Podcast: Sizing Up Russia’s New Light Fighter
Sukhoi rolled out the model of a new fighter aircraft during the MAKS show in Russia targeting the export market. Aviation Week editors discuss the design and its prospects in a crowded market.
Hi and welcome to the Check 6 Podcast. I'm Jen DiMascio the Executive Editor for Defense and Space. I'm here with Defense Editor, Steve Trimble, and Graham Warwick, the Executive Editor for Technology. We're here to discuss one of the biggest developments of the year in military aviation. The unveiling of Russia's new fighter aircraft, a program that Russia is calling Checkmate and targeting an export audience. Steve, I was hoping you could set the stage for us. How did this all unfold?
Yeah, sure. Our understanding of Russian aviation industry basically changed on July 13th with this announcement that something was coming out at MAKS and it was going to be a new fighter. Let me tell you how we understood the Russian aviation industry as of July 12th, which was the Monday before all this started happening. First of all, we thought the next Russian fighter that would be coming out would be the PAK DP program, which is working on a replacement for the MiG 31 and is still in the early stages of development of that. MiG had been working on the LMFS, a new light fighter, very, very early development of that for a MiG 29 replacement also, just in the very long-term.
Meanwhile, Sukhoi had been working on the SU 57, of course. They started development of that 15, 16 years ago, depending on how you count it. They had produced exactly one operational aircraft that they had delivered to the the Russian Air Force. On top of that, United Aircraft Corporation was sort of saddled under, I should say, buried under a mountain of debt that their new investor, as of a year ago, Rostec had been complaining very loudly about. I guess that you could say that the circumstances and the situation wasn't ripe for us to be surprised by the idea of Sukhoi launching a new aircraft at MAKS this year, the MAKS air show outside Moscow, which starts July 20th. That's the context.
That started changing July 13th. Rostec put out a press release saying that they're going to unveil a fundamentally new aircraft military aircraft at MAKS. Then they started to this advertising campaign that it was called the Checkmate, and it was a very clever campaign. It got me very interested. Then the photo leaks of the display model, and I think it is a model, not a real aircraft, started coming out on Thursday and little glimpses ... More glimpses came out Saturday and Monday. Finally, today, it was presented to Russian President Vladimir Putin in the pavilion at MAKS, and is actually going to be publicly presented in about 45 minutes as we're recording this. That's where we stand today with this aircraft.
Well, looking at the model, what whatever's been revealed to this point, what does that tell you about the design and its capabilities?
Yeah, so they've released some information about the aircraft and what they intend for it to be. It does appear to be oriented towards the export market. It is not immediately going to be funded by the Russian government. It is a light tactical fighter, the designation or the program name is Light Tactical Aircraft or LTA. It may be called the T75 within Sukhoi based on the markings on the aircraft. The configuration is a single engine with ventral engine intake, Delta wing, and interestingly, canted vertical tails with no obvious horizontal tail. Though it may have paddle kind of F4D Skyray style on either side of the engine nozzle, maybe to help out with short takeoff or super maneuverability or maneuvering. It does appear to have thrust vectoring, at least 2D, if not 3D.
That's what we know of the outside of the aircraft that while they showed some video clips have come out of Putin's tour, where you could see that the aircraft has a ferry range of 3,000 kilometers, so call that 1,800 miles. It has 8G-rated airframe. There's some indication that it could carry three RVVBD or R37 missiles internally. Although, that seems quite ambitious, it's a very large missile. It could be externally actually. Yury Slyusar, Sukhoi's CEO, said on Russian television that it's designed to perform a short takeoff while carrying 7,000 kilograms of, or sorry, seven metric tons, so 14,000 kilograms of weapons, which would be very impressive and suggest to me that the engine is at an AL-41 F-type turbofan. It's the only thing that can give it that much thrust. That's what we know about the aircraft. It also, should have a flyaway cost under $30 million.
How does that fit into the wider market right now for a Light Tactical Aircraft? How does this fit into the wider market for Light Tactical Aircraft right now?
Yeah, I think it's interesting. I mean, we are in a very active period for countries trying to develop their own advanced tactical, lightweight tactical fighters. We've already seen the rollout of Korea's KF-21. We have Turkey developing a TFX, so it's an active ... I mean, clearly there's demand. I think all of these countries that are developing their own aircraft are also looking at the wider export market, because even though you can look at F-35 and see how many customers it's already racked up, there are many, many countries around the world that are not candidates to get an airplane like the F-35. You can reasonably expect that to be at market, this airplane, I think, shows all of Sukhoi's experience experienced with the S-57 in terms of developing what people tend to regard as a balanced stealth design, rather than an out-and-out all aspects Delta design is kind of targeted at getting the most bang for your stealth buck sort of thing like that.
Obviously, Sukhoi's been very successful on the export market with the flanker family. You could argue that there is clearly market demand, Sukhoi has the experience, it already has inroads with a number of customers through export contracts. If Steve is correct, and I think he's absolutely right, this is just a mock-up, then the several billion dollars, I don't know how many rubles that is, of development work to be put into this for a company that on the surface doesn't have the resources itself, it doesn't appear to have the backing of the Russian government, will probably have to get other countries to contribute to the development. Which history says isn't that easy to make that work. I think the jury is out, but clearly having Russia on this lightweight fighter market internationally does shift the balance for lots of countries.
Yeah, let me add to that, especially on the Russian side and whether or not the government has interest. It's been very clear that the Russian Air Force really, since the 60s, had no interest in single-engine fighters since the MiG-23 and MiG-21 and SU-9, those days have been long gone. Maybe this could tempt them back in the long-term, but we know it's in the state armament plan up until 2027. It's always possible they could amend the plan, but it's hard to imagine that happening right now, given all their other commitments. This aircraft is not in it. It's hard to imagine the Russian government putting in a huge stake into this aircraft. Then we're seeing it more like a Russian Northrop F-20, which was the fighter that Northrop company funded to sell to the international market without an order from the US Air Force.
The difference there is that Northrop actually funded the aircraft. They funded development, they built the prototypes, they built the flight test program, and they just wanted to sell it to international customers and try to recoup their costs as well as make a profit. It doesn't seem like that's the game here. That in this case, what Sukhoi seems to be trying to do is try to appeal to the export market, to actually finance the development and then pay for the aircraft at the backend. We just haven't seen that before, if that has happened in the international market fighter market, I'm not aware of it, but I'm not aware of everything. That that's a very tricky proposition. Ross-Tech and their original teaser video that they released on July 13th, named four countries that they were trying to orient this or market this aircraft to. One was Argentina.
I think we can assume that that was Russia just trolling the British government over the historical tensions there with Argentina and the current tensions between Russia and the UK. There's also Vietnam. Vietnam is a historic Russian fighter operator, and you could see them being interested in buying such an aircraft once it comes on the market. Don't see a lot of money there for them to finance the development. Russia also named the UAE as a potential client. Of course, the UAE back in 2017 did sign an agreement with MiG to pursue, or actually with United Aircraft Corporation to pursue development of next generation fighter designs. That was before this past January when UAE signed an order for 50 Lockheed Martin F-35As. I just find it very unlikely that they would try to get both of those.
Now, that F-35A order is somewhat precarious. There's some US domestic politics that are questioning whether or not the Biden Administration should carry out that order with the UAE, at least without a much more rigorous security review than was done by the Trump Administration. That does kind of bring in some dynamics there, but we'll see how that plays out. Then there's India, which was also named by Ross-Tech's marketing video. That's another case, historic Russian fighter user fighter operator. They seem to like Russian fighters a lot, but at the same time, India's already gone down down that road with Russia on the [Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft] program, which was trying to develop an Indian version of the SU-57 with a two-seat version.
India canceled that program. They weren't very happy with it. They sort of accused Russia of basically playing them like a piggy bank instead of as an investor. We'll see if they're willing to go down that road again with this. Outside of those countries, the ones that Ross-Tech named, you could think of other potential likely suspects, Algeria, Belarus, Kazakhstan, to some extent North Korea, maybe to some extent Iran, Peru also, is another sort of MiG-29 operator, but again, not a lot of money out there to finance the entire development. That's the big question about this. The export prospects are not straightforward with this.
Clearly, they can draw ... I mean, they can reduce the risk and presumably the cost a little bit by drawing on the SU-57 for the things we can't see the systems inside the aircraft and some of the things we can see. I mean, the wing design is very similar to the SU is probably scaled, but it's kind of a similar plan form to the SU-57, so they can take their [inaudible 00:13:06]. The tail design, although it's missing the horizontal tails, the vertical tails are very similar in design to the all-moving tails on the SU-57. The engine is probably relating or not, it's not the same as what's in. The radar is obviously different because it's a much smaller nose, but it's an active array. You can package those as you see fit.
There are some interesting aspects of the design that are unique. I mean, obviously the chin intake is quite unique. It kind of reminds you of the Boeing X-32 joint strike fighter prototype. It's a slightly more attractive airplane than the X-32. It does give you a diverterless inlet so there are no splitter plates or anything like that. It does have an interesting central splitter down the middle of the inlet, but which may be something to do with how they get the air rooted around the various bays inside of it. You talked about the missiles. One of the things that shows up in those leaked images from the prep day is that there are large bays either side of the fuselage, just under the [inaudible 00:14:11], which are quite long. If you look at the side-on view, they're boxy shaped. They stick out the bit, so there's quite a bit room in there. Then the bottom of the fuselage is flat, so we assume that it must be another bay under the fuselage.
You can see where the similarities are, but there's also quite a lot of differences. In the end, you have to do an integrated product. I mean, you have to deliver a war-fighting machine to the customer, and that's where the cost is. It's really not in the fundamental design. It's in getting all those pieces to work and work effectively. That's not a cheap process by any stretch of the imagination.
What's your read on where this goes next? Is it simply a way of marketing UAC to the world, or do you think the development of the LTA fighter and the MiG one in this category moves forward?
Well, I mean, I don't see anything happening very soon on either one of them. I mean, unless a foreign customer comes out of the woodwork and says, "We're going to pay for everything," UAC is not in a position to self-finance this based on their debt load it would seem. It is a state-owned corporation. Things happen differently that way, but it's hard to imagine that they would take on that kind of risk based on what they're already dealing with because of kind of the it's fair to say flops of the super jet and the MC-21 in the commercial market, but for the most part outside of Russia, an that's incurred a lot of debt for UAC. I don't expect anything to happen immediately. Maybe they'll fund a prototype, like a scale composites does with like the model 401. Just something very rudimentary, very basic, show that it can fly, but none of the kind of systems integration work that Graham was talking about, where the money really is in these kinds of systems.
Yeah, I mean, I think it's ... Usually at these shows, you see sort of the companies will release a model or a new video or something like that in Russia, showing some kind of new thing that looks really cool on a video, but you know you're just looking at a video and it's not funded. It's not going anywhere. This is a much more elaborate version of that, with this model out there. It seems to have a real cockpit, seems to have a real engine, real landing gear. I don't know what the model is made of. Maybe it's plywood, maybe it's composite. I don't know, but there's nothing in it. I mean, there's no plumbing, there's no power and electronics and pneumatics, hydraulics, that kind of stuff, that's not in there.
What about the other aircraft at the MAKS show? Are we going to see the SU-57? Do you expect to get an update on that program?
Yeah, to an extent. I mean, MAKS is not really about ... They'll show them off. They'll definitely show off SU-57, and SU-35, then you could see all the big tricks, but MAKS isn't really about showing off new products for the military, for the Russian military. They have a different event for that called ARMIYA or ARMY, that happens next year. This is really oriented to the foreign market, to the international market, especially the commercial market. You can see why they were using this show to make this announcement, but yeah, I don't think there's going to be any significant changes in our understanding of SU-57 or MiG-35, or even PAK DA, their stealth bomber that they're working on.
We've seen some images coming out already. I mean, MiG's obviously still working on concept designs. There are three models I think that MAKS. There is their lightweight fighter. There's a carrier-based fighter design and U-CAV design. I don't really know how it works within UAC, but clearly, MiG is still trying to stay in the game.
Well, unfortunately, that's about all the time we have today. Thank you for joining us on the Check 6 Podcast. It's available for download on iTunes, Stitcher, and Google Play. Thanks again, tune in next week for another edition of Check 6.