Sukhoi’s T-50: The End of U.S. Dominance?


Last week’s news item on the not-that-new Sukhoi T-50 fifth generation fighter and a subsequent poll we published on the appearance of the airplane prompted a curious response. The T-50 is being pitched as an F-22 wannabe, with similar stealth capabilities, super cruise, sophisticated low-observable radars and combat maneuvering capability as good if not better than the Raptor. What’s unknown to those of us not in the intel community is how much of this new airplane’s capabilities are more the result of well-planted and nourished press reports versus actual demonstrated performance. My guess is that’s it’s more of the former than the latter, given the oft-delayed and telescoped test program for the T-50. (I said “not that new” for a reason. It first flew more than a year-and-a-half ago as essentially a shell, with few of the avionics that would remotely make it an F-22 rival.)Of course, some of that reporting comes from U.S. sources who would like nothing better than to inflate the T-50 as a serious threat, thus giving reason for the Air Force to buy more than the 186 or so Raptors it finally settled on. The compelling argument against the F-22 was that it simply had nothing to fight, but with the T-50 emerging, maybe it does now.But that’s not what I found most interesting in our poll. When we asked readers what they thought the emergence of the T-50 meant, they were evenly divided between seeing the airplane is a paper tiger, that it might represent a threat or that it shows that U.S. military aircraft manufacturing is in decline. In other words, we don’t know exactly what to think of it, given the turmoil in the world and the shifting power and influence among new players in the aerospace sector, namely the BRIC countries: Brazil, a resurgent Russia, India and China.When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, few saw it coming, but the foreign policy and intel analysts soon got their feet back under them and predicted a period of uncertainty with only one super power-the U.S. Eventually, the world would see the emergence of a multi-polar power structure, but with one dominant military player, again, the U.S. and rising economic powers or alliances of small powers. And that’s exactly what has happened. And although they can’t match the U.S. in advanced technology or overall military capability individually, these multi-polar players can form alliances that will challenge U.S. aviation prowess. Whether it’s as good as the F-22 or not, that may be the significance of the T-50.India had a long-standing relationship with the Soviets and now with Russia, thus it’s no surprise that India contributed 35 percent to the T-50’s development and will eventually field as many as 200 of the airplanes for its own air force. We’re not likely to find ourselves in a war with India, but it’s significant that anyone who does-China, for instance–will have to contend with fifth-generation fighters that are likely to be nearly as good as anything in the U.S. arsenal. That’s an entirely new development.These alliances are also likely to challenge U.S. standing in the commercial airliner business. Brazil and China are going to want a piece of that industry and, in Airbus, the European Union has already carved out a share. Embraer has staked out the regional jet market. Even in little airplanes, the rising rest of the world is making noise. Not for nothing has China been buying companies like Cirrus, Continental and Superior. Korea is building its own light aircraft design.To me, the real worry is not the competition, which I think U.S. companies can handle just fine with superior products. The dark side is an overreaction by a political process in this country that can’t solve any problems, much less difficult ones with multi-decade payouts. You can easily see two directions our bizarre political circus might take us: A radical tilt toward isolationism or, worse, an arms race with the entire rest of the world, something we’re in no position to afford.