Posted on October 24, 2008 - by Venik
Years of working in the aerospace industry presented me with opportunities to talk to many aviation specialists and this article is a digest of their opinions and my own comments. This article is a subjective look at what the future of combat aviation may or should be in the next 20-30 years, but not necessarily an entirely accurate prediction of things to come. Everyone involved in the complex field of military aviation – scientists, engineers, pilots – has a different and unique perspective on how things will develop. The purpose of this short essay is to summarize these views and put them in context of history and the recent scientific and technological developments.
If you think about it, aviation is young: it has been only a century since the Wright brothers made their first flight. The progress made by aviation since 1903 is astonishing, which makes predicting the future of aviation as difficult as predicting the future of computers. This comparison is not accidental: many believe the future combat aircraft will be best characterized as flying supercomputers. Over the past decade all leading aerospace companies around the world have been involved in more than one major unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) project. A broad definition of an autonomous (i.e. not remotely controlled by a human) UAV/UCAV is an aircraft where all functions of a human operator have been fully replaced by artificial intelligence. At our present level of technological development this is quite a stretch, as you can imagine. While we progressed far in aviation technology during the past century, a recent attempt by a group of enthusiasts in North Carolina to recreate the Wright brothers’ first flight ended in pieces in a mud puddle. We’ve made progress but, perhaps, not as much progress as we would like to think.
In the past few years UAVs have demonstrated remarkable abilities. A good example would be the unmanned intercontinental flight of the US-made ‘Global Hawk’ long-range reconnaissance UAV, which departed from the US and landed in Australia on full automated controls. Such achievements lead people to believe that fully capable unmanned combat aircraft are a thing of the very near future. It is an exciting thought, which, nevertheless, should be mixed with some healthy skepticism: after all, we are talking about replacing our own intelligence with microprocessors and so far all the ‘Global Hawk’ prototypes deployed over Afghanistan since the late 2001 have been lost either to enemy fire or to technical malfunctions and the ‘Global Hawk’ is not even a combat aircraft – just a reconnaissance drone. In terms of achieving full unmanned capability for our combat aircraft we are much closer to the beginning of our journey than we are to its end.
Why unmanned aircraft are so important? Is a human life in our day and age really so valuable as to spend billions developing technology that will not come to fruition for many decades? Not surprisingly, preserving human life is not the military’s primary concern. Air forces around the world are interested in unmanned aircraft not because they cannot afford to lose a certain number of pilots in combat. UAVs offer unique capabilities not possible in manned aircraft, where the real strength but also the biggest limitation is the human pilot. Even today we have aircraft that fly longer and maneuver harder than any human pilot can withstand. Inside a modern combat aircraft we need a human brain but we need to do away with a human body. How’s that for a weekend project?
At this point many wonder why not just control an aircraft from the ground or from another aircraft, or from orbit? This is a good solution that immediately achieves our objective: a human brain controlling the plane and no human body to slow it down. The problem with a remote-controlled aircraft is concentrated in the ‘remote’ part of the equation. The pilot is in the point ‘A’ and his aircraft is in the point ‘B’ and all the things between these two points work against both the pilot and the aircraft: natural and man-made interference and, since we are talking about military aircraft, the man-made interference will be a particular problem which will increase with distance from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’. Various smart ways have been devised to deal with these issues, but the bottom line is simple: with two UAVs of equal capabilities the advantage will always be with an autonomous system. However, to make your aircraft truly autonomous, you need a computer as smart as you are and that’s the real challenge.
Most of you have heard about artificial intelligence. This term has been frequently misused for there is no such thing as artificial intelligence. We are not there yet. We are not anywhere near creating artificial intelligence. Everything we have today labeled ‘artificial intelligence’ is, in fact, standard computers and standard software operating on the old ‘if…then’ principle of programming. What some developers call ‘AI’, ‘cognitive’ or ‘learning’ systems is nothing more than wishful thinking or marketing tricks. ‘AI’ of the most advanced UAV to date can be broken down into thousands lines of code. This is intelligence and it is complex and impressive but it is the intelligence of the programmers not that of a computer. It is human logic written down for a computer to follow.
The problem with artificial intelligence is simple to define but difficult to overcome: we have no idea how to achieve it. This is different from sending humans to Mars or finding cure for cancer: here we at least know how to proceed and the problem is time and money. In case of developing AI we don’t know what to do, where to start because we don’t know what it is. That’s a problem. ‘There will be robots in the future’, we all heard that one. However, if somebody tells you that in the next several years there will be unmanned planes able to compete as equals with any manned fighter, tell them there’s a bridge for sale in Brooklyn.
Consider the argument over antigravity propulsion: supporters of the idea would like to say that it’s possible, while the pessimists want to say that it’s a waste of time. Both sides, however, have to keep quiet because nobody knows what gravity is. As you can imagine, this makes it very difficult to argue. The situation with AI is similar: all we have is the term ‘artificial intelligence’. Forget ‘artificial’ – we don’t know what the real thing is. Remember in ‘Renaissance Man’ Danny De Vito is being asked by an unemployment office clerk: “Sir, just tell me, what would you be willing to do?” To which the unemployed advertising executive replies: “Give me a check and I’ll be willing to cash it”. Aerospace companies will be willing to spend any amount of government money to work on developing AI for their unmanned aircraft, but for now it is not an issue of money: you cannot build something you do not understand.
Nevertheless, unmanned aircraft are the future of combat aviation. They may not replace manned aircraft for a very long time to come but within just a few decades UCAVs will form a critical part of any advanced air force in the world. What will these future unmanned combat aircraft look like? Before we can answer this question, we need to understand the advantages of not having a human pilot inside of a combat aircraft. A human pilot places considerable physical limitations on the performance of an aircraft. Many modern fighter jets have their performance artificially lowered so the pilot wouldn’t be able to accidentally put himself in a situation he cannot survive. A pilot cannot withstand forces over a certain critical limit; a pilot cannot operate an aircraft beyond the limits of his physical endurance; a pilot is limited in the amount of information he can deal with at any given time; a pilot requires years of expensive training; a pilot needs pay, food, sleep, medical care and other things too numerous to mention. A UCAV requires none of these things. It also has many limitations, but not these particular limitations.
We have already determined that manned and unmanned combat aircraft will be operating side by side in the foreseeable future. As far as UCAV design goes, this means only one thing: manned and unmanned aircraft of similar purpose will have similar design. This does not make much sense if we really want to utilize all the advantages offered by removing a pilot from the cockpit. However, this makes perfect sense from financial point of view: integrated designs save money and financing plays a crucial role in such an expensive game as national defense. Manned and unmanned aircraft may not be exactly the same, but if you can achieve even 50% similarity in design and manufacturing, you will be saving billions in production and maintenance. In the future look toward UCAV designs based on contemporary manned combat aircraft.
Some argue that most of the time during flight a pilot performs simple actions that can be easily handled by a computer and, in fact, these actions are routinely handled by navigation and flight control computers even with the pilot in the cockpit. This is true, but the real concern is with that remaining small percentage of time, during which no computer can come close to replacing a pilot. Realizing this simple fact brings one important conclusion: most of the time any combat aircraft can be unmanned. It would be great if you could put a pilot in the cockpit only during those crucial moments a computer needs to be told what to do. Transporter technology for now remains the domain of science fiction, but we can do the next best thing: place a human pilot close enough to an unmanned aircraft, so the human can take over the controls remotely when a computer finds itself in need of an intelligent thought. And so were come back to the concept of remotely controlled aircraft. However, in this situation the distance between point ‘A’ and point ‘B’ will be minimal and, even if a connection is lost, the controlled aircraft will have a chance of surviving on its own.
How does this vision translate into a practical system? Imagine an aircraft with a standard cockpit and all the standard flight controls used by a human pilot. In every respect this is a fully-functional manned aircraft just as any other manned aircraft but with one difference: it is also a fully-functional UCAV. It is a UCAV with an ejection seat, oxygen mask and a cockpit access ladder on the side. A pilot can fly this aircraft into combat, or the aircraft can fly itself. Now imagine a formation flight of several attack planes: they all look the same to you but only one of them has a human pilot – the rest are just following the leader. Any of these ‘drones’ are smart enough to fly on their own. They can attack their targets independently to a certain extent; if lost, they can return to base; if the threat is predictable they can even provide cover to each other. However, their primary task is to follow their human leader and do exactly what they are ordered to do.
The concept of unifying the designs of manned aircraft with their unmanned counterparts inevitably will draw some reasonable criticism. The main arguments against such design unification will be:
- Building a UAV/manned aircraft hybrid would result in an expensive manned aircraft and in even more expensive UAV.
- What is the point of building a UAV if the hybrid design would not allow to fully utilize the advantages of not having a human pilot in the cockpit, bringing the UAV’s performance closer to that of a manned aircraft?
- The point of building a UAV is to produce an aircraft that is capable of “superhuman” performance and is also cheap enough to be lost in combat in considerable numbers without major impact on the defense budget.
The first point that needs to be made absolutely clear is that, just like today, in the foreseeable future there will be many different UAVs designed for many different roles. At the current level of our technological development it is impossible to build a truly multifunctional UAV (or any other type of a combat aircraft) that is also affordable. When we talk about a manned/unmanned aircraft hybrid, we are talking about building a multifunctional aircraft, not a “universal” aircraft. The price tag of an aircraft means nothing on its own and should always be looked at through the prism of the aircraft’s capabilities. You can buy a computer for two hundred bucks that would work well for browsing the Web. However, you will still need to buy a two-thousand-dollar computer for working with digital movies. In this case, initially you saved on buying the first computer, but in the end the two hundred dollars you spent on it were wasted. Similarly, you can spend $3 million to build a capable reconnaissance UAV, a $15 million to build a ground attack UAV, and another $25 million to build an air combat UAV.
You end up with three totally different aircraft that have very little commonality in their designs or components. These three aircraft require different types of spare parts and service; their maintenance crews have to undergo different types of training; and to have a complete recon-strike-air defense “package” you need to deploy all three types of UAVs to the theater of combat. In the end you have to pay $43 million to purchase the three UAVs and additional millions to maintain technical staff trained to work on each of these aircraft; a supply of spare parts for three completely different systems; and additional expenses associated with transporting and storing the three aircraft. What in the beginning looked like a way to save money by building relatively inexpensive limited-purpose UAVs turned out to be a financial and logistical nightmare, but the defense contractors would love you for that.
In the past decades, we have seen combat aviation moving toward multirole designs. Today we have fighter jets that are also excellent bombers and attack aircraft, and they can also perform a range of reconnaissance tasks. We have attack helicopters that can engage ground and air targets with the same type of missiles. We have air defense fighters that can use missiles from a SAM system and we have SAM systems that utilize air-to-air missiles. Interoperability and design commonality more often than not results in cost savings. Whether we lose performance by looking for common solution is a question for the engineers and almost always there is an acceptable technological answer.
Bang for the buck
We can definitely design a UCAV to fully utilize the unmanned potential in terms of the aircraft’s mechanical performance. Such a UCAV would be able to pull greater Gs and stay in the air longer than any manned aircraft we can conceive today. However, the fact that we can build such a UAV does not always mean that we should build it. We can make UAVs do many crazy things, but we cannot make them think and an intelligent mind has always been the most dangerous weapon. We can build a UCAV that can outperform any manned plane but it will still be a sitting duck for most human pilots. True, a pure UAV may be considerably cheaper than a manned/unmanned hybrid, but is it worth spending $20 million on a UCAV that would get blown out of the sky in the first ten seconds of combat? Inevitably, unmanned combat aircraft will be getting increasingly more expensive as we increase their capabilities. The cost advantage that we are looking for simply may not be there or will quickly disappear.
In the time of war, the main problem with the UCAVs will not be their price tag but their inflexibility. Imagine that the enemy – initially surprised by your robotic planes – developed an effective method of defeating them. If your UCAV has a cockpit, you can put a pilot in there and tell him to be creative. Computers cannot be creative: they need to be reprogrammed and in the meantime they would be dead weight on your airfields and aircraft carriers. This, and not the issues of cost, is what really concerns future UCAV operators.
Unmanned aircraft are commonly viewed as expendable alternatives to manned aircraft. By “expendable” we usually mean “inexpensive”, in addition to preserving the lives of pilots. The “inexpensive” part is true for most reconnaissance UAVs, although there are some very expensive exceptions. However, when we are talking about attack UAVs, we are dealing with an entirely new level of technological complexity. This complexity inevitably reflects on the aircraft’s cost.
Potential UCAV operators include countries that can develop such weapons and, therefore, can afford to operate them, even if on a limited scale. These potential customers are seriously bothered by the issues of UCAV flexibility in the combat field. Every computer system and every piece of software developed to date has been known to have design flaws and people quickly came up with ways to exploit these flaws. The same way as any teenager can figure out how to beat a computer game, enemy electronics and computer experts inevitably will find a reliable way of defeating your flying PC. UCAVs flown exclusively by computers will not be immune to this problem: we can’t build a perfect system – ever.
There is one function routinely performed by any air force in the world that has been rarely associated with unmanned aircraft: transport and resupply. A UAV is an ideal machine to be used for transporting various supplies and ammunition to and from the battlefield. As the ongoing war in Iraq illustrates, supplying forward positions surrounded by hostile territory is a deadly task. In the case of manned transport aircraft, we are risking the lives of several crew members to fly routine missions over hostile territory to deliver a few tonnes of supplies.
As we see from the Soviet experience in Afghanistan, Russian operations in Chechnya, and American involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, transport aircraft are a favored aerial target for the enemy: they often fly slow and low along a predetermined route and on a preplanned schedule; these aircraft are poorly armed and frequently are not escorted by combat aircraft. In most cases a resupply mission requires minimum of creativity and maximum of endurance.
In addition to being notoriously dangerous, transport missions place a huge workload on the pilots, who might have been better used on other missions requiring skill and flexibility. So far we have not seen any UAV models developed specifically for transporting supplies and ammunition. However, it is my prediction that within a decade such aircraft would become a reality. The main motivation for building unmanned transport aircraft would be a steady flow of casualties from attacks on transport aircraft, not unlike the attacks currently suffered by the US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
What roles will be played by the unmanned transport aircraft (let’s call them UTAVs)? The primary role will be delivery of ammunition and supplies to combat zone and other high-risk areas. It probably makes less sense to use unmanned aircraft to transport troops or to evacuate the wounded. Troops being flown into combat need to feel confidence in their pilot. Flying through enemy air defenses in a tin can piloted by a computer is unlikely to improve morale of the passengers. Having humans onboard and interacting with the machine takes unpredictability of the situation well beyond what a computer can handle.
An unmanned transport aircraft is capable of autonomous navigation along a predetermined route or multiple routes. Such an aircraft should also be capable of performing basic evasive maneuvers and of deploying countermeasures in case of an attack from the air or from the ground. We already have most of these tasks automated in the modern combat aircraft, so employing the same systems in a UTAV but with a higher degree of automation is certainly not an insurmountable technological challenge. A UTAV will not have the same operational flexibility as a manned transport aircraft. However, using UTAVs for routine flights in high-risk environments would drastically lower pilot workload and casualties. Given the uncomplicated nature of many routine aerial transport missions, it is rather surprising that we already don’t have an operational UTAV. This is likely to change in the very near future.
UTAV design strategy will differ from the design commonality of UCAV. UTAVs are likely to be very different in design and construction from most manned transport aircraft. The primary reason for this is the relatively limited role played by a UTAV. This role would be confined to short-haul transport flights along a predetermined route. UTAVs are likely to be light- to medium-lift transport aircraft capable of vertical take-off and landing. Thus, UTAVs will be a likely alternative to transport helicopters rather than to transport planes.
In addition to VTOL capability, the design of a UTAV will try to achieve higher speed and longer range than those attainable by the transport helicopter this UTAV would replace. A tilt-rotor design not unlike the Bell-Boeing V-22 seems to fit these requirements particularly well. Ability to supply your frontline troops in a timely manner without risking the lives of your pilots is invaluable to any commander, especially in the highly politicized environment of local conflicts, where even a small number of friendly casualties can have far-reaching political consequences.
It may seem that the cost of a transport unmanned aircraft should be considerably lower than the cost of attack UAV. This may not necessarily be the case: the UTAV would require considerable maneuverability for take-off and landing. Avoiding enemy ground fire while in flight would also require maneuverability and sophisticated navigational capabilities. While a UTAV may not need to attack anyone, the specifics of its missions would require other unique capabilities.
The future of military UAVs is expensive. While the air forces around the world would continue to operate relatively cheap reconnaissance drones, more modern multirole UAVs would become increasingly more expensive. It would be a mistake to view UAV development and combat deployment as a way to save money: cost of future multirole UAVs will approach and sometime exceed the cost of similar manned aircraft. These UAVs will have many advantages over manned aircraft, but low cost will not be one of them. At $130 million procurement cost, the “Global Hawk” is in the price range of B-1B and Tu-160 strategic bombers. Inexpensive reconnaissance drones will remain in service and in development around the world and will be able to successfully perform their limited roles. However, the primary vector of UAV development will be directed toward the considerably more expensive multirole unmanned aircraft. This tendency is dictated by both the military requirements and by the business interests of the aerospace industry. Within the next 10-15 years UAV production will become a major part of the business of all key aerospace manufacturers on the international arena.
Unmanned aircraft are perfect for high-stress maneuvers and dangerous situations. One of the primary tasks envisioned for unmanned attack aircraft is that of air defense suppression and engagement of infrastructure targets deep behind enemy lines. Air defense is another area of military technology that is rapidly becoming unmanned. Requirements for critical thinking and decision making in operation of air defense weapons is lower than in operation of aircraft, making air defense systems ideal candidates for automation. Even today we have air defense systems that can operate without any human input.
An example of such a system is the Russian Panzir-S1 wheeled air defense system capable of engaging air and ground targets while operating on full computer control. The logic behind unmanned air defenses is simple: you remove the factor of fear and the factor of incompetence from air defense operations. Similar logic stands behind using unmanned aircraft for air defense suppression: while incompetence in this case is a lesser concern, attacking modern air defenses is close to a suicide mission, so fear on the part of a pilot is a big factor inhibiting the pilot’s performance.
The fear of air defenses is also a factor that influences command decisions at the highest level. The war between NATO and Yugoslavia was the first full-scale war in Europe since the end of the Second World War. During the early stages of the war, NATO command openly talked about its military planners feeling confident in the opponent’s inability to resist. Yugoslavia possessed largely outdated but numerous integrated air defenses arranged with overlapping zones of coverage extending over much of the country.
NATO’s initial task was to suppress these defenses within the first six days of the war, after which NATO’s low-level attack planes would deal with the Yugoslav armor in Kosovo and elsewhere. Use of standoff weapons ensured that every known Yugoslav airfield was severely damaged within the first week of the war. This was the first and the last NATO military success in this war. Unable to suppress Yugoslav air defenses after weeks of bombing, NATO finally had to resort to attacking Yugoslav armor in Kosovo despite high air defense activity in the area.
Fear of operational losses forced NATO aircraft to operate at 15,000 ft to reduce the risk to its aircraft. Operating at this altitude made it impossible to effectively detect and identify enemy targets. The later-deposed NATO commander Gen. Wesley Clark claimed some six hundred Yugoslav “tanks” destroyed during the first two months of bombing. However, following the war it was confirmed that only 13 Yugoslav tanks were destroyed in Kosovo, and only three of them were relatively modern M84s. Yugoslavia acknowledged the loss of 26 tanks in Kosovo (ten of them were repairable and were transported out of the province when the war ended), however, Yugoslav command claimed that most of these losses were inflicted by the Kosovo Liberation Army fighters and not by NATO aviation.
In Yugoslavia 1960s air defense technology for three months successfully fended off an armada of over a thousand aircraft of the world’s most modern air forces. Failing to cause any real damage to the Yugoslav army, NATO resorted to bombing civilian targets in an attempt to put more political pressure on the Yugoslav government. During three months of bombing NATO killed about 3,000 Yugoslav civilians, while during the same period of time the Yugoslav army sustained about 300 fatalities: mostly from the hands of the KLA fighters in Kosovo.
Such unimpressive performance by NATO aviation was to a great extent due to the failure of unmanned reconnaissance aircraft. Forced to operate at over 15,000 feet manned planes were of little use for detecting such ground targets as enemy vehicles, air defenses, artillery and machine gun positions and other small point-targets. Operating at such high altitude also left NATO pilots unable to effectively distinguish decoys from real targets, resulting in history’s most intensive air war against rubber tanks and plywood planes. This wasted time, fuel, ammunition and inflated NATO’s count of supposedly destroyed enemy hardware.
NATO commanders were counting on reconnaissance UAVs to provide real-time information on the position of enemy ground forces. A great variety of advanced UAVs were deployed over Yugoslavia by several NATO countries. The primary UAV operators were the US, the UK, Germany and France. Only the Americans and the British operated modern UAVs capable of providing real-time information. UAVs from Germany and France, like the turbojet-powered CL-289 and propeller-driven Crecerelle, flew along a preprogrammed route and gathered intelligence was processed following the UAV’s retrieval.
Autonomous operation of an aircraft is not limited to advanced computer controls: airbase infrastructure required for combat aircraft operation is, as recent history shows, another major point of concern. During the NATO aggression against Yugoslavia the country’s Air Force survived the onslaught of NATO airpower largely intact through use of underground hangars and ingenious decoys. However, preserving aircraft in underground shelters or using elaborate camouflage served no purpose during the war: with the airbase infrastructure destroyed even the planes that survived the bombing without a scratch were mostly useless. Preserving its combat aviation was a big achievement on the part of the Yugoslav military, but an achievement that had little effect on the outcome of the war.
Modern combat aircraft require well-equipped facilities for sustained operations. This is not only quality runways, but also climate-controlled hangars, hi-tech maintenance facilities, advanced ammunition depots and housing for numerous personnel. The runways, however, are the most important requirement that make an airbase so big and vulnerable. Airbases are large fixed engineering complexes that cannot be easily moved or well camouflaged. For example, locations of all US airbases are known to Russia and vice-versa. In the event of a war both side will attempt to take out each other’s airbases with the first strike. The planes may survive the attack in reinforced underground hangars, but the airbases themselves will be destroyed, leaving the surviving aircraft to spend the rest of the war in hiding. In a situation like this an aircraft that can take off and land without a runway becomes invaluable.
In the not-so-distant past a vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) fighter aircraft was a compromise between vertical take-off and a fighter aircraft. Such aircraft were designed and built primarily to be used at sea to operate from combat ships – the “jump jet” carriers. The first aircraft to come close to bridging this performance gap between ground-based and carrier-borne fighters was the experimental Yak-141 (NATO designation: “Freestyle”). With the cooperation of the Yakovlev Design Bureau, Lockheed-Martin was able to incorporate some of the revolutionary design features of the Yak-141 into its JSF program competitor – the X-35. Unfortunately, since then the F-35 got fat and lost its main attraction – VTOL capability – turning this once-promising design into yet another overpriced USAF toy.
If you are fighting a war against an enemy without long-range strike capability, your airbases are safely out of range. But imagine that your enemy actually has the means to take out your airfields at a distance of, say, a couple thousand miles. An airbase is one of the highest-value targets and your enemy will concentrate all available firepower on its fixed location. It will be only a matter of time until your airbase is destroyed, making STOVL capability a very attractive feature in a combat aircraft and not just in a carrier-based aircraft. But, even with modern jet engine technology, vertical take-off comes at a high price of shorter range and lower payload. Financial considerations aside, the F-35 is a prime example of a good idea gone completely off-course. This aircraft no longer meets original technical requirements. However, so much money and, most importantly, time went into its development, that the USAF and other customers have no choice but to adjust their expectations to match the sad technical reality.
US experiences of the 1991 Persian Gulf war, the 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, and the latest American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had a great impact on the development of combat aviation not only in the US but also in Russia. The VVS planners work under the assumption that eventually Russia will find itself on the receiving end of the US war machine in a large-scale, high-tech conventional air war with possible limited use of low-yield nuclear weapons. Still far from resolving its economic and military problems and mindful of Yugoslavia’s experience, Russia continues to emphasize development of conventional take-off manned aircraft. There is proven logic behind this approach that has to do a lot with Russia’s vast territory and its advanced air defenses – easily the best in the world. These two key factors combine to increase the likelihood of Russian airbases surviving intact any aerial assault NATO can muster. This approach also places great emphasis on increasing the range of Russian multirole fighter aircraft as well as the range of its air-to-air missiles and air defense systems.
Nevertheless, there is realization among VVS commanders that the country’s vast territory and capable air defenses may lead its military planners into a false sense of security. The Russian Air Force recognizes the need for a light fighter-bomber capable of good STOL (if not VTOL) performance to replace its aging fleet of fighters and fighter-bombers. While the development of the PAK FA aircraft continues with Sukhoi’s T-50 prototype, expected to fly in 2009, the VVS is now in talks with MiG and Yakovlev to develop a light fighter-bomber concept similar to the previously-canceled LFS (Light Frontal Aircraft) project. With its target empty weight of 20 tonnes the PAK FA itself will be smaller than the Su-27-family fighters it is designed to replace. However, the Russian Air Force is asking MiG to study a fighter concept with the empty weight of 10-12 tonnes, which would place such an aircraft in the same weight class as the American F-35. Very little technical information is available on the PAK FA project. However, it is believed to be a counterpart to the F-22, rather than to F-35, as was originally thought.
Operating under considerable financial strain Russian aerospace industry is being very open to international cooperation even when dealing with such highly-classified projects as the PAK FA. Talks with India have produced a preliminary agreement for the joint development of the PAK FA with the target service entry date set in 2015. Also, there have been reports that Brazil may have joined the PAK FA project as an alternative to its failed Project F-X. The eraly prototype of the PAK FA is expected to fly with two Saturn 117S engines – an advanced development of the Saturn AL-31F developed for the Su-35BM fighter-bomber, incorporating some design features of the AL-41F turbofan. The production version of the PAK FA will be powered by a more powerful engine currently in development by Saturn and Salyut.
An intersting development on the Russian UCAV scene – aside from MiG’s low-observability turbofan-powered “Skat” and KVAND’s VTOL turbojet-powered “Shtil” – is the unmanned version of the Yakovlev-Aermacchi Yak-130 trainer/light attack aircraft – the Yak-133BR. Externally, this UCAV will not look much like the Yak-130, but it will have up to 40% interchangeable parts with the manned Yak-130. Yakovlev has two more UAV designs: the “Albatross” – a prop-driven small recon UAV – and the “Expert” – a larger tilt-rotor convertiplane. Other notable designs are KVAND “Husky” unmanned recon helicopter; Sukhoi’s long-range turbofan-powered Zond-1, Zond-2, and Zond-3; the Eniks “Eleron” mini-UAV equipped with an advanced thermal vision camera developed by TASK-T; and the turbojet-powered Tupolev Tu-300. In fact, there are more UAVs in development in Russia than in any other country in the world, including the US. The main obstacle for the developers – aside from financial considerations – is the lack of clear and practical requirements from the Russian military.