MOSCOW — Russia’s first stealth fighter intended to match the latest U.S. design made its maiden flight Friday, boosting the country’s efforts to modernize its rusting Soviet-built arsenals and retain its lucrative export market.
The Sukhoi T-50’s flight comes nearly two decades after the first prototype of the U.S. F-22 Raptor took 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 Russia’s efforts to burnish the faded glory of its aviation industries and strengthen a beleaguered military.
The sleek twin-engined jet closely resembling the Raptor flew for 47-minutes from an airfield at Sukhoi’s production plant in Komsomolsk-on-Amur on 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 Vladimir Putin 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 said.
Caffrey said the new fighter will attract many foreign customers. “For those countries that don’t traditionally purchase military equipment from the U.S. it will be the only fifth generation aircraft available,” he said.
The NPO Saturn company said 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 Russia lacks them.”
Putin said Friday the first batch of new fighters is set to enter an Air Force evaluation unit in 2013.