RIA Novosti

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti military commentator Ilya Kramnik) - On December
29, 2010, a prototype Sukhoi T-50 fifth-generation fighter took off
on its maiden flight at 11.19 a.m. in Komsomolsk-on-Amur, Russia's
Far East.

This is the first warplane completely designed and built in Russia
since the break-up of the Soviet Union. Only the United States
currently operates Lockheed Martin/Boeing F-22 Raptor Stealth
air-superiority fighters.

In 1981, the Mikoyan Design Bureau started developing the I-90
aircraft, better known as the Multifunctional Fighter (MFI). The
project was launched soon after the MiG-29 Fulcrum, MiG-31 Foxhound and
Su-27 Flanker fourth-generation fighters performed their first flights.

The I-90 which was to have been mass-produced in the 1990s overtook
the U.S. Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF) program which later gave
rise to the F-22 Raptor.

Curtailed defense spending in the late 1980s and the subsequent
break-up of the Soviet Union stopped the MFI program in its tracks.

Flight tests planned for 1991 -1992 did not take place. Consequently,
the MFI first took to the skies in 2000.

A prototype Sukhoi S-37/Su-47 Berkut fifth-generation fighter had
been developed by then.

In 1998, the Russian Air Force issued a new request for proposal
(RFP) for a fifth-generation fighter. As a concept it had remained
unchanged since the MFI program got underway.

The new fighter's basic specifications included: greater agility,
sustained supersonic-flight capability in non-afterburning mode, low
radar visibility, low heat signature, as well as enhanced take-off
and landing performance.

The old designs were scrapped, and it was decided to develop
an entirely new warplane fully taking into account the F-22's
capabilities, merits and drawbacks.

In 2002, the Sukhoi Design Bureau won the pilot-project contest, after
proposing a full-size and twin-engined fighter with a take-off weight
of up to 35 metric tons under its Prospective/Promising Frontline
Aviation System program (PAK FA program).

Although the new aircraft was expected to take off in 2007, the maiden
flight deadline was delayed until 2008, 2009 and January 2010.

Given this new program's complexity and the scale of the scientific,
engineering, organizational and financial problems that had to
be tackled during the new plane's creation, this delay is quite

All these problems are caused by Russia's crisis-ridden industry.

The new aircraft is designated the T-50, Product 701 or the I-21. The
Indian Air Force also displayed an interest in this program soon
after it was launched.

At first, New Delhi preferred the lighter and simpler Mikoyan-Gurevich
MFI fighter. The Russian Aircraft Corporation MiG proposed the
twin-engined and bobtailed I-2000, an upgrade of the basic MiG-29
model, and a single-engined aircraft closely resembling the Lockheed
Martin F-35 Lightning II, a descendant of the F-35, which came out
of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program.

India wanted to receive this sophisticated aircraft as soon as possible
therefore had no choice but to join the PAK FA program. The Indian
version will feature a two-seat cockpit, a number of electronic
systems and other auxiliary equipment.

These aircraft are expected to replace the Su-30MKI Flanker-H fighters
currently serving with the Indian Air Force, in the 2020s and the
2030s. Moreover, it is likely they will be mass-produced in India.

The latest test flight reaffirms Russia's status as a leading aviation
power. Only Russia and the United States currently have their own
fifth-generation fighters, as well as aircraft industries capable
of manufacturing all types of military and civilian aircraft ranging
from light-weight aerobatic planes to strategic bombers.

All other countries, including France, Sweden, the EU as a whole,
China and Japan, lack these capabilities and are forced to implement
various cooperation plans in order to develop new-generation aircraft.

Despite their combined efforts the joint EU aircraft industry has
failed to create a fifth-generation fighter in place of the Eurofighter
Typhoon twin-engined multi-role aircraft. Most of the Eurofighter
project participants intend to buy the U.S. F-35 fighter in future.

The future for new Swedish and French aircraft remains bleak. Both the
Saab JAS 39 Gripen and the Dassault Rafale rank among the generation
four-plus-plus warplanes. Neither Stockholm, nor Paris can afford to
implement multi-billion-dollar fifth-generation fighter programs.

China's prospects also seem doubtful. Most analysts agree that Beijing
can develop a fifth-generation warplane only if it utilizes foreign,
notably Russian, experience.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not
necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.