(Washington, D.C.) Despite all of the announcements, news reports and massive speculation about Russia’s now unveiled new “Checkmate” stealth fighter, pretty much all there is are unanswered questions.
Certainly to the untrained observer's eye, the external configuration can be looked at and estimated as both stealthy and “F-35” like, yet when it comes to the attributes most likely to define the new aircraft’s prospects for success in warfare, there are mostly just question marks.
Will Russia Sell Checkmate to U.S. Rivals?
Much of the prevailing discussion and speculation about the new aircraft pertains to Russia’s apparent plans to “export” the new fighter to a range of foreign customers potentially looking for an F-35 rival.
Does the new Russian jet threaten or diminish the superiority of the U.S. built F-35? Maybe. Maybe not. It is a single-engine stealthy looking fighter with a clear resemblance to the U.S. F-35 and, to a lesser degree, F-22.
A story on the new aircraft from CNN quotes a UAC press release saying the new plane “combines innovative solutions and technologies,” and has “low visibility and high-flight performance.” The report further adds that the new Checkmate is reported to be unique, in part because it has a “combat radius of 1,500 km, the largest thrust to weight ratio, shortened take-off and landing and more than seven tons of combat load.”
As for its potential distribution, the CNN report quotes an official saying that UAE, Argentina, Vietnam and India are among a growing list of potential customers for the aircraft, which may also certainly have a domestic variant intended solely for use by the Russian Air Force.
Apart from the technical extent to which the new Russian “checkmate” actually mirrors the F-35 when it comes to performance parameters, the prospect of international sales for the new plane present an interesting dynamic.
Could it be possible that, in a manner similar to the growing international community of F-35 countries, Russian-allied nations will collectively formulate a “counter” of sorts to the expansive NATO and beyond partnerships connecting the U.S. with international military customers.
F-35s from different countries can of course all seamlessly connect and share information with one another through a Multi-function Advanced Data Link (MADL), so the prospect of international sales for the “checkmate” would raise clear questions about the extent to which different countries’ “checkmates'' will be able to successfully network time-sensitive combat and targeting data with one another.
Is Russia trying to engineer a networked fleet of international “Checkmate” customers sufficient to create a force capable of rivaling NATO?
Russia’s new Checkmate looks surprisingly similar to the U.S. F-35.
Is Checkmate a Russian F-35 Rip-off?
Reportedly built by Sukhoi, the new jet recently made a public appearance, initially covered beneath some kind of black tarp. Certainly many of the most critical elements of the new fighter might not be known, yet upon first examination the plane looks like an F-35 rip off.
However, external configuration is but one element of stealth technology, meaning it can reduce radar signature by virtue of having few protruding structures or sharp angled configurations more likely to generate a radar return signal. However, while it can help direct air flow for vectoring and greatly decrease radar cross section, external configuration is but one element of a stealth configuration. Does it have radar absorbent materials? How is it bolted and seamed in terms of connected joined elements of the fuselage?
Of equal importance are questions about its thermal signature. The back end has been tough to see with available photos, although the aircraft does appear to have an internally buried engine.
It also looks like it has an internal weapons bay. However, how is the exhaust or heat emission handled? Does it use some kind of IR suppressor or heat-management technology? That would also be of great significance regarding the relative effectiveness of its stealth characteristics.
Also, apart from its stealth properties, many of the unknown attributes of the jet are likely to determine its level of performance and at some point shed light onto the question of whether it can truly compete with the F-35.
For example, what kind of computing does it have? Are its sensors high-fidelity and long range in any way comparable to an F-35. Its maneuverability is also not likely to be seen until it performs in an airshow or is observed more broadly.
A Numbers Game
It does have a different configuration than Russia’s existing Su-57, a stealthy aircraft purported by Russian developers to be a 5th-generation platform. All this being considered, the real question of superiority may come down to a numbers question, meaning how many of them might Russia build and on what kind of timeframe.
Should the F-35, Su-57 or new Russian fighter be similar in performance ability to any degree, the superior force may simply be which country has more high-end, 5th-generation aircraft. In this respect, the U.S. seems to have a clear advantage. Globalfirepower.com says the U.S. operates 1,956 fighters/interceptors and is of course known to be moving quickly to add large numbers of F-35s.
By contrast, the same assessment reports in its 2021 rankings that Russia only 789 fighters/interceptors, just more than one-third the U.S. number.
If one of the aircraft were far superior to the others in terms of targeting range, weapons reach and guidance or computing and EW, numbers might not be as crucial. However, should they be in any way comparable, the force with larger numbers will be more likely to win a war of attrition, outlast the other and cover wide areas of combat space an opponent could not defend.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.