The first public appearance of the PAK-FA on January 10, Sukhoi supplied picture
The first public appearance of the PAK-FA on January 10, Sukhoi supplied picture

About now Defence Minister John Faulkner is having tea and biscuits with William Lynn, the deputy secretary of the US Defense Office, who is breaking some awkward news about the JSF Joint Strike Fighter project.

Namely, that March is going to be a very difficult month for the troubled project.

But if the Minister had already read the very long and detailed analysis released early this morning by Airpower Australia of the Russian answer to the JSF F-35, the Sukhoi PAK-FA, which made its first ‘public’ flight on January 10, the conversation might have been even more fascinating, and difficult, for Lynn.

The analysis has very grim implications for the JSF project.

Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn ((centre) provides SA Premier Mike Rann (at map) with a photo opportunity at the Techport  shipyard. Photo DoD
Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn ((centre) provides SA Premier Mike Rann (at map) with a photo opportunity at the Techport shipyard. Photo DoD

But first, Lynn and the Defence Secretary Robert Gates are according to sources in DC doing the rounds of JSF client states bringing them up to date over the issues befalling the project in March

The anticipated unfavourable review of the JSF program by the US Government Accountability Office report to Congress next month will trigger the Nunn-McCurdy amendment to the Defence Authorization Act of 1982 which will force the government to get reauthorization to continue its funding because of unit cost overruns.

This embarrassment will occur less than two months after the official audit review into the project by Mike Gilmore, the US Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, which lead to the firing of the head of the project and the cancellation of $700 million in ‘progressive’ payments due to be made to the lead contractor, Lockheed Martin, this year.

In their report the co-founders of the Air Power Australia defence think tank, Dr Carlo Kopp and Peter Goon say:

“Analysis of PAK-FA prototype airframe aerodynamic features shows a design which is superior to all Western equivalents, providing ‘extreme agility’, superior to that of the Su-35S, through much of the flight envelope. This is accomplished by the combined use of 3D thrust vector control of the engine nozzles, all moving tail surfaces, and refined aerodynamic design with relaxed directional static stability and careful mass distribution to control inertial effects. The PAK-FA is fitted with unusually robust high sink rate undercarriage, intended for STOL operations.

“The available evidence demonstrates at this time that a mature production PAK-FA design has the potential to compete with the F-22A Raptor in VLO performance from key aspects, and will outperform the F-22A Raptor aerodynamically and kinematically.

“Therefore, from a technological strategy perspective, the PAK-FA renders all legacy US fighter aircraft, and the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, strategically irrelevant and non-viable after the PAK-FA achieves IOC in 2015.

“Detailed strategic analysis indicates that the only viable strategic survival strategy now remaining for the United States is to terminate the Joint Strike Fighter program immediately, redirect freed funding to further develop the F-22 Raptor, and employ variants of the F-22 aircraft as the primary fighter aircraft for all United States and Allied TACAIR needs.”

They warn that, “if the US does not fundamentally change its future for the planning of tactical air power, the advantage held for decades will soon be lost and American air power will become an artefact of history.”

Their analysis also moves on from previous arguments by Air Power Australia that the F-22 Raptor is the comprehensive answer to air superiority to a qualified view that only with an investment in both larger numbers and upgrades of the type can the line be held against the PAK-FA and then only with significant losses on both sides.

Designed to compete against the F-22 in traditional Beyond Visual Range (BVR) and Within Visual Range (WVR) air combat, the PAK-FA shares all of the key fifth generation attributes until now unique to the F-22 – stealth, supersonic cruise, thrust vectoring, highly integrated avionics and a powerful suite of active and passive sensors. While the PAK-FA firmly qualifies as a fifth generation design, it has two further attributes absent in the extant F-22 design. The first is extreme agility, resulting from advanced aerodynamic design, exceptional thrust/weight ratio performance and three dimensional thrust vectoring integrated with an advanced digital flight control system. The second attribute is exceptional combat persistence, the result of a 25,000 lb internal fuel load. The internal and external weapon payload are likely to be somewhat larger, though comparable to those of the F-22A.

The authors say “Russia intends to operate at least two hundred PAK-FAs, India two hundred and fifty of the Indian Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) variant, with global PAK-FA exports likely to add at least 500 more tails to the production tally. The stated intent is to supply the PAK-FA as a replacement for existing T-10 Flanker series fighter aircraft.

The PAK-FA from below showing some of the design issues discussed in the Air Power analysis
The PAK-FA revealing some of the design issues discussed in the Air Power analysis

“Initial analysis of PAK-FA imagery and public disclosures by the Russian government and Sukhoi bureau indicate that a production PAK-FA will yield greater aerodynamic and kinematic performance to the current F-22A design, and similar low observables performance to the F-35A JSF.

“While the basic shaping observed on this first prototype of the PAK-FA will deny it the critical all-aspect stealth performance of the F-22 in BVR air combat and deep penetration, its extreme manoeuvrability/controllability design features, which result in extreme agility, give it the potential to become the most lethal and survivable fighter ever built for air combat engagements.

“It is important to consider that the publicly displayed PAK-FA prototype does not represent a production configuration of the aircraft, which is to employ a new engine design, and extensive VLO treatments which are not required on a prototype. A number of observers have attempted to draw conclusions about production PAK-FA VLO performance based on the absence of such treatments, the result of which have been a series of unrealistically optimistic commentaries.

“PAK-FA Low Rate Initial Production is planned for 2013, and Full Rate Production for 2015, with initial deliveries of the Indian dual seat variant planned for 2017.

The analysis raises time line issues for the decision announced last November by Faulkner to spend $3.2 billion on 14 low rate initial production F-35s for delivery in 2014 in order to evaluate them. If the IOC for the PAK-FA is 2015, even the on time delivery of the early F-35s, which the Gilmore report describes as poorly defined, wouldn’t make sense.

In a position report on the PAK-FA and the US decision to limit production of the Raptor and deny its sale to allies, RAAF Wing commander (retired) Chris Mills says the killing of that program was a ploy to ensure that the F-35 JSF would become a forced monopoly in the production and sale of US air combat aircraft.

But he points out that this could fail massively if Israel, which already makes avionics for the Sukhoi range of military aircraft, and Japan, were to join India in buying the PAK-FA to ensure their future survival and combat superiority in battle zones in which the JSF would not prevail.

The quality of advice the Minister had received from defence at the time of embracing the early batch of F-35s needs to be called to account as it coincided with the quality of the review that Gilmore was conducting with such damning effect on the project in the US.

There is an obvious quality gap in the oversight this project is receiving in Washington DC and in Canberra.

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