Russia’s new stealth fighter made an eyebrow-raising surprise appearance on June 5—soaring over the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow ripped from Ukraine in early 2014.
The T-50—Russia’s answer to the U.S. Air Force’s F-22—is far from war-ready. Indeed, the twin-engine, radar-evading warplane is suffering such serious design, quality-control, and financing problems that it might never enter frontline service in large numbers.
But practical realities may very well be beside the point. The T-50’s flights over territory that once belonged to Russia’s bitter rival Ukraine sends an apparently powerful message, albeit one that doesn’t necessarily hold up to close scrutiny.
After flying air cover for the annexation of Crimea in 2014, supporting Russia’s ground war in eastern Ukraine through 2015, and undertaking an intensive air campaign in defense of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in 2016, the Russian air force could be near the point of exhaustion.
But a big, powerful, high-tech stealth fighter, roaring impressively over captured enemy terrain, is a statement to the contrary. The implication of the T-50’s maneuvers over Crimea is that Russia—in particular, its struggling air force—is still strong.
At least once a year since 2013, the Russian military has hosted an international aerial war game it calls “Aviadarts.” Loosely modeled on the U.S. Air Force’s hyper-realistic Red Flag air exercise, Aviadarts is open to all those countries that, for obvious reasons, wouldn’t be welcome at Red Flag.
China’s a regular participant. Belarus and Kazakhstan have also sent planes and crews. As many as 50 warplanes converge on some air base for several days of simulated bombing runs and mock air combat. And the kicker—unlike most Russian military exercises, Aviadarts takes place more or less in public. Portions of the war game are even open to civilian spectators.
The T-50 that appeared over Crimea on June 5 was taking part in the 2016 Aviadarts—a first for the type. And the pro-Russian local public was there to celebrate the occasion. “Russian military planes and helicopters competed in a competition testing their flying prowess and marksmanship, while stunning crowds of observers,” state-owned broadcaster RT reported.
The publicity is no accident. Arguably, it’s the main point.
The Russian air force all but collapsed owing to a lack of funding in the chaotic yeas following the Soviet Union’s 1991 collapse. It wasn’t until President Vladimir Putin’s second term starting in 2004 that the air force finally began to receive the money it needed to repair old jets, buy new planes, and restore training for frontline pilots.
Aviadarts was an opportunity for Moscow to show the world that its air arm was, once again, a force to be reckoned with. “Russian media has made much of this fighter-pilot competition in a bid to show off an air force that is now, finally, dragging itself out of the doldrums,” Thomas Newdick, author of Modern Military Aircraft, wrote about the 2014 edition of Aviadarts.
But the cash injection was short-lived—and could only do so much good, anyway, considering the deplorable condition of the Russian aerospace industry. The air force managed to repair hundreds of Soviet-era aircraft and buy additional hundreds of new planes. But the “new” planes are, in fact, almost all upgraded versions of Soviet-vintage jets. While Russian industry has devised new radars and missiles, the T-50 is one of Russia’s few truly new airframe designs—and it’s a mess.
Specially shaped to avoid detection by radar, the T-50 shares the powerful engines, sensors, and missiles of older Russian warplanes. But its stealth features have proved difficult for Sukhoi, the plane’s developer, to master—and for the Kremlin to afford as plummeting oil prices have drained state coffers.
India had offered to co-develop the T-50 and buy scores of copies. But in 2014, Indian officials complained of “shortfalls… in terms of performance and other technical features” in the handful of T-50 prototypes Sukhoi’s engineers had hand-built by then. New Delhi put its version of the T-50 on ice.
And not long afterward, Moscow did the same. “Given the new economic conditions, the original plans may have to be adjusted,” Yuri Borisov, a deputy defense minister, said in March 2015. The original plan was for Russia to build at least 50 T-50s by 2020. The new plan was for just a dozen—half of which are already flying as prototype test vehicles.
By comparison, the U.S. Air Force possesses more than 180 F-22s—and should have hundreds of newer F-35 stealth fighters in service by 2020. The T-50 might never be a significant part of the Russian air force. But it’s still a stealth fighter—a symbol of technological prowess that only a few countries can afford in any quantity.
And that makes it all the more valuable in 2016. As far as propaganda goes, this year’s Aviadarts is arguably even more important than previous war games—and that helps explain the T-50’s presence at the exercise. In late 2015, the Russian air force deployed more than 30 of its best fighter planes and scores of its most experienced pilots to western Syria.
Putin claimed his forces were intervening to defeat the so-called Islamic State widely known as ISIS. In fact, they helped to shore up the Assad regime’s flagging defenses against all opponent. The Russian planes have flown hundreds of missions, targeting ISIS fighters, U.S.-backed moderate rebels and even civilians in rebel-held territory. “The intention is to make life unbearable in those areas so that oppositions leaders accept Moscow’s conditions,” wrote Tom Cooper, an aviation expert and author.
Not only is the Russian air force indiscriminately bombing civilians in Syria—it’s losing a substantial number of aircraft in the process. Turkish jets shot down one Syria-based Russian bomber after it strayed into Turkish air space in November 2015. Russia has also lost around half a dozen helicopters to crashes and ground fire in Syria in recent months.
The costly Syria intervention has all but maxed out Russia’s capacity for aerial warfare. True, on paper the Kremlin possesses nearly 3,000 military aircraft. But even after Putin’s reforms, only a few hundred of the planes and helicopters are fully modern. Experienced pilots are in even shorter supply.
In mid-2014, Moscow had a choice. It could expand its annexation of Crimea to include a direct attack on eastern Ukraine—an assault that would have required heavy air support. Or the Russian government could, as tradition dictated, plan for the annual Victory Day parade that, every May 9, commemorates the Soviet Union’s defeat of Nazi Germany—and includes a huge flyover of Moscow involving up to a hundred military aircraft, with scores more waiting nearby as back-ups in case some planes or copters break down.
The flyover required months of preparation and rehearsal—and effectively precluded another war. “From the beginning of intensive training, there was little capacity left for a military intervention,” Stefan Buettner wrote in Combat Aircraft, a trade magazine.
Today Russia is in a similar predicament. Outside of the Syria intervention, Moscow possesses precious little extra air power. But it only takes on T-50 to make an impressive statement and at least imply that Russia has warplanes to spare. It doesn’t actually matter that, as a frontline warplane, the T-50 is probably doomed to fail. It can at least do its job as a propaganda piece.