As promised, Rostec has finally unveiled Russia’s next-generation single-engine fighter aircraft on July 20, the opening day for this year’s MAKS International Aviation and Space Salon organised in Zhukovsky. The 2021 edition introduced multiple surprises as well, alongside the full-scale mockup of “Checkmate”.
The new fighter aircraft was teased nearly a week ago from the official release when a 35-second video was published by Rostec corporation with “Coming Soon” in the final frame of the video. The official site also displayed the programme as “Checkmate” with a full presentation scheduled for Tuesday. The video also featured pilots from foreign nations, indicating Moscow’s approach regarding its new 5th generation fighter aircraft.
Under development by Russian aerospace giant JSC Sukhoi, the new aircraft appears to derive its technology as well as some proportion of aerodynamics from the already existing Su-57 “Felon”, twin-engine fifth-generation fighter and first of its kind from Russia. However, the new warplane’s design is a tailless delta wing configuration with uniquely adopted chin-mounted air intakes. Such design was also adopted on US origin Boeing X-32, an experimental prototype for stealth aircraft pitched against X-35, what is known today as F-35 “Lightning II”.
The aircraft will reportedly feature Short Take-Off and Landing (STOL), approx. 2500 km range with 1500 km combat radius, speed upto Mach 1.5 and more than 7-ton payload in multirole configurations. The armament package is the same as that of Su-57, including R-77-1 medium-range radar-guided air-to-air missile, R-74 short-range infrared air-to-air missile, Kh-59 family of cruise missiles and more.
According to official statements from authorities, the “Checkmate” is inclined to provide potent and advanced airpower solutions to foreign nations, with a focus on making it user-friendly in terms of cost and maintenance allowing it to be adaptive to various scenarios under which nations, and also the potential customers operate. Rostec’s chief, Sergei Chemezov claimed the price is around US$25 million-US$30 million per unit, making it one of the cheapest platforms.
“Our aim is to make the cost per flight hour as low as possible, to make it economical not only to buy but also to operate,” said Yury Slyusar, General Director of United Aircraft Corporation.
At present, Russia is aiming to offer the aircraft to nations in the Middle East, Asia Pacific region and Latin America. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov also confirmed in his official statement that ally nations can look upon the Checkmate as a compatible platform to fulfil their requirement in low-cost light-fighter class. According to TASS, the head of Rostec, Sergey Chemezov also mentioned potential buyers of the warplane, which were the states from Middle East, Southeast Asia and Latin America who are in talks.
The aircraft is expected to take to the skies in 2023 with the first batch due to be produced in 2026, with planning up to 300 units for domestic necessities.
According to some independent sources, Sukhoi has already built an airframe for ground testing. Also, a new engine shall be developed that would be 30% more powerful and lighter than Saturn AL-41F1 (which would power the initial prototypes).
Three variants are speculated for the aircraft, which would include a single-seater type, a twin-seater training type, and interestingly, an unmanned fully autonomous type (UCAV).
The Russian President, Vladamir Putin was also present to evaluate the new aircraft on display. Impressed by the design, he also praised the Russian aerospace technologies that are growing at a rapid pace to counter the evolving scenario of modern combat and challenge the rivals.
Another chance for India?
India has been procuring Russian origin weapons since the Soviet era. The frontline fighter platforms of the Indian Air Force, Su-30MKI, MiG-29UPG, are in service for decades. However, India is slowly moving away from Russian solutions due to unsatisfactory past experience and “self-reliance” approach. India selected the French Dassault Rafale over MiG-35 in MultiRole Combat Aircraft (MRCA) competition, as well as Boeing AH-64E over Mil Mi-28. Another embarrassment was losing partnership on various programmes including Multirole Transport Aircraft (MTA) between UAC-HAL, and Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) between Sukhoi-HAL.
With Checkmate referring to India since the teaser (with Indian pilot in the front), it is expected that Moscow probably wants to convince New Delhi to look after the new fighter and invest in it to fulfil the future requirements. India is still short of the required fighter squadrons in its fleet and yet to buy sufficient units to cover the gap. The low cost price of the warplane may allow the South Asian nation to gather a quantitative advantage in the region.
However, it is highly unlikely as India is pursuing own fighter jet programmes, which include stealth projects like AMCA and Ghatak (SWiFT). According to Justin Bronk (Research Fellow at the RUSI think-tank and Editor of RUSI Defence Systems), India is “likely to be very wary after its experiences with the PAK FA/FGFA programme and poor support for the Su-30MKI fleet post acquisition.”