Russia’s “Checkmate” export stealth fighter is not guaranteed for the game

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A marketing campaign apparently inspired by Marvel’s Avenger films allowed Russian military conglomerate Rostec to successfully create a tidal wave ahead of the unveiling of its new concept of its single-engine “Checkmate” stealth aircraft.

First, a trailer released by Rostec described Argentina, India (currently looking for 114 jet fighters), Vietnam and the United Arab Emirates as potential buyers. Next, a full-scale mock-up of the small pointed-nosed jet was shown to Putin on July 20, 2021, during a fluorescent light show at the biennial MAKS airshow near Moscow, although photos of the jet have already been leaked. online a few days ago. .

Sukhoi, the leading Russian manufacturer of fighter jets, is struggling to ramp up production of the Su-57 multirole twin-engine stealth fighters, with just four to deliver this year. But in 2020, it began privately developing a Light Tactical Aircraft (LTA) from Su-57 components for overseas buyers looking to acquire stealth jets at low cost and / or without having to travel to Washington for buy F-35s.

Defense chief Yuri Borisov said Sukhoi hopes to seek foreign funding and plans to export more than three hundred Checkmate planes over the next fifteen years. Rostec CEO Sergei Chemezov also assured that the Russian military would buy a Checkmate plane and claimed, rather dubiously, that the new jet would cost $ 25-30 million apiece, not just about a third of the cost of the aircraft. ‘an F-35A, but cheaper than the non-Russian one. – Su-35S stealth fighter.

If the Checkmate receives government funding, which, again, is do not guaranteed – it will make its first flight in 2023, followed by a prototype aircraft in 2024-2025, with development ending and series production starting in 2026-2027. This lightning-fast schedule is very optimistic, given that it took more than two decades to bring the Su-57 and F-35 stealth jets into operational service.

Still, the strength of the concept could eventually lead Checkmate to complete development, so let’s take a look at what’s on offer.

Flight performance

Checkmate would likely be powered by an AL-41F thrust vector turbojet engine, theoretically allowing the jet to reach a service ceiling of 54,000 feet and a top speed of Mach 1.8, on par with most modern non-stealth fighters. . Reportedly, the airframe will withstand up to eight times the force of gravity (most modern fighters can handle nineGs) and can accelerate and maneuver quickly thanks to a thrust-to-weight ratio of 1+. Supposedly, it will “maintain continuous supersonic flight”, although the super cruise (supersonic cruise without afterburner) has not been claimed.

Curiously, some sources claim a speed of Mach 1.53 (1900 km / h). Perhaps the higher figures assume the use of the izdeliye 30 variant of AL-41F, the development of which has not yet been completed.

The jet would have a good maximum payload of 8.1 tons, a maximum range of 1,864 miles and a combat radius of 932 to 1,180 miles. This is unusually far for a light jet and could be extended using a retractable air refueling probe.

All weather / climate compatible, Checkmate is said to be able to take off and land from short runways thanks to its thrust vector engine, have low operating costs per flight hour and maintenance requirements, and no would not require special ground infrastructure. operate.

Sukhoi also boasts that the aircraft’s modular architecture could easily facilitate the development of a two-seater model (ideal for training and ground attack), a variant based on an aircraft carrier with a reinforced chassis, customized export models and an unmanned combat drone variant aimed at Russian military supply.

Weapons

Checkmate would be compatible with a large menu of guided weapons already integrated in the Su-57. This includes export variants of the R-74 short range and beyond visual range R-77-1 and R-37M missiles; Kh-35 and Kh-59MK anti-ship cruise missiles; Kh-58UShKE anti-radar missiles; the Grom air-to-surface missiles, Kh-31PD and Kh-38; KAB-250 laser-guided bombs and K08BE and K029BE satellite-guided bombs.

It could also carry unguided bombs and S-8 and S-13 rocket pods, and a cannon could be installed in one of the side weapon bays.

Sensors and avionics

Along with the usual infrared search and tracking sensor (IRST) in front of the cockpit, Checkmate would mount a jam-resistant Actively Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar that can engage six air targets or two ground targets simultaneously. Radar and IRST would be integrated with additional sensors, forming a multi-band passive sensor network operating in tandem with a defensive / offensive electronic warfare system.

EASA radars are the current gold standard, but Russia has struggled to integrate them into fighters. Checkmate’s radar can also be limited in opening by its small nose, and the presentation does not mention in particular the active capability with a low probability of interception (stealth radar).

Checkmate’s cockpit instrumentation appears similar to the Su-57s, although separate screens were merged into a single large liquid crystal display (LCD). Rostec stressed that artificial intelligence will lighten the pilots’ workload by performing self-diagnostics before take-off and by co-piloting during combat. The new jet could also serve as a hub to control multiple combat drones, as is planned for the Su-57.

To facilitate maintenance, Checkmate would include a Matreshka automated logistics support system that could schedule predictive maintenance, and an auxiliary power unit to enable aircraft systems to be activated without energizing the engine. Rostec also promises good after-sales service and low maintenance costs, seeking to counter the bad reputation of Russian aerospace manufacturers in these areas.

Stealth design

Potential buyers may be particularly interested in the extent of the Checkmate jet’s potential stealth characteristics, which remain unquantified. Already, non-stealth jets like the Boeing F / A-18E / F Super Hornet and Eurofighter Typhoon have significantly reduced radar cross sections of 1.5 to 0.5 square meters, so Checkmate must achieve considerably observability. weaker to be credibly described as stealthy. plane.

Checkmate’s geometry clearly exhibits features intended to minimize radar reflectivity such as the chin (tapered “sharp” edges) in the nose of the aircraft and the use of rudders / tilted tailerons similar to the prototype fighter Northrop Stealth YF-23 Black Widow. Its more stealthy but more delicate control surfaces, as opposed to traditional horizontal and vertical stabilizers, require more aggressive intervention from the flight computer.

The air intake under the model’s chin is also intriguing. Usually, the fan blades of a turbofan motor are highly radar-reflective, but Sukhoi may intend to use a straight-through supersonic input (DSI) like the one on the F-35 designed to obscure the fans. .

Like any proper stealth aircraft, Checkmate has internal weapon bays. Two entry-mounted “cheek” bays can launch short-range air-to-air missiles, with larger ammunition stowed in a ventral bay, for a maximum payload of five air-to-air missiles stowed inside.

But Checkmate’s stealth cannot be judged by appearances alone, as radar stealth is not only a factor in airframe geometry, it depends on the use of composites and radar absorbing materials (RAM) and of the finesse of manufacture. For example, close-up images do not show the screws and non-flush gaskets required to achieve higher degrees of cross-sectional reduction.

Can Checkmate take off?

The concept plane still requires government funding from Russia and / or abroad to move from a concept to a fully developed reality, which is far from guaranteed given the Russian military’s apparent preference for heavier hunters. Consider that Moscow has only ordered symbolic quantities of the new MiG-35 light jet, scaring away export customers of which no confirmed ones remain.

Even with state money, the development experience of the Su-57 (and American stealth jets too!) Suggests that Checkmate is unlikely to be developed so quickly and cheaply, nor produced in a such volume, as initially claimed. And due to the exceptional demands of the Su-35, Su-57, and Su-34M jets on existing production lines, Checkmate would likely require fitting out a new production line at cost.

That said, Sukhoi believes he can save time and money by incorporating technologies developed for the Su-35S and Su-57 fighters, and thinks (like US Air Force futurists) that new technologies computer-aided design will significantly reduce development time. .

If a Checkmate fighter emerges that can achieve the claimed parameters – particularly at long range, low cost, and respectable very low observability – it could still prove to be commercially attractive, even if the price isn’t quite so low. it is claimed.

But while Rostec’s strategy of targeting countries that can’t access or afford the F-35s is plausible, consider China’s export-oriented Shenyang FC-31 light stealth jet, built privately by a company. with more money available, is already competing for this niche. and has not yet received any orders. And by the end of the 2020s, rivals could emerge, including the heavier Su-57E and “economy” class stealth planes developed by India, South Korea and Turkey, freed from possible sanctions imposed by the CAATSA law (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) imposed by Washington.

For now, observers must wait and see if Checkmate receives the state funding needed to turn it into more than just a cool design concept boosted by a spectacular marketing campaign.

Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and was a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, publishing and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.

Image: Reuters

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