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Singapore Airshow 2016: Analysis - PAK-FA's Asian export hopes stymied by lack of 'fifth-generation' qualities

19 February 2016
Although it looks like a fifth-generation fighter, the T-50 PAK-FA currently lacks many of the systems associated with that class of combat aircraft, and it is doubtful whether they will be incorporated into future production blocks. Source: Sukhoi

The presence of the US Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor at the 2016 Singapore Airshow, and statements from the company about future demand in Asia for more F-35 models to be procured have highlighted the interest in the region for fifth-generation combat aircraft.

A number of air forces have a programme to acquire a fifth-generation fighter, but what qualifies an aircraft to carry that label is a "matter of perspective," a US industry representative told IHS Jane's .

Russian industry has consistently referred to the Sukhoi T-50 PAK-FA as a fifth-generation aircraft, but a careful look at the programme reveals that this is an 'in-name-only' designation. What qualifies a fighter aircraft as being a next-generation design is more than just having a stealthy-looking shape, said Lockheed Martin representatives.

Previously, Russian defence think-tanks had been projecting that the T-50 would be purchased by Asian nations that were already operating some model of the Sukhoi Su-27/30 'Flanker'-series. This would include Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam. China, another major operator of Sukhoi aircraft is developing its own next-generation aircraft in the Chengdu J-20 and Shenyang FC-31.

Russian specialists familiar with the T-50 programme state that the aircraft will have trouble gaining traction in the Asian market as the on-board systems offer very little fifth-generation technologies despite what is projected to be a considerably higher price tag than the latest Su-35 'Flanker-E', ordered by China and Indonesia.

Both the T-50's NIIP Irbis radar and the NPO Saturn 117S engine that are two of the major subsystems of the T-50 are the same as those installed in the Su-35. Also, a number of the avionics on-board the T-50 and Su-35 are common. Those that will be part of the production-configuration of the T-50 will more likely than not be only incremental or evolutionary improvements over their analogues on-board the Su-35, say the same specialists.

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