Sunday, January 31, 2010

Russian Military Soars Into Future

The Russian military took a huge step into the future on Friday as the prototype of the Sukhoi T-50 finally made its successful maiden flight. The Sukhoi is Russia’s first “fifth generation” fighter aircraft and is slated to become the backbone of the Russian Air Force during the next decade. Fifth generation fighters incorporate stealth, advanced electronics, extreme maneuverability and the ability to fly as supersonic speeds for extended periods of time into their design; currently the United States Air Force’s F-22 Raptor is the only fifth generation aircraft in service anywhere in the world.

The T-50 is more than just Russia’s way to keep up with the Americans though; the successful flight shows that Russia’s defense contractors are able to build world-class, advanced weapons systems. Much of the Russian military is still equipped with Soviet-era weapons and most of what the Russian arms manufacturers are building are systems still based on Soviet designs that are two, three, or more decades old. For example, two of the Russian Navy’s newest ships – the submarine Nerpa and the frigate Yaroslav Mudry – were projects actually begun in the early 1990s at the end of the Soviet Union that laid dormant for more than a decade due to lack of funds and are only being completed now, almost 20 years after their construction began. This lack of modern equipment was on display during 2008’s conflict with Georgia. The Russian army that rolled into battle lacked the unmanned drones, precision guided weapons, integrated computer system and many of the other hi-tech gadgets that their Western counterparts possess, in many ways it was the same army that entered Afghanistan in 1979 (though they were able to handily defeat Georgia’s NATO-advised troops).

“This is an epic event, because it's the first time in post-Soviet history that [the Russian military industry] has been able to create something brand new,” Alexander Khramchikhin, an expert with the independent Institute of Political and Military Analysis in Moscow told the Christian Science Monitor in an interview on Friday, giving an idea of the significance of the jet’s first flight. The Sukhoi T-50 also highlights the growing military ties between Russia and India. The Indian and Russian air forces are each scheduled to eventually purchase 250 of the new Sukhoi aircraft. In addition, the Indians are picking up 25% of the development costs of the project and are supplying the software for the T-50’s computer control systems (fifth generation fighters rely on computers to make minute adjustments to the aircraft’s control surfaces every second just to keep them in the air – it is a system that makes the planes incredibly maneuverable).

And if Wikipedia is correct (which is always an “if”), someone at NATO has a sense of humor about the Sukhoi. Its NATO designation will supposedly be “Firefox”, which also happens to be the title of a late Cold War-era novel and film about a high-tech Soviet jet fighter.
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