Moscow: Russia on Tuesday unveiled its first stealth fighter to the public, lifting the curtain on a secret project designed to flood the market with cheaper versions of better-known US jets.
The Sukhoi Tu-50, being developed jointly by Russia and India, made its maiden flight at a Far East airbase in January 2010 and was rolled out for public viewing at the MAKS international airshow outside Moscow.
Two of the sleek silver prototypes are due to perform air stunts Wednesday under the watchful eye of Russia’s powerful prime minister, Vladimir Putin, in a show of Russian military confidence in the much-delayed project.
“The T-50 jet will provide the backbone not only of the Russian air force but also that of India,” said Mikhail Pogosyan, president of United Aircraft Corporation, the state aviation holding company.
“Russia’s cooperation with India on this project will help it promote the fifth-generation jet on the foreign market,” the RIA Novosti news agency quoted Pogosyan as saying.
Russian officials said the final version of the T-50 will not be ready until the end of 2016, although Air Force commander Alexander Zelin said he expected to receive the first jets within three years.
India was reported to be interested in up to 200 T-50 fighters for its air force while Russia was planning to order at least 150.
United Aircraft had previously voiced plans to develop up to 1,000 jets over the coming decades, while state television said Russia hoped to control as much as a third of the world’s stealth fighter market in the coming years.
India, Russia’s biggest arms client, agreed to develop the project in tandem with Moscow during a December 2010 visit to New Delhi by President Dmitry Medvedev.
The agreement put new life into a project that was first mooted in the late 1980s, when the Soviet Union identified a need to replace its existing Mig-29 and Su-27 jets.
The Kremlin has since launched a 19-trillion-ruble ($660-million) military procurement programme under which it plans to fully modernise its Soviet-era armed forces and acquire 600 new jets by 2020.
The first US prototype of a stealth fighter - the F-22 Raptor - emerged nearly two decades ago and Russia only awarded the T-50 development contract in 2003.
Russian state media reports last year said up to $10 billion was being poured into the jet’s development but that the fighter would sell for no more than $100 million a piece.
Each US raptor sold for $140 million, a price tag that prompted Washington to order a halt to new jet purchases in 2009.
The Pentagon is now focused on developing the F-35, another stealth fighter whose funding is being partially provided by Britain and other members of NATO.
The latest US jets are expected to cost even more than the discontinued Raptors, although the first ones may be purchased by the Pentagon as early as next year.
Air force chief Zelin said Russia may try to fill the void between the day the F-35 becomes available and the first T-50 finally rolls off the assembly line by introducing a new light fighter called the MiG-35 on an interim basis.
“We have not given up on the Mig-35D project,” RIA Novosti quoted Zelin as saying. “But eventually, we will make a full transition to the T-50.”