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Meet the Su-47: Russia’s First Stealth Fighter Failure

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

The Su-47 was Russia‘s very first attempt to build a stealth fighter. Needless to say, it did not end up like the F-22 or F-35: 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.

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.

6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Iain

    April 5, 2022 at 5:15 am

    Wrong. Su-47 was never meant to be a stealth fighter.

  2. Jacky

    April 5, 2022 at 6:03 am

    By writing this article which is full of glaring inaccuracies, esteemed author has done himself a great disservice.

    Su-47 was meant to explore far flung limits of jet fighter maneuverability, not stealth.

    Like what American researchers found with their x-29, Russian experts eventually concluded that extreme maneuverability conferred by forward swept wing design didn’t jive with wing root durability.

    Today, highly agile fighters aren’t desired too much.USAF bosses were given this very useful hint when someone hit a small mini aerial target 400km distant in Nov 2016.

  3. Allen

    April 5, 2022 at 1:12 pm

    It was actually very successful especially when compared to the x-29 which is also”fly-by-wire” if you accept the computer making the correction in put had less computing power then a Casio calculator watch. Low observable aircraft aren’t completely “invisible” the pendulum has swing to the radar side for now so why spend trillions on gimics that aren’t nearly effective to justify the cost. Just remember most Russian fighters can tail slide(reverse airflow) is a deadly thing for all but one American fighter the f-22 and its almost nonexistent in the scheme of things. This has to be a filler article because research was minimal.

  4. Vadim Yunin

    April 5, 2022 at 5:31 pm

    Furthermore it is REALLY odd that he failed to mention the FACT that Russia has sense designed, developed, and built a ” 5th Gen” Fighter (SU-57) Which successfully became a production jet which is already being used in many squadrons of the RUSSIAN Air force and exported to other airforce through out. . . And is in many areas superior to the
    F-22 and F-35 (s) such as: COST, maneuverability, Top speed, weapon load, and range. Unlike this so called author these are all FACTS. Furthermore he failed to mention the F-22 CRAPTOR was a huge failure as well maybe not in the same way but nevertheless was FACT. It came in 35 BILLION over budget to just produce, failed in its Range, weapon load, cost of manufacturing, cost of operating, top speed, practicality, (damn near impossible to maintain in the field meaning it would have to go to Locheed Martin factory to get a equivalent of a brake job in terms of automobiles …..Not only that but it also flopped in the international sphere 18 / 25 country’s thar initially were supposed to order it just flat out backed out due to outrageous costs and not much to justify it, so much that US classified it as a ” none exportable weapons systems” in theory because they said it was to advanced and high tech and a potential threat in the future for for national security ” In reality they just did it to save face and not loose prestige because it was a flood. Standard procedure for the West lately…..last but not least it was discontinued before it even took off as a whole. There are merely 34 of them still in operation as a novelty more or less. Again to keep face. As if that was not enough waste already they air force , navy, marines… Were forced to instead settle with a slightly better but still a ginormous over priced plane that BARELY BARELY squeezed out better stats than the 4th Gen F-15 s 18s which are still questionable because the only area that is supposedly again supposedly better is the “STEALTH” part of it ….Which by the way there is no definite sience behind because every country has their own opinion of what a 5th generation jet should be ……The Russians have their own reactive theory as does China as does the US ( and in default NATO all though many fo not agree .. example : why does the UK need a jet with huge Range when their island is no bigger than Texas???? And if the need for far away attacks come to they will just use a aircraft carrier ….The Russian stand firm on maneuverability, ease of maintaining in the field and war time operating qualities like taking of and landing on a less than perfect runway as well as attention to over all cost 2.5 su-57 cost as much as ONE Raptor f35 ….Point and case being is as always this so called author just pulled out the negatives and went about as if that was it in the process not even mentioning any POSITIVES which there was and is a lot off….Finally PLEASE do NOT make Russia to be some 2nd rate idiots that don’t know shit mind you sense the end of WW2 Russia and America were the only 2 that actually gad shit that could compete and did so very much all over head to head. I’m some cases one was better in some not … The Unites states has plenty of shit boxes themselves ..SIR do your homework and base it on facts that you can provide right away not pull out of your ass and idk who gave you your so called title but in my opinion you are a amateur.

  5. D. K.

    April 5, 2022 at 5:39 pm

    Agree with all above. It is the first ever article about this project claiming it as a failure. If it was not financially possible to produce and service especially during the fall of USSR, but from the point of test and research it was absolutely amazing built

  6. Thevilified

    April 6, 2022 at 8:24 am

    Wow some real Russ fanboys in the comments. Russian fighters and their build teams are just unable to compete with China and USA currently. Not very shocking due to the enormous costs of these programs and the relatively small GDP of Russia. The su57 is barely seen Eben in this war, while western 5th gen planes are constantly running missions. Hard to day how far the Chinese are currently but USA and likely China are already develop g the 6th Feb fighter while Russia tries to get to 5th hen. It’s a silly move to try to keep up with huge economies in this space, Russia just can’t afford the costs.

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