Russia says it's planning to build a new fighter jet that would be more advanced than the newest American models.
The so-called sixth-generation fighter jet “will most likely be pilotless,” former Russian air force chief Pyotr Deinekin told the state news agency RIA Novosti this week — even though Russia has yet to develop a fifth-generation fighter jet.
Sixth-generation fighters are expected to use energy weapons such as lasers and microwaves and be stealthier than current military aircraft.
Deinekin's remarks came before the International Air and Space Salon (MAKS), one of the world's biggest airshows, taking place near Moscow this week.
Russia wants the show to help inject new life into its struggling aeronautics industry.
Earlier this month, President Vladimir Putin promised to boost sales of Russian-made aircraft to $250 billion by 2025, partly by finding new markets outside former Soviet Bloc countries.
The planned six-generation fighter jet is expected to be based on the Skat unmanned combat aircraft program, which was displayed at the MAKS airshow in 2007. Russia's Sukhoi aircraft holding company is a potential designer for the new plane along with MiG.
However, experts say Russia must first develop fifth-generation fighter jets before launching a sixth-generation plane. Moscow’s fifth-generation versions, the SU-35s and the PAK-FA, still in pre-production, are on display at the MAKS air show.
The Su-35S, unveiled at the Paris Air Show this year, is a “4++ generation" fighter jet that could "successfully counter" US fifth-generation aircraft, according to a statement from Sukhoi, the plane’s manufacturer. Russia says its other fifth-generation model, the PAK-FA, also called the T-50 fighter, is considered equal to or superior to the American F-22.
However, both of Russia’s fifth-generation aircraft have received mixed reviews.
The Su-35S has been mired in uncertainty over various revisions to its design, and although the T-50 was first flown in 2010, some believe its launching is reminiscent of a Soviet-era ploy of developing test-model jets that are not operationally complete.
Sergey Bogdan, a Russian test pilot who is flying the T-50 in this week’s air show, said he was highly skeptical of Russia’s ability to develop a pilotless aircraft in the near future.
“One would think that technology is moving forward fast but it has taken 35 years to get from the fourth generation fighter jet to the fifth generation. I believe the next generation fighter will evolve no earlier than in 15 years,” Bogdan said in a statement earlier this month.
The United States also wants to eventually launch six-generation fighter jets known as Next Generation Tactical Aircraft. The program aims to improve on the current fleet of fifth-generation F-35s and F-22s from Lockheed Martin by focusing on “reach, net-centricity, situational awareness” and “human-system integration.” However, models aren't expected to be ready until 2030.
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Tom Fedyszyn of the US Naval War College said Deinekin's comments should be seen at least partly as PR for the Russian arms export industry.
"Historically, their actions only sometimes matched their rhetoric," he said. "The general is in the business of putting Russia in a good position to sell weapons and he must be taken accordingly.”