Background: Russia’s economic woes delayed progression of Russia’s 5th Generation fighter aircraft until the late 2000’s, with the first prototype of the next generation PAK-FA fighter flying in 2010.
PAK-FA is the program name and stands for “Perspektivny Aviatsionny Kompleks Frontovoy Aviatsii” (Future aviation complex - frontline aircraft) and the actual aircraft will likely get a regular Su- designation and NATO reporting name. Contrary to many speculations, the T-50 prototype designation does not automatically make it the Su-50 in service. Sukhoi normally reserves even numbered designations for strike aircraft. If I was a betting person I’d wager the in-service designation will be Su-41. The NATO reporting name is also subject to much speculation, with “Firefox” being a popular choice. Firefox was of course the name attributed to the fictional Soviet “MiG-31 Firefox” super-fighter of the 1982 box-office blooper of the same name.
If air combat was won on looks, the sleek Sukhoi PAK-FA would be the undeniable king of the modern battlefield. Aesthetically often compared to the universally popular Northrop YF-23 Black Widow (which lost to the YF-22 to become USAF’s 5th generation stealth fighter), the Sukhoi is both elegant and menacing at the same time. The PAK-FA has been hyped for several years and the recently unveiled the prototype has exceeded expectations in many corners and increased speculative comparisons to F-22 and F-35.
The T-50 has a generally conventional layout with tailplanes, but additionally moving LERX above the engine intakes. The tail fins are unusually small, and all-moving. The engines are mounted far apart, optimizing the impact of the 3D thrust vectoring control, and allowing for two large weapons bays mounted in tandem between them.
Unknowns: At the time of writing, speculation is rampant regarding obvious features such as the size, stealth, weapons and avionics. In some dark corners of the internet this debate extends to the exact manner of main undercarriage stowage, and the manner of hiding the engine turbines from radar waves entering the engine inlets. To my amateur eye, the popular size estimate of 22m in length is somewhat too long; I suspect that overall dimensions are approximately as per F-22.
From certain angles the T-50 looks considerably smaller than the Flanker, although the internal volume is probably closer than it may first appear as T-50 has a more compact layout.
My artist’s impression of an in-service PAK-FA. The only noticeable differences to the T-50 prototype are the lack of external framing in the canopy, and the covering of the T-50’s exposed metal engine shroud to allow RAM paint over this part. The above illustration is generally compatible with Saturn’s artist’s concept.
At this time it seems likely that here are three airframes, one being a static test unit. It is not clear if both of the others are flying, but at least one has received a RuAF style splinter camouflage scheme and non-standard Russian Star emblem on the tail (note that it is not the now-standard and generally unpopular tri-color star of the RuAF).