MOSCOW – The possibility that the Russians are preparing to field a new, more sophisticated fighter has caught the attention of senior Air Force officers in the Pentagon and ranking lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
The flight of the S-32 means Air Force pilots could face more challenging foes in the future than previously expected. It also signals that Russia, despite its depressed economy, is willing to spend billions on the development of fighters that could be marketed to other nations.
“It’s very troubling, because it is an indication of Russia’s continuing significant investment in the technology area,” said Rep. Curt Weldon (R., Pa.), chairman of the House National Security subcommittee on military research and development.
“Despite a lot of the rhetoric that we are hearing about a new era of relationships, the S-32 is designed to give them a preeminent capability in terms of air superiority.”
Weldon said the emergence of the S-32 was another good reason to keep on schedule the F-22 Raptor, which is expected to be the Air Force’s new frontline fighter.
The new Russian fighter, say Air Force officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, will be a leap ahead of any tactical fighter the Russians or Soviets have flown in the past. Its development began in the 1980s in response to work on the F-22 begun by Lockheed and continued by Lockheed-Martin.
While not considered a stealth fighter, the S-32 has an all-composite frame that significantly decreases detection by radar. Its design includes internal weapon bays to shield missiles from radar detection.
The aircraft also boasts two of the latest Russian jet engines, which are equipped with “thrust vectoring” capability, allowing a pilot to use the engine’s powerful exhaust in aerial maneuvers.
But the S-32’s most unusual characteristic, and perhaps its most controversial, is the “forward-swept” design of its wings. To the layman, the wings appear to be put on backward. Aerospace experts say such a design can provide a substantial advantage in fighting agility, but is largely untested.
In the 1980s, Northrop Grumman Corp. developed an aircraft, the X-29, that features forward-swept wings. The unusual shape and placement of the wings make them subject to greater pressures in flight, requiring advanced computer technology to maintain stability. The X-29 uses three onboard computers to control flight. The computers adjust the plane’s control surfaces up to 40 times a second.
NASA is still flying two X-29 prototypes, but the Air Force has ruled out using the design for its new fighters.
“I don’t know why they chose that design, but, obviously, it was not working for us,” an Air Force official said.
Wolfgang Demisch, an aerospace analyst with Bankers Trust in New York, said Western aerospace companies should not underestimate Sukhoi.
“Most objective observers would say that Sukhoi aircraft are very competitive airplanes today, with the best that we have to offer, like the F-15 and F-16,” Demisch said.
“You can make all the arguments about their electronics or engines maybe not being quite what we have, but my guess is that the Russians have developed a world-class aircraft and that it will be a formidable competitor for anything we will have.”
To equal or surpass the F-22, the Russians would have had to have made significant advances in their fighter technology. The Raptor is designed to be undetectable to radar, fly at twice the speed of sound, and include the most advanced cockpit on any fighter.
Russia’s reason for producing the new fighter may be twofold: to update the fighter inventory of its air force and to sell the S-32 abroad.
Sukhoi, like the Russian fighter-maker Mikoyan-Guryevich, producer of the famed MiG series, has turned to the international market in recent years to support development of its aircraft. Both have sold planes to China and India, among other countries.
Weldon said Russia’s export policies give him cause for concern.
“There are briefings I have had on next-generation technologies that the Russians are pursuing that are beyond even what we can understand,” the lawmaker said.
“This is an indication that, while their conventional military is in total disarray, there are those in Russia that are willing to put dollars into leap-ahead technologies that could give them a significant capability five or 10 years down the road.”
Credit: Michael D. Towle, INQUIRER WASHINGTON BUREAU
Copyright Philadelphia Newspapers Inc. 1997