It’s no secret that Rostec, the parent company of Russian plane-maker Sukhoi, intends to offer Sukhoi’s new Checkmate fighter to the export market. Rostec’s teaser video for the single-engine jet, which appeared online in mid-July, features actors portraying pilots from Vietnam, India, Argentina and the United Arab Emirates.
But Checkmate itself, which Rostec officially unveiled at the MAKS air show at Ramenskoye airfield in Moscow Oblast on Tuesday, has all the hallmarks of a high-flying interceptor whose main role is to hunt American F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters.
It’s obvious why Russia would want a fighter like Checkmate that can shoot down the United States’ own top fighters. It’s less clear that Vietnam, India, Argentina and the United Arab Emirates want the same thing.
Here’s the rub. Without financing from foreign countries, there’s probably no way Checkmate gets built. But the fighter’s design might not appeal to the very buyers Moscow needs to make the project viable. And that would leave in the cold the one customer—the Russian air force—that might actually have a requirement for a fighter like Checkmate.
For that reason, Tom Cooper, an aviation expert and author, described Checkmate as “a pig in a poke.” “The actual question is,” he said, “who is going to buy that pig in a poke?”
Checkmate has a divertless inlet, a v-shape tail and internal weapons bays—all features that contribute to what could be a small radar signature. At the same time, its wing appears to be huge. That implies Sukhoi designed the fighter to fly and fight at high altitudes—40,000 feet or higher.
Combine these qualities—stealth and a high ceiling—and it’s apparent the U.S. military’s equally stealthy and high-flying F-22 and F-35 are Checkmate’s main targets. That makes sense “considering the Russian dogmatic obsession with countering any new U.S. designs,” Cooper said.
To be fair, the Russian air force prefers twin-engine fighters with long range owing to the vast air space Russian warplanes must patrol, especially in Russia’s east. It’s not for no reason Sukhoi’s Flanker family of fighters is so popular with the Russian air force.
Checkmate is small. It has one engine. Its lack of internal volume implies a short combat radius. Maybe a few hundred miles.
Still, the new jet’s qualities should endear it to Russian generals salivating over the prospect of blowing up F-35s. As a bonus, Checkmate stands to be cheaper than Russia’s other stealth fighter, the twin-engine Su-57.
Moscow has ordered 78 Su-57s but production has proved to be a slog, apparently owing to the type’s high cost and complexity. Eleven years after the Su-57 first flew, only a handful are in squadron service.
Russia barely can afford to finance the Su-57 project, which could end up costing tens of billions of dollars. “This Checkmate is facing exactly the same obstacles as the Su-57,” Cooper said. “The Russian government … has no money to complete its development and get it into series production.”
But it’s not clear Sukhoi and Rostec are trying very hard to appeal to the same foreign governments they need to help pay for Checkmate. The Vietnamese, Indian, Argentinian and Emirati air forces aren’t obsessed with shooting down F-35s the same way the Russian air force is. At least two of these foreign air arms actually aspire to acquire F-35s of their own.
“They are imposing their solutions upon the customer,” Cooper said of the Russians. “Take it or leave it.”
This is not a uniquely Russian problem. American defense firms often demonstrate the same kind of myopic behavior—developing weapons that the Pentagon wants but which are too complex or too expensive for foreign buyers. It’s not for no reason that U.S. naval shipyards build warships almost exclusively for the U.S. Navy.
But it’s worth noting how much American shipyards struggle in the absence of strong exports. Rostec and Sukhoi might also struggle. They’ve put together an impressive new stealth fighter—well, its airframe, at least. The engines and avionics are the hard parts.
But who’s going to fork over billions of dollars to finish developing the plane?