Russia showed off its next generation stealth fighter for the first time at a highly-publicized air show today, as the best and most expensive stealth fighter jets America has to offer sit idle on the tarmac.
The Sukhoi T-50, also known as the PAK FA, made its public debut at the MAKS-2011 air show near Moscow Tuesday where Russian air force commander-in-chief Gen. Alexander Zelin said the plane is expected to enter mass production as early as 2014, according to Russian state news RIA Novosti.
The T-50, along with China's secretive stealth J-20 fighter, represents the next generation air-power challenge to America's own stealth F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The U.S. jets are currently the most advanced aircraft on the planet -- but the entire U.S. Air Force fleet of next-gen fighters, representing around 200 planes and billions of dollars, has been grounded due to separate technical problems.
The F-35s' electrical problems reportedly have been resolved and could be going back in the air relatively soon, but pilots for the F-22 have been out of a real cockpit for so long they may have to repeat grueling training just to fly the planes again. An Air Force spokesperson told ABC News it still looks like those jets won't be flying again for weeks, if not months.
The spokesperson declined to comment for this report on whether the USAF sees the T-50 as a competitor for the future of air domination, but it's clear that at least Russia's state news organization sees the match-up that way.
The T-50 "is meant to be a rival to the U.S. F-22 Raptor," RIA Novosti said on its website, which also hosted a chart comparing the T-50's capabilities with those of the F-22.
In an April report, a USAF spokesperson and a representative for developer Lockheed Martin told ABC News the Raptor, which specializes in high-tech air-to-air combat, was specifically designed to take on rival, sophisticated air fleets and air defenses such as those currently in development by Russia and China.
Russian Commander: Current Fighters Equal to U.S. F-35s
In 2009, before public sightings of the new Russian and Chinese fighters, Defense Secretary Robert Gates argued to cut funding for the F-22s, saying they did "not make much sense" in a world where U.S. adversaries were almost exclusively third world air defenses and insurgent groups.
"The F-22 is clearly a capability we do need -- a niche, silver-bullet solution for one or two potential scenarios -- specifically the defeat of a highly advanced enemy fighter fleet," Gates said then. "[But] the F-22, to be blunt, does not make much sense anyplace else in the spectrum of conflict."
Despite the U.S. Air Force's involvement in multiple major combat operations since the F-22s went operational in December 2005, the fighters have never been sent into combat.
In defense of the program, dozens of supporters in Congress and state governments wrote letters to President Obama in 2009 arguing the full force of F-22s would be needed to meet the future challenge of other nations like Russia and China. At the time, Gates dismissed those claims and said the U.S. next generation fighters would greatly outnumber any adversaries' for the next 15 years at least.
In the end, Congress halted funding for the F-22 program at $77 billion on 187 fighters, rather than the original full order for 648 jets. As far as the F-35s, the U.S. military has received and is testing 20 models from Lockheed Martin as part of a plan to acquire nearly 2,500 jets by 2035 at a total cost estimated at $385 billion -- the single most expensive defense acquisition program in U.S. history.
For their part, the Chinese said their jet, while a giant leap forward technologically, is not intended to be seen as a threat to the U.S.
"The People's Liberation Army has no ability, and even more than that, has no intention, to challenge America's territory and global military advantage, and does not have any aims to pursue military hegemony in the region," Rear-Admiral Yang Yi wrote in the overseas edition of the People's Daily in January.