Is the Russian Air Force Planning to Acquire New Checkmate Stealth Fighters?

Following its unveiling in mid-July, shortly preceding the MAKS 2021 International Aviation and Space Salon, there was considerable speculation regarding whether the new ‘Checkmate’ stealth fighter was intended for entry into service in the Russian Air Force, or whether it was intended solely to target export markets. 

The single-engine lightweight fighter was developed primarily with foreign sales in mind, with the United Arab Emirates reportedly having already invested in the program and potentially being the first client. The aircraft has been seen as a successor to the fourth-generation MiG-29, which has been one of Russia's most successful fighters on world markets, although the MiG-29 was a twin-engine medium-weight fighter with a very different design from the Checkmate. 

The Russian Air Force notably showed a strong preference for twin-engine fighters since the collapse of the USSR, and by the time the Checkmate enters service after 2025, it will have been 50 years since a single-engine fighter was commissioned into service in Russia or the USSR. 

Nevertheless, the possibility for Russian acquisitions was speculated both because it provided a low-cost counterpart to the much heavier twin-engine Su-57 stealth fighter and because acquisitions would facilitate production on a larger scale - and in turn lower acquisition costs per unit. 

The first significant signs of Russian interest in acquiring the Checkmate came in the first week of September, with the head of Russia’s Ministry of Industry and Trade Denis Manturov announcing that Russia would not depend on foreign investment to finance the Checkmate program. He further indicated that the Russian Air and would acquire the aircraft, stating that while a twin-seat variant of the fighter could be popular with foreign militaries which prefer such configurations, the Russian Air Force would also be interested in such a variant. 

The Checkmate is expected to be the world’s sixth fifth-generation fighter to enter service, with the American F-22 and F-35 and Chinese J-20 currently being the only ones in the world fielded at squadron level strength. The Russian Air Force acquired its first fifth-generation fighter, a single Su-57 airframe, at the end of 2020, but is expected to have just five operational airframes by the end of 2021. 

It is uncertain when the Su-57 will be deployed in sufficient numbers to form a full squadron, and whether China’s FC-31 stealth fighter program may produce a full squadron of combat jets first. The Checkmate, however, will be by far the lightest and cheapest fighter of its generation when it enters service, and other than the F-35 it will be the only one not to use twin engines. 

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