the United States and those of othernations.3 In an earlier speech, he argued:
Chinais projected to have no fifth genera-tion aircraft by 2020. And by 2025, the gaponly widens. The U.S. will have approxi-mately 1,700 of the most advanced fifthgeneration fighters versus a handful of com-parable aircraft for the Chinese.4
The Secretarys claims may now be in doubt. Withthe cancellation of the F-22 and closure of its pro-duction line combined with various developmentdelays in the F-35 programthe mainstay of Amer-icas future fighter fleetsU.S. fighter inventoriesmay be significantly smaller in coming years than
initially planned. For example, initial operationalcapability for the F-35A, the U.S. Air Force versionof the F-35, was recently pushed back two years tothe end of 2015, now changed to 2016 for both theF-35A and the Navys F-35C.5 These delays oftenincrease production costs, forcing reductions in theoverall buy. Regrettably, other fiscal pressures willlikely squeeze procurement budgets further in thecoming years and prevent the expenditures neededto reach planned F-35 force levels.
Meanwhile, Russian fighter and military mod-ernization efforts are proceeding rapidly, defying theexpectations of many. In August, Russia undertookthe largest airborne military exercises since the col-lapse of the Soviet Union, making use of auto-mated command and control systems.6 On January29, 2010, Russia conducted the first test flight of theT-50, a prototype of the PAK FA, Russias fifth-gen-eration fighter jet, which was designed to rival the
American F-22. With advanced stealth technologyand high-tech avionics, the PAK FA could eventu-allyas Moscow has repeatedly proclaimedseri-ously challenge U.S. air supremacy. Russia is alsoselling modern fourth-generation fighter aircraft tothe Indian, Chinese, Algerian, Vietnamese, and Lib-yan militaries.
The air forces of Russian defense trade part-nersincluding India, China, Algeria, Vietnam,and Libyacould also pose growing challenges.
1. Kevin Baron, Exiting AF Intel Chief: No US Air Superiority, Stars and Stripes, September 15, 2010, at http://www.military.com/news/article/exiting-af-intel-chief-no-us-air-superiority.html (September 23, 2010).
2. A&E Home Video, Dogfights of the Future, DVD, 2007.
3. Robert M. Gates, speech at the Air Force Association Convention, National Harbor, Maryland, September 16, 2009, at http://www.defense.gov/speeches/speech.aspx?speechid=1379 (September 23, 2010).
4. Robert M. Gates, speech at the Economic Club of Chicago, July 16, 2009, at http://www.defense.gov/speeches/speech.aspx?speechid=1369 (September 23, 2010).
5. Amy Butler and Graham Warwick, More Clouds for JSF, Aviation Week & Space Technology, November 15, 2010, p. 36, and Caitlin Harrington, USAF Slips F-35 IOC by Two Years, Janes Defence Weekly, March 10, 2010, p. 8.
6. RIA Novosti, Largest Airborne Military Exercises Since Sov. Union Begin in Central Russia, August 24, 2010, at http://en.rian.ru/mlitary_news/20100824/160321679.html (September 23, 2010).
With advanced stealth technology and high-tech avionics, the PAK FA could eventuallyas Moscow has repeatedly proclaimedseriously challenge U.S. air supremacy.
No. 2494 December 1, 2010
Russia has already sold hundreds of its best fighteraircraft to China, and may sell China the PAK FAas well. China is Russias largest purchaser of Su-27/Su-30 Flanker fighters, including the moreadvanced Su-30MKK and Su-30MK2, buying orordering up to 624 as of 2009.7 The Su-27/Su-30fighters are produced by Sukhoi, the same firm thatis developing the PAK FA. Indeed, the Komsomolsk-on-Amur KNAAPO factory, which is producing theSu-27/Su-30 fighters, is located in Khabarovsk, aregion that borders China. By 2025, China couldhave up to 120 PAK FA fighters, compared to Amer-icas 187 F-22As.8
PAK FA Program and Potential Foreign Exports
While reduced resources and growing internaldefense budget imbalances imperil U.S. defense pro-curement plans, Russian defense spending is gettinga boost from oil and gas export revenues, even afterthe 20082010 slump in oil prices.9 Russia has thethird largest gold and hard currency reserves afterChina and Japan. State coffers have been expanding
quickly, with Russias foreign reserves increasingfrom $437 billion at the end of January 2010 to$503.7 billion by October.10 Although the Russianeconomy relies heavily on exports of raw materials,the government is unlikely to encounter much diffi-culty funding the PAK FA program, especially withsignificant assistance from India, which plans toinject $30 billion into the program.11
Furthermore, the PAK FA is expected to becheaper to produce than the F-22. Russian PrimeMinister Vladimir Putin has recently claimed thatthe PAK FA would be 2.5 to 3 times cheaper.12
Currently, the PAK FA is expected to cost less than$100 million per plane,13 while the F-35 is pro-jected to cost between $100 million and $112 mil-lion, and the F-22 will cost around $140 million.14
The Russian Defense Ministry initially planned tobuy 300 PAK FA fighters, but has since reduced itsstated requirement to 250 planes, with a preferencefor the single-seat version. Whether Russia will meetthis target is unclear. As part of the 20112020 statearms procurement program, the ministry is budget-
7. Mackenzie M. Eaglen and Lajos F. Szaszdi, The Growing Air Power Fighter Gap: Implications for U.S. National Security, Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2295, July 7, 2009, a