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Russia’s military attempts to build a 21st century fighter. But can it?
MOSCOW – Russia is desperate for the world to think of it as a superpower again.
Last week, Vladimir Putin — the country’s once and presumed future president — proposed the formation of a “Eurasian Union” among former Soviet states. The move was widely seen as a challenge to the West, and a push to reestablish Moscow’s former empire.
Putin floated his idea in the context of an unprecedented Russian military renaissance. Moscow is so eager to re-establish its military mojo, in fact, that it has pledged $730 billion to equip its long-neglected armed forces with 21st century weaponry by 2020. According to the plan, Russia's military will receive 1,000 new helicopters, 600 combat aircraft and 100 warships – including aircraft carriers and 8 nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines. The build-up also envisions new generations of intercontinental missiles and advanced air defense systems.
That all might sound formidable. But more than anything else, Moscow’s ability to reclaim global dominance depends on one key piece of military machismo: the sleek, futuristic "fifth generation" fighter plane known as the Sukhoi PAK T-50.
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With its sharply swept-back wings and dart-like profile, the T-50 is the first significant Russian aviation design not derived from the former Soviet Union's amply-stocked military cupboard.
But the big question is, does Russia have the manufacturing wherewithal to make it happen?
Moscow doesn't lack determination. Current president Dmitry Medvedev explained last February that Russia needs to catch up to NATO and the U.S., after two decades of being treated like a third-rate power. "The attempts to enlarge NATO’s military infrastructure are not ceasing," he said. "All this calls for qualitatively modernizing our armed forces and reshaping their image. . . we need comprehensive rearmament."
Russian defense spending has increased tenfold since Putin came to power in 2000. Former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin said last month that if planned expenditures go ahead, it will double again in the next two years, from 3 to 6 percent of gross domestic product.
Money and motivation are important to any superpower wannabe. So is industrial capability. Security experts doubt that Russia's decayed military-industrial complex can deliver the goods.
They say that without the vast web of small subcontractors that enabled the USSR to produce everything from bullets to intercontinental missiles, the few mainly export-oriented arms industries still working cannot handle the surge of orders that's expected to start pouring from the military's general staff headquarters in Moscow by the end of this year.
"Money is now available, and it may be that a single project like the T-50 is possible, even in Russian circumstances," says Vitaly Shlykov, a former Soviet war planner and ex-deputy defense minister of Russia. "But Russia has de-industrialized. It's basically a third world country that lives by oil extraction today. This rearmament program is a political campaign, to make Putin proud. The T-50 is essentially a political gadget."
Putin is apparently aware of the hurdles. On Oct. 7, he announced that Moscow would spend more than $13 billion over the next three years modernizing more than 1,700 weapons factories. “If we want to have weapons that answer the demands of today’s combat, ... we need to revamp the military industrial complex,” Putin said, according to the Associated Press.
If the T-50 is for real, it's an impressive fighter. Military officials classify is as a "fifth generation" fighter. That’s a category of aircraft that only the United States has successfully fielded, in the form of the F-22 Raptor.
Fifth generation fighters have advanced capabilities of stealth, super-maneuverability, sustained supersonic cruise and over-the-horizon radar visibility. They also have integrated weapons and navigation systems managed by artificial intelligence, and high-performance frames made from space-age materials.
That’s what it takes to be a real superpower.
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So far, the T-50 has struggled. When one of the two existing prototypes was rolled out for Putin and other officials at Moscow's MAKS airshow in August, 2011, it appeared able to perform only a slow flyby and a few sedate rolls. The next day, when the plane was supposed to be shown to the public, it suffered a flame-out on take off and had to be grounded for the duration of the show.
Some experts are beginning to suspect that the T-50, which is being developed with India as junior partner, may not be all it's cracked up to be.
"Just because they show it publicly doesn't mean we know what's under the hood," says Alexander Golts, a military expert with the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal.
"We don't even know basic facts about it, such as, does it have new engines or old ones? When we ask questions, they say 'that's top secret,'" he says.
Most of the weapons produced in post-Soviet Russia are at best modified Soviet designs. This is true of it's biggest export cash-earner, the multi-purpose Sukhoi Su-30, sold to India, China and Venezuela, which is a jumped-up version of the Soviet Union's Su-27 front line fighter. The MiG-35, a light fighter Russian arms merchants are offering around the world as a new product, is little changed from the old MiG-29, say experts.
The only truly new designs to appear are the T-50 and the problem-plagued Bulava submarine launched ballistic missile, which is scheduled to go into serial production next year.
In recent years Putin has tried to reclaim the USSR's mojo by merging some of the country's most famous aviation names -- Sukhoi, MiG, Tupolev, Ilyushin -- into a giant state-owned conglomerate known as the United Aircraft-Building Corporation.
But experts say this move only masks the main problem. Fewer than half of Russia's former Soviet military industries are still operating. Virtually none of the old sub-contractors are churning out the multitude of small parts and components that are necessary for assembling a complicated weapons system.
That means every part that goes into a Russian fighter plane these days has to be produced in-house, an exhaustive, time-consuming and exorbitantly expensive process, says Pavel Felgenhauer, a military expert with the opposition Novaya Gazeta newspaper in Moscow.
"Worse than that, there's a huge technological gap between Russian and Western industry," he says.
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"[Russia] still has people who can design new products, but the ability of our industry to produce them is deeply questionable. What can you do if you can't get reliable components, have no modern machinery capable of making precision parts and you lack highly-skilled workers? You can't produce much of value," Felgenhauer says.
Even President Medvedev suggested last summer that the answer might be to buy weapons abroad. Russia already does import a few things, including German sniper rifles and Israeli drones. Last year it signed a controversial contract with France to buy four Mistral-type helicopter assault ships at a price of about $750-million each.
But experts say there is fierce opposition at the top of Russia's military establishment against turning to foreign sources of arms. With the more conservative and nationalistic Putin returning to the presidency next year that option may become politically impossible.
Legendary Russian test pilot, Magomed Tolboyev, says he is one of the T-50's biggest fans, but he doubts the official production startup date of 2013 is realistic.
"We've had 20 years of complete stagnation in our aviation industry; whole plants stopped working, qualified specialists left," he says. "It's an empty space that will take 10 or 15 years to fill. You can't just bring people into a vacant field and tell them to start producing highly delicate and sophisticated machines."