Su-57 and French next-gen fighter share surprising similarity

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There’s a recent video that shows the wind-tunnel tests of a new French fighter jet concept. Interestingly, this is a central feature of the Russian Su-57 Felon advanced fighter. In fact, they look extremely similar in general configuration. This suggests that we might see more of this design in future jets, particularly those that don’t have a tail. 

Onera, a leading French aerospace research institute, released the video. It displays a jet model prepared for the Superman project. At Onera’s S1 wind tunnel, the project investigates how a combat aircraft behaves when pushed to the edge. The spotlight is on the new LEVCON control surface that can tilt up to 100 degrees in just one second. These tests were conducted towards the end of last year. 

Unveiled at the Paris Air Show, the Superman project is a stepping stone towards the Next Generation Fighter [NGF]. The NGF will be a manned combat aircraft. It’s part of the multinational Future Combat Air System [FCAS] project, started by France and Germany, and now includes Spain and Belgium.

Just to clarify, FCAS is also known as Système de Combat Aérien du Futur [SCAF] in France. This is different from Britain’s FCAS project, which goes by the name Global Combat Air Program [GCAP], and has collaborators from Italy and Japan. Both the French FCAS/SCAF and the British GCAP are developing state-of-the-art manned combat aircraft, drones, and other airborne weapons. 

According to an article from Aviation Week last summer, the Superman research project focuses on exploring the capabilities of a combat aircraft and enhancing its maneuverability. One of its aims is to design the Next Generation Fighter [NGF] for optimal maneuverability.

Basically, the “Superman” test model is a blueprint for future high-tech fight aircraft systems. However, it’s not clear yet how this research will be used in the Next Generation Fighter [NGF] system. 

YouTube screenshot

Planes without tails offer quite a few advantages. For instance, they’re more difficult to spot on radar and their radar visibility is greatly reduced from many angles. They also cut through the air more efficiently, which allows them to fly faster for a longer time. If you want to dive deeper into these technologies.

Let’s break this down a bit. Tail-less aircraft designs may lose their agility unless they’re coupled with top-notch digital flight control systems. Think of a LEVCON as part of the plane’s main wings – it brings handy benefits for various flight stages. 

Here’s an example. For slow-speed flights, LEVCONs up the control power by producing more lift – useful when a plane is about to land on an aircraft carrier. That’s why you’ll spot LEVCONs on aircraft like Russia’s carrier-based MiG-29K/KUB fighter and India’s naval variant of the HAL Light Combat Aircraft. Thanks to LEVCONs, these planes stay stable while nearing the carrier. But, these LEVCONs are pretty simple compared to the advanced flight-control equipment used in other planes, like the Su-57 and the Superman study model. The LEVCONs in these aircraft are double as maneuvering slats and handy canards and can help control the aircraft’s roll thanks to the digital flight control system.

YouTube Screenshot

Although France is considering using the Next Generation Fighter [NGF] for their naval forces, the main goal of current studies on LEVCONs isn’t centered around ship applications. 

LEVCONs, a unique feature on the tailless NGF, contribute to its superior maneuverability. This is despite its blended wing design, similar to a delta, which doesn’t include vertical tail surfaces. The Su-57, unlike the NGF, utilizes both horizontal and vertical tail surfaces and also employs LEVCONs to boost its maneuverability. This aircraft is equipped with 12 active flight control surfaces and engine nozzles capable of adjusting their direction. 

One might note that LEVCONs can increase what’s known as static instability. This is a good thing for aircraft maneuverability, particularly at supersonic speeds. By pushing the aircraft’s center of pressure forward, LEVCONs make the aircraft less stable, which actually makes it easier to steer. That being said, controlling high levels of static instability requires a cutting-edge fly-by-wire flight control system.

Experts suggest that the Su-57, first known as the T-50 prototype, incorporates LEVCONs [Leading Edge Vortex Controllers] prominently. If there’s a malfunction in the thrust-vector control at post-stall angles of attack, LEVCONs play a vital role in ensuring the aircraft’s recovery. They achieve this by swiftly deflecting downwards to lessen the wing-body section’s area ahead of the aircraft’s center of gravity. 

YouTube screenshot

It’s crucial to note that while LEVCONs offer substantial benefits for extremely agile aircraft models, they’re particularly helpful for tailless fighter aircraft. Currently, countries like Europe, the USA, and China are carrying out extensive research in this area. 

Sure, having a maneuvering surface in the frontal part of the aircraft’s airframe might not seem perfect for low observability. But, this can be effectively tackled by integrating these surfaces into a streamlined design. When the aircraft isn’t executing difficult maneuvers, this approach enhances low observability to the maximum. By purposefully designing the surfaces, they can be integrated smoothly into the aircraft’s whole low-observable design, minimizing any potential surge in the radar signature.

Recent reports hint that China might be working on a next-generation fighter jet with a unique feature — it doesn’t have a tail. This aircraft was seen for the first time at an airfield run by a leading Chinese fighter manufacturer in October 2021.

At the 2019 Paris Air Show, Dassault Aviation gave us a glimpse of a full-scale NGF model that had tilted tailfins, but it wasn’t apparent whether the wings included LEVCONs. In a later design by Airbus, the fighter model featured dual tailfins and noticeable panels on the leading-edge roots, perhaps signifying the use of LEVCONs to enhance maneuverability or electronic warfare capabilities. 

As we all keep an eye out for more information, one thing is clear: the use of LEVCONs, akin to those used in the Russian Su-57 design, is very much on the table in the development of France’s future combat aircraft.

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