The world of combat fighter aircraft is waiting for the fifth generation (5G) attack platforms. Leading aircraft manufacturers, the US, Europe, Russia and China are competing. The US has refused to sell its advanced F-22 Raptor fighter to other nations but its sister aircraft, the F-35, has been marketed to several, including many NATO allies but also US partners like Israel and the United Arab Emirates. Russia has unveiled a cheaper and reportedly more lethal 5G fighter aircraft named Checkmate at the annual aviation and aerospace show MAKS 2021 at Zhukovsky Airport outside Moscow.
Checkmate has roused the interest of aviation enthusiasts globally because its capabilities include a single engine with a deflected thrust vector; going supersonic for a long time; and it has a shortened take-off and landing. Equipped with stealth technology, some of Checkmate’s most important features include; flying at high altitude in all kinds of weather, modularity, simplified maintenance and operations, post-sale support, good transportation capability (range and endurance), AI support for combat missions, low flight hour cost and large payload, and, most important of all for international clients, good value for money. The Checkmate will cost roughly $25-30 million each, which is just a fraction of the price of some advanced European fighter jets like the Dassault Rafale, Saab Gripen, and Lockheed’s F-35.
The latest presentation is being dubbed as a game changer and unique in its class. It has a combat radius of 1,500 kilometers, the largest thrust-to-weight ratio, more than seven tons of combat load, which is an absolute record for aircraft of this class. According to Russian state media, its first flight is expected in 2023, while deliveries of the new single-engine fighter are expected to commence in 2026 and it will have an unmanned variant too.
The fighter will be able to reach speeds of up to Mach 2.2 and an altitude of 54,000 feet. Interestingly, the Checkmate has been planned as a single engine fighter aircraft, making it much lighter than its competitors. Russia hasn’t debuted a single-engine fighter aircraft in more than 50 years, since the Su-22 and MiG-27, which entered service in 1970.
The new aircraft does not have a built-in gun for the first time since the pre-war years. According to Mikhail Strelets, the chief designer of Checkmate, instead of the built-in gun, the aircraft may carry suspended gun containers. In turn, the head of Rostec, Sergei Chemezov, said that the new fighter jet would be equipped with suspended weapons with a total weight of 7.4 tons. US weapons designers had tried to introduce fighter aircraft sans guns after the Korean War but went back to the drawing board after their bad experience in the Vietnam War.
The 5G lightweight single-engine fighter is said to “combine innovative solutions and technologies, including artificial intelligence support for the pilot’s work, as well as established solutions that have already proven themselves in practice. The fighter has low visibility and high flight performance. Supercomputer technologies are widely used in the work on the LTS Checkmate project. It will have voice command capability and a glass cockpit with a wide-angle HUD (Head Up Display). An AESA radar is housed in the new aircraft’s nose section while a wide array of weapons are listed among those that could be carried by the multi-role aircraft. These include the RVV-MD and SD air-to-air missiles, KH-38MLE air-to-surface missile, KH-58UShKE anti-radiation missile, GROM E-1 and E-2 air-to-surface munitions, the KAB-250LG-E LGB (Laser Guided Bomb), the K08BE (500 kg) and K029BE (1500 kg) satellite-guided bombs and the S-8, S-13 rockets. The Checkmate will also be able to deploy missile-shaped drones from its internal weapons bay.
The rapid development of the latest Russian fighter aircraft came about because its designers built upon the Su-57 developments, which include the jet’s engine and its avionics systems. Checkmate clearly draws on the Su-57, Russia’s first 5G fighter, in other ways as well, including the slide-back bubble canopy and its internal weapons bay—a standard for minimizing visibility on enemy radars. The Su-57 features stealth technology utilizing a vast array of composite materials; reaches supersonic cruising speed; and comes with a very powerful onboard computer – described as an “electronic second pilot” – and a radar system spread across its body. As a 5G aircraft, the Checkmate will have greatly reduced radar visibility, vectored thrust capability or “supermaneuvrability,” and likely also super cruise, meaning it would be able to hit supersonic speeds without needing to use the gas-guzzling afterburner.
Notable differences from the Su-57 include its single engine, which will make the Checkmate much lighter—which may hamper recovery from a burnout; the single diverter less supersonic inlet mounted under the nose; and the four angled tail surfaces, which give it a profile reminiscent of the failed YF-23 Black Widow, a competitor design to the aircraft that the Pentagon later adopted as the F-22.
The aircraft is still a mockup based on a concept and a lot of work will have to be done to translate all the nice capabilities mentioned in the promotional videos and presentation into a real, flying platform.