F-22 Raptor deserves worthy of the trump card, helping the US Air Force confidently gain absolute advantage over any fighter.
Capable of fighting 10 Su-30s; possessing the world’s best stealth technology; integrating electronic warfare and artificial intelligence capabilities with out-of-sight combat; the F-22 Raptor deserves worthy of the trump card, helping the US Air Force confidently gain absolute advantage over any fighter.
That used to be an obvious fact until the 5th generation stealth fighter T-50 PAK-FA of Russia was born, later known as the Su-57, NATO reporting name “Felon”. In fact, the interesting confrontation between these two types of aircraft has never happened. So, let’s predict, whether in a one-on-one war, which fighter will gain the advantage.
Missile technology has long promised to make air combat about slinging missiles over distances well over 100 or even 200 kilometers. But if both aircraft use stealth technology, the range at which they can accurately target each other with radar-guided weapons is drastically shortened. Which in theory could bring back more close-range dogfights.
Let’s first acknowledge that the F-22 and T-50 share many excellent characteristics: both can supercruise at over one and a half times the speed of sound. The Raptor faster than the PAK FA at Mach 1.8 compared to Mach 1.6. Both can operate at up to 65,000 feet high, higher than the new F-35 Lightning.
The F-22 Raptor is the most maneuverable fighter the U.S. has ever made. The Su-57 is even more maneuverable. The Russian fighter uses three-dimensional thrust-vector jets. Its engine nozzles can literally tilt independently in any direction to assist it in executing maneuvers. The jets assist it in yaws as well as changing pitch, and permit very high angles of attack. That is, when the nose of the plane is pointed in a different direction than the vector of the plane.
The Raptor uses two-dimensional vector-thrust jets which can only go up and down in unison, affecting pitch only. This is still quite awesome. The Raptor is the only U.S. fighter that is supermaneuverable. But it’s not the equal of the Su-57’s agility.
What does maneuverability let you do in fighter combat? It can help the plane dodge missiles and position itself in advantageous firing position for within visual range combat. However, the most extreme maneuvers also cost a lot of a plane’s energy; and U.S. doctrine has always favored remaining in a high-energy state, and the F-22 appears like it bleeds energy more slowly than its Russian counterpart.
On to weapons! Although the F-22 has a reduced heat signature, the bottom line is that in WVR combat, stealth fighters are still vulnerable to infrared guided missiles. Both aircraft can carry two.
For a long time, Russian aircraft had the advantage of superior short-range R-73 heat-seeking missiles that could be targeted via helmet-mounted sights: the pilot just had to look at an enemy plane to shoot at it. Importantly, the plane did not even have to be pointed at the target.
However, the United States finally deployed its own equivalent of the R-73, the AIM-9X, in 2004, and F-22s are finally planned to have the capability to use AIM-9Xs by 2017. Helmet-mounted sights should come in 2020. By the time PAK FAs are in operational units, the two planes will have roughly equivalent short-range missile capabilities. As such, Both aircraft are highly capable dogfighters; but the PAK FA looks like it’s the more agile of the two.
Here’s the thing about WVR combat, though. You only get to do it if you survive the Beyond Visual Range encounter first. The F-22 is a very stealthy fighter believed to have a radar cross-section of just 0.0001 meters. The PAK-FA is a stealthy fighter with a claimed cross-section as low as 0.1 meters from the front.
Its three-dimensional thrust vectoring nozzles are the cause. This may not be a tremendous limitation if the PAK-FA fights defensive engagements in which its opponents are at the edge of their radar net. However, it’s far less ideal for a penetrating deeply into hostile radar coverage. That may be of less concern for Russia—but it does mean that the PAK-FA will remain more detectable than the F-22 in a variety of situations.
The F-22 and the PAK-FA both have Active Electronically Scanned Array radars. AESA radars are stealthier, are more resistant to jamming, and boast higher fidelity. The F-22 and PAK FA will be able to detect each other as they close within fifty kilometers—though which one first is a subject of debate.
The T-50 does boast a modern Infra-Red Search and Track system, or IRST, with a maximum fifty-kilometer detection range. The F-22 currently has none, though it is slated to receive one by 2020. However, the F-22’s engines nozzles are designed to reduce heat signature, diminishing detection range, while the PAK-FA’s engines are indiscrete. So, it’s less than obvious who will detect who first, given that the PAK FA may be radar observable within that range.
The Su-57 also has its own L-Band radars in the wings which theoretically would be effective in determining the general position of stealth fighters. However, their range is fairly limited and they are not precise enough to lock on weapons. Unlike the IRST, they have the disadvantage of making the T-50 highly observable on radar when activated.
If U.S. Air Force exercises pitting Raptors against F-15s and F-16s are anything to go by, long-range missiles will ravage Fourth Generation fighters at distances at which they have little to no ability to detect and shoot back at stealth fighters. But when two stealth fighters clash, the maximum applicable range will be much shorter
Both planes carry deadly long-range radar-guided missiles of comparable effectiveness. Russia has its cutting-edge K-77M missiles with a reported range of two hundred kilometers and the United States has the AIM-120D Scorpion with a range of one hundred sixty. Superior ramjet-powered missiles, such as the Meteor and PL-15, are already being fielded, though it is not clear if either the F-22 or PAK FA will receive them.
The F-22 can carry six AIM-120s in its internal bays, whereas the PAK-FA is limited to four. This does give it a modest edge, as future aerial clashes are likely to involve a lot of missiles flying back and forth, and likely more than one will be launched to ensure a kill.
Many experts are skeptical that the PAK FA boasts fifth-generation avionics and networking technology used in the latest U.S. fighters. Intriguingly, networking with a sufficiently powerful low-band AESA radar, such as that on an E-2D AWACs plane, might allow radar-guided missiles to target stealth fighters! However, F-22 datalinks are also outdated and have only recently been slated for upgrade.
Operationally, F-22s will work in concert with an extensive network of supporting sensors and electronic warfare platforms, both at sea and in the air. There is even talk of using stealth fighters to cue potential targets to be hit by super long-range missiles launched from B-52 “arsenal planes.”
In contrast, Russian analysts insist that ground-based low-bandwidth radars and long-range surface-to-air missiles such as the S-400 are a sure solution against stealth fighters. These tie the T-50 to operate closer to ground-based positions, which may be acceptable given Russia’s security posture.
History shows that the side that shoots first in vehicular combat usually wins, and the stealthier F-22 seems more likely to do so—though their capabilities may be more even in a head-on approach.
So why has the Su-57 order been so radically downsized? It’s because it’s proving extremely difficult to deliver on all the design specifications, particularly the engines. The development costs keep on mounting, while the Russian economy has been in a recession for the last few years, decreasing the appetite for such an expensive offering.
The Su-57 is currently powered by AL-41F1 turbofans which are fuel inefficient and produce insufficient thrust, so the plan is to replace them with superior Izdeliye 30 turbofans once they finish development—which may take as long as 2027. In short, the Su-57 is a work in progress, its final capabilities unclear. And it’s very expensive work, leaving large question marks on how many will actually be produced.
Currently Su-57 has not been proven in combat, very little is known about this fighter, but it is believed that Russia’s fifth generation fighter is one of the most maneuverable and fastest aircraft. For the time being, however, the evidence suggests that only a small quantity of Su-57s will enter Russian service this decade—too few to alter the balance of air power in the near term.