What does Russia’s fighter debut mean for the U.S.?

This week's "debut" of the T-50 may change the future of air dominance. Then again, it may not.

Former Secretary Gates used to get exasperated when defense advocates on the Hill or elsewhere pointed out that Russia and China were developing fifth-generation fighters. Yeah, Gates said, they have two or three of prototypes of questionable capability, but the United States has a fully realized, industrially built production superfighter it’s fielding in large numbers — and another in the works that will be built in the thousands. Blurry videos, shadowy images and rumors were not reasons, for Gates, to change DoD’s high-end jet plans when it had other, bigger priorities.

Fast forward to this week, when Russia’s famous T-50 is making its “debut” (even though it has already flown publicly) at the MAKS air show. Although America’s numerical and qualitative advantage in fifth-generation gets may still exist — in fact, even at this early stage in the program, there are more F-35s than there are T-50s and J-20s combined — the T-50’s coming out takes place at a symbolically inopportune time for the United States. While it’s burning up the skies over Moscow, America’s F-35s and F-22s are grounded, albeit for different reasons, and even if it wanted to, the U.S. military couldn’t respond to Russia’s demonstration with one of its own.

Russia’s latest fighters are at least the equal of America’s, its top commanders boasted this week, and the business wires characterized the T-50 demonstration as “lifting the curtain on a secret project designed to flood the market with cheaper versions of veteran U.S. jets.” India, the fighter’s main development partner, could buy as many as 200 of them, and Russia could buy 150. Soon, all the squadrons upon squadrons of T-50s in service around the world will blot out the sun and usher in a new era of Russian-built air dominance, right?

Well, maybe. Say what you want about the Russians — and there’s no doubt they’ve built some excellent military hardware over the years — but there are some reasons to be skeptical about the prospects for this airplane. The biggest defense firms in the world, spending the biggest defense budget in the world, are having trouble with mature designs and technology in the F-22 and F-35. Are Russia and India willing to spend at the same levels to perfect, build and field these kinds of quantities of T-50s? And beyond India, who are the export clients that will enable Russia to “flood the market” with cheap new stealth jets?

It sounds like a lot of old-fashioned Russian hokum — like the new fleet of aircraft carriers that’s always only a few years away; or the ‘arms race’ that’s going to start over a U.S.-Euro missile defense shield; or the political strategies behind its weapons designs. It brought to mind one of my favorite quotes: As naval expert Norman Friedman wrote in his classic “Modern Warship: Design and Development,” back in the bad old days, the Soviet navy wanted its warships to clearly bristle with guns and missile tubes. The idea was to make their American counterparts seem like welterweights by comparison:

Admiral Sergei Gorshkov has undoubtedly done a superb job of convincing his superiors about the virtues of a navy, and they have responded by buying him a series of what are certainly very expensive warships. It may well be that an important element in their own acceptance of this cost has been the impressive and aggressive appearance of the larger Soviet warships, which Gorshkov can describe as bargains (per unit of apparent firepower) in comparison to the ‘yachts‘ of the West.

How capable were they? How would they fare if the big balloon went up? Valid questions, but observers always also had to contend with the fact that the Soviets’ warships just looked fearsome, which is exactly what their designers wanted.

So — the T-50 may be the baddest thing in the sky since Zeus tossed his first thunderbolt, but no matter what kind of air show demonstration it puts on, and what kind of sales pitch it gets, it’s probably worth reserving final judgment for now. Same goes for the American fighters, too.