NEWTOWN, Conn.: Russia’s fifth-generation fighter, known as the PAKFA (Advanced Tactical Aviation Aircraft), has emerged as a key tool of the Russian aerospace and defense industry even before the aircraft has completed its first flight.
Rosoboronexport has aggressively pitched component production partnerships to a number of Russia’s largest arms markets in order to garner risk/cost-sharing agreements and insure continued Russian market access. However, with the PAKFA program under increasing tension and the West’s major aerospace firms seeking to shore up additional orders for soon to be closed fourth-generation aircraft production lines, Russia faces the prospect of declining presence in the world’s most high sought after arms markets.
On April 13, various Russian and Brazilian press sources reported that Russia had offered Brazil the chance to opt into the PAFKA program as a component producer if it would defer placing orders with western aerospace firms and instead place firm orders for the untested PAKFA.
This development follows reports that Russian aircraft, including the Su-35 and Su-34 were excluded from the Brazilian Air Force’s (FAB) upcoming fighter tender. The FAB instead opted to select from proven fourth-generation fighters: the Boeing F-18C/D, Dassault Rafale, and Saab Gripen.
Russia has offered similar arrangements to India and China. Only India has signed onto the PAKFA program in exchange for considerable technology transfer and industry offset contract provisions. The previous Russian offer to Chinese has since been unofficially rescinded following further allegations of Chinese copyright infringements on previous Russian fighter aircraft imports.
Faced with the considerable research & development costs associated with developing a new, advanced fighter platform, Russia is seeking to both distribute costs and ensure that a viable export market will exist for the PAKFA. The prime contractor on the PAKFA, Sukhoi, is reported to have already invested as much as $115 million in company capital into the program. In order to recoup such investment, which represent a small portion of total sunk costs, and to bring the per unit cost of the PAKFA down to a level that will be affordable to the Russian Air Force, Rosoboronexport is aggressively seeking partners who will guarantee orders.
Several factors are working against the Rosoboronexport’s attempts replicate the international cost/production-sharing development model implemented for the F-35, which is expected to become the dominant fighter in the fifth-generation market.
The first is the unproven status of the PAKFA. Unlike established fourth-generation fighters, the PAKFA remains untested and thus represents a major risk for potential clients. The PAKFA’s initial flight has already been pushed back to late 2009.
While the PAKFA may be technically superior to western fourth-generation aircraft and may or may not (depending on the accuracy of Russian aerospace industry official statements) be equivalent to western fifth-generation fighters, its timeline for delivery its far behind its western competitors. Deliveries of the PAKFA are not anticipated to begin until 2017.
Finally, as production of the Eurofighter Typhoon and Lockheed Martin F-35 ramp up, the western aerospace firms currently producing advanced variants of fourth-generation aircraft are likely to push hard to gain additional order to extend production lines.
That Brazil opted for established western-built fourth-generation aircraft over a chance to participate in the PAKFA program does note bode well for Russia’s chance to gain share in the fifth-generation fighter market.