The chief of Russia’s air force announced this week that the PAK FA, Russia’s fifth-generation stealth fighter, will enter service in 2015. This would be close to the time when two U.S. F-35 Joint Strike Fighter variants for the U.S. Air Force (F-35A) and the Navy (F-35C) are expected to attain initial operational capability in 2016. This display means the U.S. must keep its own Joint Strike Fighter program on schedule for production.
The public flight of a PAK FA’s T-50 prototype before the world, at the MAKS–2011 International Aviation and Space Salon, is a demonstration of Russia’s firm commitment to develop this aircraft for its own use and to sell it around the world.
Russian authorities have declared that they intend to acquire 60 PAK FA aircraft by 2020. Russia’s stated objective is to acquire 250 fifth-generation aircraft, but more are possible. India would acquire at least 250 and up to 300 of its PAK FA version, the Fifth-Generation Fighter Aircraft.
With the closure of the U.S. F-22 stealth fighter production line at 187 aircraft, America’s main answer—and that of U.S. allies—to the PAK FA is the F-35, a multirole fighter. While it is too soon to know, the F-35 may ultimately have inferior specifications to the Russian fighter in terms of speed, maneuverability, range, weapons load, and possibly even stealth. In this regard, the Russians have described the future operational PAK FA as a fighter whose “use of composite materials and advanced technologies…minimizes its radio-frequency, optical and infrared visibility.”
It may be that when they referred to a reduced “optical…visibility,” the Russians were referring to the use—probably in later versions of the PAK FA—of metamaterials and “electronic camouflage,” or “e-camouflage.” With this technology, micro-cameras covering the surface of the aircraft would capture real-time images of the fighter’s environment. Through advanced computers and the use of metamaterials, the cameras would project those images onto the plane’s surface to make it look like the sky or the terrain around it. This would mean virtual invisibility for the PAK FA. This “e-camouflage” technology appears in the James Bond movie “Die Another Day,” in which 007’s Aston Martin car has it to remain invisible to the naked eye.
Since the PAK FA is a multirole fighter, it could then fly land attack missions during broad daylight; it would not need to strike at night like some U.S. bombers, the now-retired F-117, and possibly the F-35. Invisibility may give the PAK FA an advantage in a dogfight if the enemy pilot cannot see the actual plane. However, the F-35 is equipped with the highly sensitive Electro-Optical Sensor System, which may allow its pilot, wearing a helmet-mounted display, to see the heat emitted by a PAK FA.
Whether the PAK FA would have this “e-camouflage” technology or not, it is important that the U.S. deploys a robust force of fifth-generation fighters capable of meeting potential challengers like the PAK FA or the Chinese J–20. The U.S. would need adequate numbers of these fifth-generation fighters to replace potential combat losses and to have numerical superiority in a war with a major air power.
Congress should consider the implications of Russia exporting this stealth fighter to other nations. In addition to India, Russia could sell the PAK FA to Iran if the U.N. arms embargo is lifted, or to Arab countries if the U.S. refuses to sell them the F–35, as well as to Venezuela, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and perhaps even China, since the PAK FA appears to have more internal bomb capacity than the J–20.
The warnings are out there. It is up to U.S. leaders to read the signs and act accordingly before it is too late.