Newly Unveiled ‘Russian F-35’: A Look at the First Post-Soviet Single Engine Fighter

Following multiple reports that Russia was set to unveil its second next-generation fighter jet - a lightweight aircraft to complement the heavyweight Su-57 - the first images of the aircraft were released on July 16. 

Taken as Zhukov Airport, the images showed Russia’s first single-engine fighter developed since the fall of the Soviet Union - a major development since the country retired all its single-engine fighters in the immediate post-Soviet years. Russia's United Aircraft Corporation notably teased the release of the aircraft in the preceding days. 

The new image showed a full-size airframe wrapped in a black protective covering which appeared to be built around a radar cross-section reducing stealth profile as expected. It can be discerned that the aircraft has twin tailfins that are canted outwards - much like the American F-35 which was previously the world’s only single-engine stealth fighter. 

This is a feature not commonly seen on single-engine fighters, which usually have single tail fins. Further revelations regarding the fighter’s capabilities and appearance are expected to be made at the MAKS 2021 airshow. The aircraft is expected to be the lightest fighter of the fifth generation, perhaps occupying a similar position to that which the very light Swedish Gripen and Sino-Pakistan JF-17 held in the fourth generation.

Single-engine fighters are a minority among combat aircraft in production around the world today and are designed to be cheaper to produce and to have much lower maintenance needs and operational costs than their twin-engine counterparts. 

The new Russian fighter is expected to be tailored towards export markets, where its leading competitors will be the American F-35A and Chinese J-10C. 

The fighter will benefit from supermanoeuvrability and supercruise capabilities which the F-35 notably lacks, and appears to be a smaller aircraft designed to have a much lower operational cost. 

Research and development costs for the new fighter are expected to be below, as it will rely on technologies that have already been developed for the Su-57. Some leading potential clients include Egypt, Iran, India, and Belarus. 

These all have sizeable fleets of legacy lightweight or medium-weight fighter jets that are increasingly in need of replacement - namely F-16s, F-4s, Mirage 2000s, and MiG-29s. The new stealth fighter may also replace a portion or all of Russia’s MiG-29 fleet, which would allow the country to build up production lines with strong domestic demand and lower unitary manufacturing costs. 

An enhanced variant of the MiG-29 — the MiG-29M — remains in production today and could continue to be produced as a cheaper alternative to the new stealth jets.

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