Since the Sukhoi Su-57 first took off 11 years ago, Russia has not announced the launch of a new model of fighter plane. Until Tuesday (20), when the same manufacturer unveils the Checkmate (checkmate, in English).
It is, like its big brother, an aircraft that promises to be the fifth generation. Elastic in concept, it suggests radar stealth capabilities, sophisticated data fusion, integration with other aircraft and high supersonic performance.
Sukhoi only presented a model of the aircraft at the Maks-2021 airshow, which does not yet have an official designation. Nothing is yet known about its stage of development.
The brand, which is part of the fighter aircraft division of Russian conglomerate United Aircraft Corporation along with MiG, anticipated the surprising announcement with an effective viralization campaign with videos and social media posts over the past two weeks.
In it, the hunter’s naval vocation was suggested by the presence of ship location sensors. The model was accompanied by a KH-59MK anti-ship missile.
To honor the event, President Vladimir Putin himself was present at the inauguration in Zhukovsky, near Moscow.
This reflects Russia’s ambition: to convince potential buyers abroad, preferably in emerging markets in Asia, the Middle East and even Latin America, that the aircraft is viable and will incorporate the technologies being tested. in the Su-57 inexpensively.
Thus, the design shown on the model suggests a lightweight version of the large twin-engine aircraft which only entered service at the end of 2020. It is a single-engine fighter, the first such fighter designed in the country. since the debut of the MiG-23 in 1970.
This makes things cheaper, possibly putting such a plane with a selling price of around US $ 50 million, compared to US $ 80 million for the US F-35, its main target – known to be very expensive. to operate (US $ 38,000 / flight hour).
In one of Sukhoi’s videos, pilots from target countries in Russia were called in to see the plane: there was an Emirati, an Indian, a Vietnamese and even an Argentinian.
Neighboring Brazil has an air force in dire straits, and was approached this year by China for the acquisition of FC-21 light fighters – which, along with British ejection seats, could be barred from being sold by London, rival of Buenos Aires the theme of the Falkland Islands (Malvinas).
A 100% Russian plane would not pose such a problem, but the financial question weighs heavily. India, on the other hand, is each time an almost certain customer: 23% of total Russian military exports from 2016 to 2020 went to New Delhi, according to Sipri (Stockholm International Peace Institute).
From the few images available, military analysts spent bytes trying to figure out what Checkmate would bring. It features elements that ensure some radar stealth, including the ventral air intake reminiscent of the X-32, an aircraft that lost competition to the F-35 in the United States, and copies of the Su-57’s use of mobile vertical stabilizers.
With a slanted design and the alleged use of radar-absorbing materials, the new model is expected to be aimed at the Su-57 as the single-engine F-35 is intended for the main fifth-generation aircraft used in the world, the twin-engine F-22.
First of all, of course, the plane has to exist, and this is where things get tricky.
Data on investments in military programs is scarce in Russia, and the state press only reports that the purchase of the Su-57s has so far provided for $ 2.63 billion. That’s not a lot of money for the whole company, considering that such a plane costs almost $ 100 million.
To try a direct start in the exporting career, it is always necessary to buy something from the government of the producing country. It’s like that all over the world: Embraer’s Super Tucano turboprop fighters and the KC-390 freighter only found external customers after seeing the Air Force’s orders.
There is a shortage: there are around 250 MiG-29 light twin-engine aircraft retiring, making way for the heavy models of the Sukhoi Su-27 family, which could be replaced by Checkmate.
Russia also expresses doubts about its capacity for development. Its main exported planes are of the Soviet Su-27 line, known as the Flanker in the Western designation.
These are highly modernized planes, like the Su-35, which recently won orders in Egypt and Algeria, and is being considered by Turkey, a member of NATO (Western military alliance), banned from the F-35 program for the purchase of Russian anti-aircraft systems. .
But these are the fourth generation models, which project a shorter lifespan – although there is a worldwide trend to stretch the operation of these hunters to the maximum, as they are cheaper to operate and ultimately , they get the job done.
The United States itself is operating this way, having reduced their initial order for the very expensive F-22s, which may even be retired. This year, it bought eight modernized versions of the venerable F-15, the EX, for $ 1.1 billion.
Another problem for Russians is technology. Subject to Western sanctions, Putin’s country experienced many difficulties in developing the Su-57, its first truly new fighter after the end of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Its design, thought through since the 1980s, was completed in 2004. The first prototype flew six years later, but aerodynamic problems and the inability to finalize a new engine dragged the project down.
India, the company’s initial partner, pulled out in 2018. But the Russians ended up ordering 76 units, the first of which has been operational since last December. Exports, so far, were just rumors – on Tuesday Russian military sales chief Alexander Mikeiev said five countries were interested.
Analysts point out, on the other hand, models on the market which have spent years without enthusing external customers and have ended up being well accepted, such as the case of the French Dassault Rafale.
Russia wants to maintain its still privileged position in this market, even if it has not succeeded in places like Brazil. The 231 fighters delivered to external customers from 2016 to 2020 represented 49% of Moscow’s military profits over the period.
From 2000 to today, Russia was the second largest seller of hunters in the world, with $ 61.5 billion in exports. The United States leads with $ 99.6 billion and the French come below with $ 14.7 billion. In the general ranking of military sales, the order is the same, with 37% of the American market, 20% Russian and 8.2% French.
The Russian position of Chinese projects (FC-31) threatens in the future, despite Beijing’s difficulty in selling its military products outside the Asian circuit which includes Pakistan and Myanmar, the Turks (TF-X) and the South -Koreans (KF-21).