Russia's Secret New Fighter Jet Is Officially Out in the Open

After a week of entertaining hype, Russia officially revealed its second fifth-generation fighter jet. The “Checkmate” fighter is designed to go head to head with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, both in the skies and the export market. The plane’s fire sale price and rapid development schedule, however, seem almost too good to be true.

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Russia and United Aerospace Company, an umbrella corporation that includes the famed Mikoyan-Guervich (MiG) and Sukhoi design bureaus, unveiled the fighter jet at the MAKS-2021 air show in Moscow on Tuesday with President Vladimir Putin on hand to personally inspect the aircraft. Here’s a video of the event:

This version of the Checkmate is most likely a full-scale mockup, according to aviation experts via Hush-Kit:

“The lack of wiring and hydraulic lines within the visible parts of the main landing gear well, as well as the rather oversimplified external textures seen in the leaked footage pre-official the unveiling appear to suggest a mock up rather than a functioning aircraft.”

The fighter jet features an unusually pointy nose and an engine intake below the cockpit. The Checkmate also has an internal weapons bay designed to preserve its anti-radar shaping and can carry both air-to-air and air-to-ground ordnance, including both infrared- and radar-guided air-to-air missiles, air-to-ground and anti-ship missiles, guided and unguided bombs, and unguided rockets.

And though Russia said the aircraft features a gun, we don’t know whether the gun is mounted internally or externally.

The Checkmate is designed as a short takeoff-and-landing fighter jet, a feature that lends itself to operating from aircraft carrier flight decks and runways damaged by enemy action. The plane has a combat radius of 1,500 kilometers (932 miles), or the distance a Checkmate that’s fully laden with missiles and bombs can travel, fight, and then return to base.

The plane will have a top speed of 1,180 miles per hour (mph). Sukhoi, in a dig against the F-35, says the Checkmate is capable of “continuous supersonic flight”—a nod to last year’s revelation the F-35 can only fly supersonic for 50 seconds before possibly damaging the plane. Sukhoi claims its aircraft is capable of 8g maneuvers.

The Checkmate, like the F-35, can share data in the air with other fighter jets. The new fighter will also come in an unmanned version, opening up the possibility that one manned Checkmate might control several unmanned versions in battle. UAC promises three “configurations”—basic, medium, and full—though it’s not clear what any of that means. The fighter will feature a streamlined maintenance system.

Photo credit: Sergei Fadeichev - Getty Images
Photo credit: Sergei Fadeichev - Getty Images

Then there’s the Checkmate’s claimed unit price of $25 to $30 million. That’s less than half the flyaway cost of the F-35, which currently costs about $78 million. UAC says the first Checkmate will fly in 2023, with actual deliveries of combat-ready airplanes to commence in 2026-27.

UAC and the Russian government appear to be heavily courting foreign sales, and likely even foreign development investment. While the speeches and voiceovers at the event were in Russian, two large displays over the aircraft gave a running description of the plane’s features ... in English.

Russia could be shopping for a partner to help develop the plane, just as India helped fund development of the Su-57. (New Delhi later dropped out of the program out of frustration at the lengthy delays and cost increases.)

Photo credit: Anadolu Agency - Getty Images
Photo credit: Anadolu Agency - Getty Images

The Checkmate’s development schedule, from dummy mockup to deliveries of combat-ready planes in just 6 years, is very ambitious. But Sukhoi appears to be leveraging much of its experience in developing the Su-57, so that will be a big help. The company could also be using the same digital engineering techniques that allowed the U.S. Air Force to design and fly its own secret new fighter jet in just one year. That plane, the Next Generation Air Dominance Fighter (NGAD), is still years from becoming a frontline fighter.

Could Checkmate indeed, uh, checkmate the F-35? It’s way too early to tell. But if UAC can keep costs down and stick to its development schedule, it could hurt the F-35 in the foreign sales market. The F-35 is the equivalent of a Mercedes Benz, but there are plenty of countries that would be perfectly happy to have a Hyundai.

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