On June 18, 1981, Lockheed’s F-117 Nighthawk took to the skies for the first time, forever changing the way warfare in the skies plays out. After decades of competing to field to the fastest or most powerful aerial platforms, the F-117 represented a transition away from brute force and toward technological supremacy. With a top speed of just 617 miles per hour (barely better than a Boeing 747), the Nighthawk would cruise undetected through enemy airspace, deploy its two-bomb payload, and return. Like an assassin in the skies, the Nighthawk’s power came from its ability evade detection, and it wasn’t long before America’s competitors began looking for their own ways to match that capability.
Today, the United States continues to lead the way in stealth technology, but it’s no longer alone in the field. Competitors have popped up in service and the developmental pipelines in both China and Russia (as well as among a number of allied nations). China’s F-22-based J-20 and Russia’s long-troubled SU-57, for instance, are both touted as fifth-generation stealth platforms, and China’s forthcoming H-20 bomber looks remarkably like America’s B-2 Spirit in many publicity photos. Now, Russia appears to be jumping on the stealth-bomber bandwagon with their own iteration of the classic flying-wing design: the PAK-DA.
Whereas the vast majority of Russia’s heavy-payload bombers are Soviet-era platforms that are still in service, the PAK-DA promises to be an entirely new airframe that, according to Russian officials, is being rushed into production. Russian state-media outlets have reported that this new bomber will see its first prototypes take to the sky in sometime between 2021 and 2022, with operational bombers entering service by 2028 or 2029. That’s a blistering pace to field an entirely new, deep-penetration, stealth bomber, but it pays to remember that Russia has set a precedent for failing to meet their own lofty projections when it comes to developing new weapons systems. Often, they either fail to perform as advertised, suffer through extended delays, or both.
Not much else has been announced about this new bomber, potentially because many of the details haven’t been hashed out, but Russian media has suggested that the new aircraft will have an operations range of around 7,500 miles, a payload capacity of 30 tons, and is expected to be subsonic. Those figures would make the PAK-DA slightly more capable than America’s longstanding B-2 Spirit, or “Stealth Bomber,” as it’s sometimes called.
These statistics do not, however, shed any light on what the PAK-DA’s most important features would be — the suite of technologies required to make an aircraft “stealth” in the modern world. While stealth is often discussed like it’s a single technology, it’s actually the result of a number of overlapping technologies and strategic approaches to combat. The F-35, for instance, relies not just on its radar-reflecting design to limit observability; it also relies on design ques intended to limit infrared detection and electronic warfare technology intended to make it difficult to accurately target the aircraft even when it is detected. To date, there remains some uncertainty regarding Russia’s ability to mass-produce aircraft with tight enough tolerances to truly limit detection, which would be a prerequisite for the PAK-DA’s stealthy success.
“It is impossible to build a missile-carrying bomber invisible to radars and supersonic at the same time,” Russia’s VKS commander, Viktor Bondarev, told Russian state media. “This is why focus is placed on stealth capabilities. The PAK-DA will carry AI-guided missiles with a range of up to 7,000 km. Such a missile can analyze the aerial and radio-radar situation and determine its direction, altitude and speed. We’re already working on such missiles.”