Although it’s becoming increasingly apparent Russia’s foray into the world of fifth-generation fighters, the Sukhoi Su-57, will likely never be fielded in sufficient numbers to represent any real strategic value, Moscow is already looking toward the “stealth” fighter’s replacement.
The Su-57, widely touted in Russian media as a match for America’s F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, was originally intended as a joint venture between Russia and India. India, however, backed out of the program following unconfirmed reports the Russian-built fighter failed to deliver on many of Moscow’s capability promises.
Now, with only a dozen or so Su-57s slated for delivery in the foreseeable future and only one fully-equipped airframe, Russia’s “fighter of the future” already looks as though it will see more action in a museum than it will ever see in combat. That failure, however, has not stopped Russia from shopping for concepts to incorporate into what it claims will be a “sixth-generation” fighter — a phrase used commonly by a number of national governments and media outlets, despite there being no real consensus on what “sixth-generation” actually means.
Chief among Russia’s planned technologies for the next generation of fighters are laser and hypersonic weapons, as well as radio-photonic radar that sounds as though it’s being developed specifically to aid in detecting stealth aircraft like America’s fifth-generation fighters, B-2 Spirit bomber, and forthcoming B-21 Raider.
“The radio-photonic radar will be able to see farther than existing radars, in our estimates. And, as we irradiate an enemy in an unprecedentedly wide range of frequencies, we’ll know its position with the highest accuracy and after processing, we’ll get an almost photographic image of it — radio vision,” said Vladimir Mikheyev, who works as an advisor to the first deputy CEO of Russia’s Radio-Electronic Technologies Group (KRET).
The radio-photonic radar will reportedly operate on a far wider band than traditional radar arrays, making it more resistant to jamming while offering a clear enough image for on-board systems to analyze and assess aircraft it spots.
“This is important for determining the type [of an aircraft]: the plane’s computer will immediately and automatically identify a flying object, for example, an F-18 with specific types of missile armament,” Mikheyev said.
America’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter utilizes the Joint Reprogramming Enterprise, or JRE, for similar purposes. The networked system provides a constantly-updated library of adversary weapon systems and capabilities intended to help better inform F-35 pilots as they head into the fight, displaying pertinent data on the pilot’s augmented reality screen provided by the F-35’s advanced (and extremely expensive) helmets.
Russia’s radio-photonic radar apparatus reportedly already exists in a series of prototypes, making it a logical technological step in their next fighter, while some of the other concepts being discussed may be a bit further out of Russia’s reach. One such example is the concept of developing drone-wingmen for new fighters akin to Boeing’s Loyal Wingman endeavor. Russia would face a number of challenges in developing this capability, not the least of which being the development of capable Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs) in the first place. Russia’s “Hunter” UCAV was recently spotted on an airstrip boasting what looked like a decided un-stealthy fourth-generation power plant, and to date, has never been seen in the air.
Nonetheless, Mikheyev has some lofty claims to make about UCAVs Russia will field alongside its next fighter.
“One drone in a formation flight will carry microwave weapons, including guided electronic munitions while another drone will carry radio-electronic suppression and destruction means, and a third UAV will be armed with a set of standard weaponry,” Mikheyev said.
The truth is, Russia is simply keeping pace with claims made by nations like China and the United States, which already has its next air superiority fighter in the works, currently dubbed the Penetrating Counter Air (PCA) program. If Moscow had the money to truly fund and develop the sort of technology Russian state media claims about the new fighter, they likely would have actually ordered some of their old “new” fighters, the Su-57.
But despite the Kremlin’s budget woes, Russia does have a long and storied history of developing extremely capable fighter platforms, including the advanced fourth-generation airframe, the Su-35. Moscow may not have the money to match American fighter tech, but it should never be completely counted out when it comes to developing capable aircraft. Capable or not, Russia likely won’t field any new fighters at all until well after the United States gets production rolling on its own new platform.