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Top attack aircraft – T-50 to J20

16 November 2011




Jet fighter attack aircraft are essential components of modern warfare, and recent unveilings back this up. Anthony Beachey examines the top attack aircraft available today, including Russia's T-50, China's secretive J20, the US F22 Raptor and Europe's EADS Eurofighter.


Tens of billions of dollars-worth of contracts are at stake in the coming years as the world's top manufacturers seek to win orders for the next generation of fighter aircraft. India, for example, is in the final stages of selecting the plane for a $10.4bn contract.

The four-year-long selection process that began in August 2007 will reach its conclusion when Indian officials open the tender from the manufacturers - the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS) and Dassault of France. India had previously considered bids from Lockheed Martin's F-16, Boeing's F/A-18, Russian United Aircraft Corporation's MiG-35 and Swedish SAAB's Gripen.

India's jet fighter plans - T-50 or F 35?

"India is in the final stages of selecting the plane for a $10.4bn contract."

India has already signed a deal with Russia for the joint development of a fifth generation fighter aircraft or FGFA, based on the Sukhoi T-50 plane design.

According to a report from the Russian RIA Novosti news agency, published in late October, the T-50 fifth generation fighter will be ready to take to the skies in the near future. The T-50 made its maiden voyage in January and two prototypes have since been undergoing flight tests.

The plane, developed under the PAK FA (future aviation system for tactical air force) programme at the Sukhoi OKB, is the first new major Russian-designed warplane since the fall of the USSR. It is expected to enter service in 2016.

Unsurprisingly however, the US continues to pursue the Indian market, given that New Delhi plans to spend more than $35bn on at least 166 single-seat and 48 twin-seat 5th-Gen fighters from 2020 onwards.

Washington is pushing Lockheed Martin's F-35 fifth generation fighter. However, delays and cost overruns have plagued the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter - which at $238bn is the Pentagon's biggest weapons procurement programme - and one variant of the plane suffered cracks in the bulkhead after it had flown just 1,500 hours out of a planned 16,000.

The F-22 of the US Air Force

The US Air Force has also had to ground dozens of F-22 fighter jets for the second time this year, after a pilot had experienced oxygen deficiency in the cockpit, officers reported in early October. The announcement follows the air force's highly unusual step of grounding the entire Raptor fleet between May and mid-September, to allow engineers to investigate possible problems with the plane's oxygen supply.

"The UK in turn began reducing orders for Eurofighter Typhoon fighter jets three years ago."

Elaborate tests and safety measures have nevertheless failed to locate the precise source of the fault. The latest case follows around a dozen previous incidents affecting F-22 pilots over a three-year period, the circumstances of which the US Air Force is reluctant to discuss in detail.

At a cost of nearly $150 million a plane, the F-22 Raptor is designed mainly for dogfights against rival fighter jets, and the radar-evading aircraft were not deployed in the Nato-led campaign over Libya. The US Air Force has more than 160 F-22 Raptors and plans to construct a total of 187.

US legislators and defence contractors lobbied for years to fund a larger F-22 fleet. However, former defence secretary Robert Gates managed to defeat this initiative, arguing against an urgent need to raise numbers of the sophisticated aircraft.

China steps-up J-20 stealth fighter development

China, the rival Asian superpower to India, has meanwhile been busy upgrading its military, developing the J-20 stealth fighter that reportedly will be equipped with the radar-evading capability of fifth-generation fighters such as the F-22 and F-35. China began testing the plane in January 2011. However, some analysts argue the threat posed by the J-20 is greatly exaggerated and that it incorporates obsolete technology.

As a guide, Richard Aboulafia, Vice President of Analysis at Teal Group, told Aerospace Technology that he gauges the capabilities of the modern, combat aircraft according to the following criteria:

• Access to off-board space, ground and air-based sensors, particularly a capable AEW/AWACS system with a well-trained crew and robust data links.

• Effective sensor fusion to allow the pilot to utilise this information, as well as data from onboard sensors.

• An integrated EW system.

• An AESA radar with a high level of reliability.

• High-quality theoretical and practical training to ensure effective use of resultant data and equipment.

• Pilot training to include plenty of flight hours.

• Powerful engines, ideally capable of supercruise, with a high mean time between overhaul and failures.

• An airframe with low-observable characteristics.

• A robust air-to-air refuelling capability encompassing equipment, readiness and training.

• Sophisticated and reliable, precision-guided weaponry.

• A robust hardware and software upgrade programme, to maintain the plane's effectiveness over the next five, 10 and 30 years.

• Maintenance procedures to keep the plane operating with a high, mission-capable rate.

• Equipment designed to facilitate maintenance and allow easy access to electronic diagnostic tools, and ideally a sophisticated health-usage monitoring system (HUMS).

According to Aboulafia, the J-20 incorporates just one item from this list (number seven). He is "not convinced that the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) features any other items from the list, although China seems to be making some progress in terms of item no 9".

Reduced budgets mean reduced demands for the EADS Eurofighter

Different problems, notably the Eurozone's economic crisis, are besetting the EADS Eurofighter. As part of an austerity drive, Germany plans to slash the number of military aircraft it will buy from EADS, the European aerospace company, in a bid to reduce its armed forces by one-fifth. Berlin now wishes to purchase 40 instead of 177 Eurofighters.

"China, the rival Asian superpower to India, has meanwhile been busy upgrading its military."

The UK in turn began reducing orders for Eurofighter Typhoon fighter jets three years ago. In the spring of 2009, London secured a deal that allowed it to sell on part of its Typhoon contingent to Saudi Arabia.

A similar plan is being considered for the aircraft Germany had contracted to buy but now considers surplus to requirements. The availability of buyers is far from certain, according to industry experts.

The Eurozone's economic difficulties, as well as the problems besetting the US's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the F22 Raptor, could accelerate the emergence of China and Russia as potential rivals in the jet fighter attack aircraft stakes. However, doubts remain as to whether either or indeed both countries have the advanced technology capable of competing with the Western world.

Problems, notably the Eurozone's economic crisis, are besetting the EADS Eurofighter.
The F-22 Raptor is designed mainly for dogfights against rival fighter jets.
China has been busy upgrading its military, developing the J-20 stealth fighter.
India has already signed a deal with Russia for the joint development of a fighter aircraft.
Delays and cost overruns have plagued the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.