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Russia flexes military power with 'futuristic' fighter jet

Russia returned to the global stage Friday as a first-rank military and technological power by launching a 'fifth generation' fighter plane, with futuristic characteristics of stealth, sustained supersonic cruise, and integrated weapons.

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Kremlin leaders have been promising to build this new aircraft for years as part of a broader effort to re-arm and modernize Russia's crumbling Soviet-era armed forces. Though Russia handily won its brief 2008 war with neighboring Georgia, the conflict revealed massive shortcomings in its military machine, including disastrously poor air support for ground forces and almost nonexistent aerial reconnaissance capability.

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Prime Minister Putin praised the T-50's first flight as a "big step" in restoring Russia's traditional place as a global military power, and pledged that the air force will start receiving production models of the plane in about three years.

As Russia's president, Putin launched a sweeping, $200-billion rearmament program that aims to introduce new generations of nuclear submarines, intercontinental missiles, tanks, and aircraft carriers for the armed forces within the next five years.

Experts say the T-50 fighter, which has been developed in partnership with Russia's leading arms client India, will also go far toward restoring the tattered reputation of Russia's military-industrial complex as a leading supplier of weaponry in global markets.

"This is really good advertising; it shows buyers of Russian-made hardware that we can produce the most modern weapons and also improve them," says Vitaly Shlykov, a former Soviet war planner who now works as a civilian adviser to the Russian Defense Ministry.

"We invested a lot in this plane, and the fact that we can fly it has a big psychological impact," he says. "It has a huge symbolic meaning for Russia itself."

But skeptics say we'd best wait for more details about the top-secret plane of which we have seen, so far, only a few superficial images.

"We see the plane has some external characteristics that are new, but we have no way of knowing whether it actually possesses the technological features that would make it a fighter of the fifth generation," says Alexander Golts, military expert for the independent Yezhednevny Zhurnal, an online news magazine.

"It's great that it took off. Hurray. But I want to know a lot more about it."

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