Moscow: Russia test-flew a long-awaited new fighter plane on Friday, determined to challenge the US for technical superiority in the skies and impress weapons buyers around the globe.
Taking wing: Sukhoi’s T-50 prototype fighter jet at a test airfield in Russia. AP
The stealth fighter—Russia’s first all-new warplane since the Soviet collapse plunged the defence industry into poverty and disarray—flew for 47 minutes, plane maker Sukhoi Co. (JSC) said.
“The plane performed very well. All our expectations for this first flight were met,” Sukhoi spokeswoman Olga Kayukova said on Rossiya 24 television. “The premiere was a success.”
Russia’s main networks led news programmes with reports of the flight and showed footage of the needle-nosed, camouflage-painted jet taking off from a snow-lined airstrip at a Sukhoi factory in Komsomolsk-on-Amur, in Russia’s far-east. These jets are invisible to radar, have advanced flight and weapons control systems, and can cruise at supersonic speeds.
The new jet is Moscow’s answer to the US-built F-22 Raptor stealth fighter—the world’s only other such fighter yet in service—which first flew in 1997.
Analysts have said it would probably be five-seven years before Russia’s military gets to fly the new fighter. The Interfax news agency cited an unnamed source as saying the first deliveries to Russia’s air force were likely in 2015.
Successful development of the fighter, which Rossiya 24 said has been tentatively dubbed the T-50, is crucial to showing that Russia can challenge US technology.
The 1991 Soviet collapse ushered in a cash-strapped time of troubles for Russia’s military. Its aircraft makers have been building warplanes based on updated Soviet-era designs.
Defence spending increased in the oil-fuelled period of economic growth during the 2000-08 presidency of Vladimir Putin, who has encouraged pride in Russia’s military might. But the military has continued to suffer embarrassing and sometimes deadly setbacks since the nuclear submarine Kursk sank in 2000, killing all 118 seamen aboard.
Interfax cited its source as saying that the new Russian plane had lowered and raised its landing gear twice during the flight and added that “the American F-35 fifth-generation jet couldn’t do that (on its test flight)”.
The new plane is important for future Russian arms sales.
Sukhoi is Russia’s largest exporter of military planes and accounts for about a quarter of the country’s annual arms sales, which reached $7.4 billion (around Rs34,340 crore today) last year.
Along with giants India and China, existing clients for Russia’s weapons include US foes such as Iran, Syria and Venezuela, and their purchase of an advanced new fighter could cause concern in the US and its allies.