Several things have been said about Sukhoi Checkmate, the latest Russian 5th generation aircraft unveiled earlier this week. Let’s review them.
The fifth-generation lightweight single-engine fighter, that might be designated Su-75 (based on the registration and bort number) is said to be stealth; to embed artificial intelligence; to be able to operate in a networked environment; to carry supercomputer technologies along with AESA radar as well as a wide array of weapons.
The aircraft is being developed for the international market: it’s basically an export product, with some elements in common with the Su-57 Felon, but cheaper to operate, that could be pitched to several foreign customers, including UAE, India, Vietnam and Argentina which appear in the first promotional video released ahead of the official presentation by Rostec.
The aircraft unveiled at MAKS is obviously a mock up, better done and certainly more realistic than many we have seen in the past, but certainly not a prototype yet. The description of the shape and main features of the Checkmate can be found here. Some interesting details could be gathered by analysing the close up images taken at Zhukovsky while others were disclosed during the official unveiling while others have emerged from the media hype that followed the presentation of the new stealth aircraft.
Dealing with the LO (Low Observability) characteristics, the aircraft shows its Su-57 DNA: the two-piece bubble canopy with exposed frame; rounded edges; unstealthy IRST pod. In terms of performance, the aircraft is said to have a 7,400 kg payload, a maximum speed of Mach 1.8, and a combat range of 1,700 km without additional fuel tanks. While not a new class of supermaneuverable fighters, the new aircraft is reported to be capable of maneuvering at 8g and sustained flying at supersonic speeds.
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“LTS Checkmate is a combat system of the future. On the basis of a single aviation platform, it is also possible to create an unmanned version of this aircraft,” said Head of Rostec Chemezov, suggesting the aircraft could evolve into a potentially unmanned platform. The aircraft is also going to be networked with UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles). To that respect the Checkmate could leverage the work conducted with the Su-57 that is being integrated with the S-70 Okhotnik-B (or “Hunter-B”) UCAV (Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle): depending on the level of commonality between the Su-75 and the Su-57, the manned-unmanned teaming (MUM/T) segment could be much easier to develop considered the main issues with datalinks and interfaces should be addressed as part of the testing done with the Felon.
Its cost is currently estimated at less than 30M USD, a price that would make the Checkmate much cheaper than the majority of the most famous Western 5th generation (or quasi-5th gen.) platforms and many “local alternatives“. However, this truly appears to be a best case scenario, i.e. the one suggested by Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov who said that “the demand for this kind of aircraft is quite high, it is estimated at least 300 aircraft in the near future.”
While there’s significant market for entry-level stealth platforms, much of the success of the new light fighter depends on its ability to attract domestic investments and foreign partners and their money. Rostec says Checkmate’s potential customers already had a look at the Checkmate: delegates from Middle East, Asia, North Africa and Latin America have already been shown the mock up and sit in its cockpit. At the moment, the technology demonstrator is expected to perform its first flight in 2023 with prototypes coming in 2024-25 and potential first deliveries of production aircraft in the 2026-2027 timeframe. A bit optimistic timeline, considered the issues all 5th generation projects (including Russia’s Su-57 Felon) have faced in the past. There are also some quite new (at least for the Russian aerospace industry) aerodynamic features to test across the flight envelope, like the peculiar chin air intake, and many futuristic technologies (like AI) to make it work. Will the aircraft really keep all the “promises” made by Rostec and other industry officials before and during the Checkmate presentation? Will the LTS put Russia “ahead of the game” as some analysts have stated? We’ll see.