Is the new Russian ‘Checkmate’ jet set to give tough competition to the American F-35?

Will the ‘Checkmate’ emerge as a favourable alternative for the F-35 for nations that are seeking cheaper fifth-generation fighters?

Is the new Russian ‘Checkmate’ jet set to give tough competition to the American F-35?
The decidedly English title of this fifth generation fighter seems indicative of the fact that the jet was always meant to be marketed to an international audience and more importantly, clientele (Image source: AFP)

At the ongoing MAKS-2021 International Aviation and Space Salon, Russia unveiled its new ‘fifth-generation’ lightweight single-engine fighter jet that has been dubbed as the ‘Checkmate’. According to a press release by the Russian state-owned United Aircraft Corporation, the Checkmate fighter “combines innovative solutions and technologies” and emphasises stealth technology and high flight performance.

A mock-up of the jet shown at MAKS-2021 was noted to have similarities in design to Boeing’s X-32 and Northrop Grumman’s YF-23, American fifth-generation prototype fighters that were never mass-produced.

In particular, the large angular chin air inlet is noted to be quite similar to the X-32. Possible design inspirations aside, observers have noted plenty of features including the presence of internal weapon compartments, the design of the inlet, tail, wings, etc., that indicate that the aircraft is indeed built to provide a minimal radar cross-section, thus emphasising its role as a stealth fighter.

Predictably, as a fifth-generation fighter with an emphasis on stealth, the Checkmate has been compared to the American F-35, the most prominent and widely sold fifth-generation stealth fighter in the world.

But as a general rule, it is hard to make accurate comparisons between two fifth-generation fighter jet platforms, doubly so for stealth fighters that make use of a lot of top-secret proprietary technology.

Like the F-35, the Checkmate is known to feature AI systems that will vaguely ‘assist’ the pilot among other unnamed “innovative solutions.” An advanced capability that was emphasised is that the new radar system would allow the jet to engage up to six targets “even under strong electronic interference”, but there is not enough information to really make a comparison here to the F-35.

There is, however, some information that can be compared between the two fighters even if it is debatable as to how accurate the information is. First, Sukhoi has claimed that the Checkmate will have a combat radius of around 1,500 km on internal fuel as opposed to the 1,240 or so km radius of the F-35.

Second, the Checkmate has been emphasised to have the capability of continuously sustaining supersonic flight. This is significant because it was revealed last year that the F-35 fighters flown by the US Navy and Marine Corps cannot sustain supersonic flight for longer than 50 seconds at high altitudes without risking damage to the tail section.

Third and most significantly, the Checkmate has been touted as being much cheaper, perhaps even too cheap. The Checkmate is not claimed to have a ‘streamlined maintenance process’, it also apparently comes at a low cost of around $25-30 million per piece.

In a soon to saturated fifth-generation fighter jet market, the price point for purchase, maintenance and flying of an aircraft are much bigger factors than any other individual capabilities such planes may have.

The supposed price of the Checkmate puts it at less than half the price of the F-35 which comes in at around $78 million per piece. Why is this price hard to believe? This is because, at $25-30 million, the jet is not only cheaper than the F-35, but also cheaper than the Russian non-stealth fifth generation SU-35 fighter which is estimated to cost around $85 million per piece.

This pricing likely takes into account not only government financing but also foreign financing in the form of development partners that would help offset the cost.

Fifth-generation aircraft are known to be expensive and one of the ways the cost is offset is by the governments developing them with export in mind.

The F-35 has eight development partners including the US — United Kingdom, Italy, Netherlands, Australia, Norway, Denmark and Canada — that contributed to the programme and six foreign customers —Israel, Japan, South Korea, Poland, Belgium and Singapore — who have otherwise paid for and now operate the fighter.

Estimates vary as to how much the F-35 would have cost without its development partners and other related efforts by the company to reduce costs with some estimates going well over $130 million per piece. Over the coming years, Lockheed Martin, the developer of the F-35 says it expects the price to fall even further.

Of course, even if the cost of the plane itself is coming down, the F-35 is still one of the most expensive planes in the world to fly with a per hour cost of $44,000, nearly twice that of other US fielded jets such as the F-15 and the F-16.

What about the Checkmate? Well, as the presentation for the jet showed, Russia expects countries like Argentina, Vietnam, the United Arab Emirates and India to be prospective customers in the near future with Russia planning to build 300 aircraft over a 15-year period starting from 2026.

The time period may seem long, but it is important to note that both the SU-57 and the F-35 took close to two decades to push into operational service.

Whether the countries mentioned above will be enlisted as development partners remains to be seen. Still, regardless of whether or not the Checkmate gets the foreign funds that it is angling for, experts remain sceptical about the low cost being stated by the developers.

Costs aside, there is also some scepticism over whether India will actually be a customer for the jet at all, let alone a development partner. Experts have noted that India is likely to be wary of any such initiative after the bad experience it had being a development partner for the SU-57 fighter.

India actually pulled out of the joint development programme for the Su-57 with Russia in 2018 amid concerns over mounting costs, the supposed stealth features of the fighter and its engines.

Besides, India also has its own fifth-generation programme for the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) which it is currently planning to make operationally available to the Indian Airforce by 2032.

As such, the Checkmate is not currently expected to be part of the current IAF tender to procure 114 combat aircraft from companies in the US, Russia and Europe.

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