The main premiere of the MAKS-2021 air show opening on Tuesday will be an aircraft that Russia has not shown for decades – a new single-engine fighter
The way the machine is being built, and the characteristics it is to receive, testifies to a huge breakthrough in the Russian military aircraft industry.
The fact that the plane is badly needed in our country has been discussed for a long time. Already published photos of the plane show a machine, the layout of which resembles the American F-35, but using technical solutions from the twin-engine Su-57. And a long time ago the media got a photo of the nose part of a model of such an aircraft on the desk of Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov – it is now obvious that this model reflected the ongoing development of a real machine.
We shall not go over it again, but let us say briefly that it will enable the Air Force to come to the most rational and widespread structure of the combat aviation fleet in the world – a mass-produced light fighter, which due to its relative cheapness can be produced in huge quantities, and for fighting for air superiority against a serious enemy – heavy multipurpose aircraft with advanced electronic equipment, weapons, and unique flight and technical characteristics. The Americans have done so with their light F-16 and F-35A and heavy F-15 and F-22. Optionally they have A-10 attack aircraft and F-15E heavy hitters. Well, we also have the Su-25, and there are as many as two candidates to replace the dedicated heavy striker – the Su-30SM and Su-34.
Such a conversion will make our aviation much stronger. And it will also make our air force much cheaper, and besides, if it goes well, it will allow earning huge money on exports. One sortie of such a fighter “on strike” will be several times cheaper than the Su-24, besides it will not need a fighter to cover it. And the effectiveness will be higher.
All in all, this is really good news. It is the first such news in dozens of years, which our Air Force had been waiting for many years, earlier in the 1990s, when it unreasonably refused single-engine planes. But the scale of the event that will take place on July 20 is much greater than just the first demonstration of a promising new combat vehicle.
The return of secrecy
It was a great relief to all “people in the know” that this machine was unveiled to the public overnight. There were almost no leaks about details of the new car being developed, and there were no significant leaks that could shed light on the timing of the first prototype. This shows that in our long-suffering state, they finally got down to securing state secrets in the way that is, in fact, necessary.
In our country things are done quite differently: high-ranking officials and officers make significant faces instead of answering questions, and then due to negligence of responsible officials top secret information is leaked to the press. Experts can recall a great many such cases. But at the same time, the fact is that we have and keep secret things that require public discussion, and leak things that should never get into the airwaves. The Americans, for example, act strictly in the opposite direction.
The story with the new fighter jet is just the opposite and a positive example. Neither the Ministry of Defence, nor the United Aircraft Corporation tried to pretend that everything is good and right in our aviation. Information that some work was being done in the right direction was dosed in the media in such a way that the public (and the enemy!), on the one hand, could not get anything from this information and, on the other hand, knew that the problems were being solved. Under the right veil of secrecy, it was possible to develop a completely new aircraft, with no prototype, and to announce its existence after the construction of at least a mock-up, and most likely an experimental prototype.
That is aerobatics, class. One can only applaud. And we wish it were like that everywhere else. The right decisions, the right secrecy, the right “leaks”, a tangible result.
But this is not all good news.
The return of speed
The second most important aspect of the new machine was the speed of its development. Let’s compare it with the Su-57, for example. Formally, it began to think of it in 2001, and the development contract was signed in 2003. Now, in 2021, the plane is not yet ready – there is no prescribed tactical and technical specification of the engine. But that is a superficial glance. In fact, the 20 years of work on the plane are the tip of the iceberg, and, let’s be cynical, it is not much more. In reality, the Su-57 has almost made it in 20 years, because before that Sukhoi had a huge backlog – they had been working on the fighter of the future since the Soviet times, since the mid-1980s, and in the course of that work they even created an experimental fighter S-47 “Berkut”. That experience definitely helped with the development of the Su-57. If anyone does not believe that 20 years is not enough, let him look at the American agony with the F-35.
This example vividly illustrates how long it takes today to create a new aircraft. Dozens of years of intensive work by huge teams and huge amounts of money.
The Americans are now trying to cross that threshold with their NGAD program, which, among other things, envisages accelerated production of aircraft. But in general, the huge lead times for new aircraft are a worldwide trend due to the complexity of modern aircraft.
And here is the single-engine machine. The cockpit lantern, similar to the Su-57, suggests that it began development after the appearance of the Su-57 was clear. The appearance of the machine clearly suggests that this aircraft is largely unified with its ‘big brother’. This means that in the case of the single-engine vehicle, development began when at least some of the Su-57’s subsystems were already in place, or possibly when the Su-57 itself was already built. Of course, this development did not come out of thin air – both MiG and Sukhoi had some experience with single-engine machines, and for a long time. But it was, firstly, a paper work, and secondly, they are not much like the shown machine, including the fundamental features of the design of the airframe.
All this says it all – the plane was invented very quickly. The trend of dozens of years of development has been broken, and this is not just the first time in Russia, it is the first time in the world for very many years. Jet combat aircraft have not been created with such speed since the 1960s. The secrecy of the project also indirectly indicates the rapid development – otherwise something would have leaked to the press. And here the leaks about the programme simply did not have time to happen.
Such a rapid timing means that somewhere in the field of design organization we have a breakthrough. Russian aeronautical engineers have learned to work in a way they never could before. And if such a pace continues, you can safely say that Russia has made an outstanding breakthrough of global significance – it has learned to create complex equipment faster than anyone else. The benefits of this breakthrough are obvious and need no explanation.
But that is not all.
A breakthrough in unification
If you look at old Soviet aircraft, you can see not the highest level of unification. Engines, sometimes sighting system components, weapons and some subsystems were migrated from airframe to airframe. But very much was developed for each aircraft separately.
The mock-up of the new single-engine fighter (or its first prototype) leaves the impression that it was designed with considerable use of existing serial components and systems.
This is, firstly, a step forward compared to the old days, secondly, a saving for the air force, and thirdly, those very quick development times. And it is also a step forward, long overdue and finally made in our country. A rational approach to the creation of combat vehicles is something that our country has always lacked. Perhaps this machine will have a production engine AL-41F instead of “article 30”, which can not get on the production machines, but even in this configuration, it is, as they say, a killing machine. And, apparently, relatively inexpensive.
Of course, there is a question: where to make a new machine? But, apparently, it will be solved – while tests are underway, preparations for production of the new machine could be made at several aircraft factories at once. It is solvable, if it is decided.
But the fact that our Armed Forces do not have such Mutual Information Exchange Systems (MIE) as the Americans do is a fat disadvantage. We do not have anything similar to the American Link 22 MIE system, and the potential of the new fighter without such a system will be inferior to the American F-35, with all its possible superiority in performance.
On the other hand, while the aeroplane is being put “on the wing”, the specialized agencies have time to develop the same information system. If this is done, then our aircraft, which is likely to fly much better than the F-35, and (if we believe the Rostekh pictures) will have a powerful optoelectronic sighting system (and may be reconnaissance system), as the F-35 has, will get the same informational capabilities. Let’s hope so.
In general, the creation of a new fighter is a real breakthrough event. There is much to be happy about, and not only in terms of aviation. Let this breakthrough be the beginning of others like it.
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