‘Developed For Vietnam, India and Africa’: New Details on Russia’s ‘Mini Su-57’ Stealth Fighter

Following the unveiling of Russia’s first post-Soviet single-engine fighter, the ‘Checkmate,’ further details regarding the program were unveiled on the first day of the MAKS 2021  international aerospace show on July 20th where a bust of the aircraft was at the center of a large display. 

The aircraft has been dubbed a ‘mini-Su-57,’ and serves as a lighter counterpart to the heavyweight next-generation fighter which uses many of the same fifth-generation technologies - including most likely the same Saturn 30 engine. 

Lighter fighters have generally proven more successful on export markets due to their lower prices, lower maintenance requirements, and lower operational costs. 

Russia has shown a strong preference for heavyweight fighters since the end of the Cold War - namely the Su-57’s direct predecessors from the Flanker series including the Su-27, 30, 33, 34, and 35 - and while the Checkmate fighter was initially speculated to be set to replace Russia’s few medium-weight MiG-29 fighters it now appears to be intended primarily for export markets. 

The aircraft will reportedly come in unmanned, single-seat, and twin-seat variants and will be ready for export in 2026.

A strong indication that Russia’s new lightweight fighter is made primarily for export is that its name, ‘Checkmate,’ was left untranslated from English at MAKS 2021 - with the lack of a Russian name indicating that it is aimed primarily if not exclusively at foreign clients. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov stated regarding the program: “It will indeed be oriented towards African countries, India and Vietnam. 

The demand for these aircraft is quite high, it is estimated at least 300 aircraft in the near future.” India notably intends to expand the number of fighter squadrons in service while also retiring aging Cold War-era aircraft such as the MiG-21 and Mirage 2000. To gain Indian contracts, however, the Checkmate will face tough competition against the MiG-35, the Indian-American Tejas, and the much cheaper MiG-29UPG which the country has continued to place multiple orders for. 

Vietnam’s relatively small air force currently fields no fighters for which the Checkmate would be an obvious replacement, although the possibility that the country could seek to expand its fleet cannot be ruled out. Vietnam has already shown an interest in the higher end Su-57 however - the acquisition of which would be expected to be prioritized over the Checkmate. 

Regarding the new fighter’s cost the head of Russian state arms exporter Rostec, Sergei Chemezov, said the fighter would be marketed at a very low price $25-30 million per aircraft - although the price could be significantly higher depending on what armaments, training, and spare parts are included in the contract. 

He highlighted that the fighter was developed very quickly because it relied on technologies already developed for the Su-57. The fighter was displayed with standard armaments for fourth-generation Russian fighters - namely the R-73 heat-seeking and R-77 active radar-homing air to air missiles as well as the  Kh-59MK anti-ship cruise missile. 

The next generation is expected to benefit from supermaneuverability provided by its single thrust-vectoring engine - much like the Chinese J-10C fighter currently does - as well as a supercruise capability to fly supersonically for extended periods without using afterburners. 

Its speed of Mach 2.2 is far from exceptional for a post-second generation Russian fighter, while its relatively low altitude ceiling of 16.5km will disadvantage it relative to older aircraft such as the Flanker or MiG-29.

The Checkmate's main weapons bay within its lower fuselage is designed to accommodate three very long-range R-37M air to air missiles, which currently have the longest engagement range in the world, while a long conformal weapon bays forward of the main landing gear houses smaller short-ranged R-73 missiles. 

Its 1500km combat radius, combined with a much smaller sensor suite, provides the Checkmate with a much smaller coverage than the Su-57 as is typical for lightweight fighters. It is nevertheless respectable for an aircraft of its size. The aircraft also benefits from a short takeoff and landing capability and a weapons payload of approximately 6800km.

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