(photo credit: AP)
Russia's first stealth fighter intended
to match the latest US design made its maiden flight
Friday, boosting the country's efforts to modernize its rusting Soviet-built
arsenals and retain its lucrative export market.
T-50's flight comes nearly two decades
after the first prototype of the US F-22 Raptor
to the air, and Russian officials said it will take another five years for the
new jet to enter service. Still, the flight marked a major step in 's
efforts to burnish the faded glory of its aviation industries and strengthen a
The sleek twin-engined jet closely resembling the Raptor flew for 47-minutes
from an airfield at Sukhoi's production plant in the Far Eastern city of
Friday. Development of the so-called fifth-generation fighter has been veiled
in secrecy and no images of it had been released before the flight.
Russian Prime Minister
hailed the flight as a "big step
forward," but admitted that "a lot remains to be done in terms of
engines and armament."
Craig Caffrey, an analyst for Jane's Defense Procurement-Military Aircraft,
said the new fighter is "hugely important," both for modernizing the
aging Russian air force fleet and retaining export markets.
"The T-50 should offer the Russian Air Force
a significant boost in its
capabilities and ensure that it remains one of the best equipped air forces in
the world," he told The Associated Press by e-mail.
Caffrey said the new fighter will attract many foreign customers. "For
those countries that don't traditionally purchase military equipment from the it will be
the only fifth generation aircraft available," he said.
The NPO Saturn company
said in a statement that the jet has new engines, but military analysts
suggested that they were a slightly modernized version of the Soviet-era engine
powering the Su-27 family of fighters.
"It's a humbug," said independent military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer
. "It's just a prototype
lacking new engines and a new radar. It takes new materials to build a
fifth-generation fighter, and
Putin said Friday the first batch of new fighters is set to enter an Air
Force evaluation unit in 2013 and serial production is set to begin in 2015.
Caffrey said the task looks "very challenging, given the amount of new
technology that is being incorporated into the new aircraft
Russian military analysts were also skeptical, pointing at a history of
delays in the program and other Russian weapons projects.
"The schedule will likely be pushed back as usual," said Alexander Konovalov
the head of the Moscow
, an independent
has failed in at least eight of its 12 test
launches, dealing a blow to 's
hopes of making it a cornerstone of its nuclear arsenal. Officials have blamed
the failures on manufacturing flaws resulting from post-Soviet industrial
Felgenhauer and other observers said the fighter program, which depends on
hundreds of subcontractors, has been dogged by similar problems.
Russian officials have said the new fighter, like the Raptor, will have
supersonic cruising speed and stealth capabilities. Its pilot, Sergei Bogdan,
said in televised remarks that it was easy and pleasant to fly.
While officials saw the new fighter as essential, some analysts said the
country has more pressing needs.
"There is no mission and no adversary for such plane," Konovalov
said, adding that the Russian military lacks a modern communications system
navigation. "It would be more expedient to fit modern avionics to older
administration decided to quit buying the F-22 Raptor
, the world's most expensive fighter jet
at more than $140 million apiece, effectively capping its production at the 186