After confronting serious technical and economic difficulties, Russia has dramatically cut back its air force program to field its first radar-evading “stealth” fighter jet. By delaying large-scale acquisition of the Sukhoi T-50 fighter, the Kremlin is tacitly acknowledging a truth that the U.S. military learned decades ago — and that China might also learn in coming years: developing stealth fighters is hard.
But fortunately for the Russian air force, and unfortunately for Washington and its allied air arms that are Russia’s chief rivals, Moscow has a backup plan. Instead of counting on a new stealth jet to outfit its fighter squadrons, the Russian government is buying heavily upgraded versions of older planes — an approach the Pentagon has dismissed as wasteful. It could, however, help Russia maintain its aerial edge.
The T-50, like practically all stealth aircraft before it, has proved expensive to develop, although exactly how expensive remains a closely guarded secret. Radar-evading warplanes require careful design work, extensive testing and exotic materials for their construction — all features that can double or triple their cost compared to conventional, non-stealthy planes.
Even with their high cost, air forces all over the world are scrambling to acquire stealth aircraft because their ability to avoid detection can, in theory, offer a big advantage in air-to-air combat and during bombing runs.
But a competing theory of aerial warfare argues that stealth is overrated — and it’s better to buy greater numbers of cheaper, non-stealthy planes. Moscow’s troubles in developing the T-50 have compelled it to adhere to the competing philosophy. (end of excerpt)
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