Daily Archives: February 1, 2010

Golts Looks Under the Hood of PAK FA

PAK FA in First Test Flight (photo: RIA Novosti)

In today’s Yezhednevnyy zhurnal, Aleksandr Golts turns his skeptical eye toward the PAK FA, Russia’s 5th generation fighter aircraft which just took its first test flight.

Golts says, looking a little like the F-22 and even more than the Su-27, PAK FA called forth a storm, a waterfall of success reports.  He notes that Prime Minister Putin cited it as proof of the wisdom of creating the United Aircraft-building Corporation [UAC or OAK] four years ago. 

Those in charge of the project are breathing easier.  After the Bulava SLBM failures, getting the new fighter off the ground was a matter of principle, especially since the leadership promised that it would fly every year since 2005.  Golts believes the Bulava failures combined with the 5th gen fighter delays caused people to discuss whether Russia could modernize, and whether it could develop high-tech products.  One thing Bulava and PAK FA have in common is that both are truly Russian projects, ones that are being implemented without dependence on significant leftover Soviet-era resources.  Their results could enable observers to question whether the OPK is being managed correctly, whether it was smart for Putin, [Sergey] Ivanov, and Chemezov to herd hundreds of enterprises into several gigantic OPK kolkhozy. 

Golts says some aviation industry leaders worried that OAK was created, not to concentrate resources to build PAK FA, but for Moscow bureaucrats to get their hands on profits from foreign aircraft orders [doesn’t ROE do this already?].  And Golts reminds that around 2000 then-Minister of Industry Ilya Klebanov said PAK FA development would cost $1.5 billion, but as we’ve learned the pricetag was closer to $10 billion over ten years. 

And it had to fly no matter what, and so it did.  But what actually flew, Golts asks.  One thing for sure, the first new airframe in 25 years.  And that’s it.  Everything else–speed, max and min ceilings, radars, weapons systems–all remain to be seen. 

As for the engines, Golts says we just don’t know.  Years ago the engine producers fought it out to be the designer and builder.  NPO ‘Saturn’ won out.  And, according to Golts, its director started to lie.  Putin and Ivanov both recognize that the engine problems will take some time to work out.  But on the day of PAK FA’s first test, the managing director of ‘Saturn,’ who directs the PAK FA program for the United Engine-building Corporation [ODK], claimed the new fighter has the newest engine, not an improved version of the Su-35’s engine, as the press and specialists have written. 

So what Putin and Ivanov worried about was secretly resolved by NPO ‘Saturn’ and the new engine is ready.  This is great news for Air Forces CINC Zelin.  Just four months ago he said that the PAK FA engine couldn’t be foreseen in the near future.  He said it would fly with a ‘Saturn’ engine, the 117S, a ‘deeply modernized’ version of the AL-31F. 

So, according to Golts, either ‘Saturn’ decided to pawn off on the Motherland an engine it demonstrated four years ago or, worse, having pocketed the contract, it simply decided to put old engines in a new aircraft. 

Golts concludes honestly that he can’t say whether PAK FA will be a true 5th generation aircraft, but it has taken off in a thick fog of lies.  And here’s the distinction between it and Bulava; there’s no way to hide Bulava’s failures since the U.S. gets the telemetry and people in other countries can see evidence of an unsuccessful test launch.  There aren’t the same limits on lying about PAK FA. 

So PAK FA is a “cat in a sack.”  You can’t say much for sure about the cat, but don’t worry, it’s a 5th generation sack.

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