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Su-47: The Stealth Fighter Russia’s Air Force Said ‘No’ To

Su-47
Su-47 Artist Rendering. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Su-47: The Russia Fighter That Couldn’t Survive the Chopping Block: Airplanes fail to make it to production for a number of reasons. Sometimes it is because of design flaws. Other times it is a lack of funding. It may be insufficient research and development. Or the main idea for the airplane is just wrong.

For Russia and its Su-47 Golden Eagle it was all of the above.

Su-47: A Short History 

The Su-47 program went badly, but it was not for a lack of trying by the Russians.

Moscow had big plans for the Sukhoi Su-47 throughout the 1980s (when it was first known as the Su-37). It was supposed to become a 5th-generation fighter to challenge the American F-22. The plan was to make it stealthy and highly maneuverable in a dog fight.

Also, the Russians thought that it could take off and land with shorter runways, which would prove valuable when deployed on an aircraft carrier.

Forward-Swept Wings Were a Gamble that Russian Designers Lost

The first glaring aspect of the Su-47 is its forward-swept inverted wings. This was something new that proved to be a problem. It also had moveable canards, a second set of small wings next to the cockpit to improve maneuverability and lift.

Therefore, the forward-swept wings, canards, and horizontal tail-stabilizers gave it a unique design with high angles of attack and longer range.

But the Wings Were Not Without Problems

Forward-swept wings have their downsides. They can be unstable. The wings are exposed to heavy stress, particularly at fast speeds. During this kind of pressure, the wings should bend without breaking, a characteristic that proved difficult if not dangerous. Forward swept wings can also lead to unrecoverable stalls.

Forward-swept wings also require extremely sturdy materials to endure the twisting pressure applied on the wing roots. The added weight of the reinforcements turned out to be a problem too difficult for the airplane’s developers to solve.

More Serious Issues With the Wings

Nevertheless, the Russians built a technology demonstrator that first flew in 1997. Problems quickly became apparent.

The lighter composite-fiber wings were at risk when conducting high-speed movements. This resulted in stress cracks that required the replacement of the composite fiber. It would have been nice if this could have been fixed with spot repairs, but this was not the case. It made the Su-47 expensive to maintain. The fighter was already 18-tons without munitions and the added pressure on its wings was going to be a major issue.

However, the Su-47 has a fly-by-wire feature. Computers monitor sensors around the airplane to make automatic modifications that improve in-flight characteristics. This aspect was planned to overcome the problems with the swept wings and provide more stability.

The engines are above average. The two D-30F-11 turbojet engines enabled a speed of MACH 1.65, not MACH 2, which was the Russians’ goal.

Su-47: Not Really Stealthy

The Su-47 was supposed to be able to evade radar. Is the Su-47 really stealthy?

Air combat experts don’t agree. It probably had some stealth coatings for radar evasion characteristics, but it was certainly not completely stealthy. It did have an internal weapons bay which is required for stealth flying.

Could a Russian-DARPA Have Saved the Su-47?

Unlike the Americans, at the time of the Su-47 development, the Russians had no agency comparable to DARPA. Although in 2012, they created the DARPA-like Russian Foundation for Research Projects. This agency could have put the brakes on certain aspects of the airplane’s technology that weren’t going to work. That way, the Su-47 program could have been truly experimental like the U.S. DARPA-developed X-29 that also had forward-swept wings. After testing, DARPA considered the X-29 airplane unstable. Having DARPA as a partner is a good way to not go over budget or experience delays because the agency can quickly cancel a program during signs of trouble. Then certain aspects of the airplane that do happen to work can be used on other fighter planes to help next-generation models.

How About a Competition Between Defense Contractors?

Also, the Russians could have held a competition for something called the “Project 47 Golden Eagle” (Sukhoi versus MiG) that may have resulted in them finding that the forward-swept wings were not going to work much earlier in the prototype’s life cycle – before they ran out of money and resources, for example.

Su-47

Su-47. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Su-47

Image: Creative Commons.

Su-47

Image Credit: Creative Commons/Artist Rendition.

Su-47

Artist Concept. Image: Creative Commons.

Su-47

Image: Creative Commons.

But now Sukhoi and MiG are merging together to create the “Russian Division of Battle Aviation” of the United Aircraft Corporation. So, the idea for two companies to compete on an airplane contract bid (similar to American acquisition practices) may never happen in Russia.

Su-47 Fades Into History 

The Su-47 is thus a cautionary tale for airplanes that do not make it to fruition. Only one technology demonstrator was built. The airplane was too experimental and ahead of its time and it died a slow death. No agency such as DARPA was there to give the program a course correction or a timely cancellation. A competition between Sukhoi and MiG could have perhaps given the Russians a better product and ability to determine that the forward-swept wings were a non-starter.

Now serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood.

Written By

Now serving as 1945s New Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.

7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. Brian

    January 4, 2022 at 11:03 pm

    A twin-engine attempted copy of the X-29. [yawn]

  2. Adrian

    January 5, 2022 at 4:35 am

    …btw, with less money russian air force (or soviet) during the last fifty years, made better planes than Usa! This is the real true!
    Adrian

  3. Leonel silva de Matos

    January 5, 2022 at 7:19 am

    Fez aviões melhores? Não tem nem avião verdadeiramente de 5 geração coisa que os EUA têm faz 2 décadas. Aliás o f117 tem 4 décadas e era mais furtivo que o su57 . Quando a menos dinheiro é normal nos EUA um trabalhador ganha num mês o salário de 1 russo em meses

  4. Jose Francisco Martinez

    January 5, 2022 at 7:48 am

    Really where is the russian answer to the F22

  5. Cormac

    January 5, 2022 at 8:35 pm

    If they can build a rocket engine why not a mach 3 set of ponies up in there beautiful looking aircraft wonder how it would have faired if it delivered on the hype

  6. Yuri Reshenko

    January 6, 2022 at 11:08 am

    Copy of American. Hardly. Germany fielded forward swept wings in late 1943 to mid 1944. F22 and F35 too expensive too few. F22 old. F35 not dog fighter still cannot shoot straight. America will not risk them in contested air. Hint B4 you thump chest. Both limited weapon load. Both not close in cannot even turn with 4+ gen MiG, and Sukhoi. You steal coating heats up nicely easy for IR and hypersonic 5second survival. Stand off distance will not be yours. With approx 100 F22 ready at any 1 time we are not worried save your attempt at cobra for airshow. Both are gas hogs.

  7. Alex

    January 9, 2022 at 6:05 am

    SU-47 is a flying laboratory. What kind of invisibility are you talking about? About the one on the f-22 and f-35? Why do they shine like Christmas trees on Russian radars? US invisibility just failed, bro.

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