Russia successfully tested a second prototype of its revolutionary new "fifth-generation" fighter plane Thursday, a futuristic, ultrafast, and stealthy warbird that may be in the possession of the Russian Air Force by 2013.
If Russian claims about the Sukhoi T-50 multirole fighter are true, then the country that has made do with Soviet-era arms for the past two decades is poised to roar into the 21st century with a cutting-edge weapons system that is so advanced and complex that only the US has been able to field one.
"This is a unique achievement for post-Soviet Russia, and we're leaving Europe, China, and Japan far behind" in the race to build a fifth-generation fighter, says Alexander Khramchikin, an expert with the independent Institute of Political and Military Analysis. "This puts Russia at the top level in military development, and even higher."
China recently tested its own version of a stealth fighter, but Russian experts say China's J-20 lacks many characteristics of the so-called fifth-generation warplanes, which are known for sustained supersonic cruise, over-the-horizon radar visibility, integrated weapons and navigation systems managed by artificial intelligence, and high-performance frames made from space-age materials.
Only one warplane fitting this bill, the US F-22 Raptor, has so far entered service anywhere, with the F-35 Lightning II due to become operational in 2016. Both have been criticized for their staggering price tag; critics have alleged that after research and development costs are factored in, the F-22 comes to more than $300 million per plane.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who recently was photographed inspecting the T-50, insisted last year that Russia has spent only $1 billion developing its new plane, and would invest another billion to make it production-ready.
After Thursday's successful 44-minute T-50 flight test, the Russian Air Force announced it would start buying the planes as early as 2013, as part of a $650 billion rearmament program ordered by the Kremlin last week.
Even skeptics say Thursday's successful rollout of another T-50 prototype shows that Russia is bouncing back as a leading military power.
"There is a big controversy going on [among Russian experts] about whether the T-50 is mostly a PR creation," says Viktor Baranets, a former Defense Ministry spokesman who's now a military columnist for the Moscow daily Komsomolskaya Pravda. "But I must say, even if it is being over-sold a bit, that second plane in the air looks really good."