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SOURCE: THE WEEK

After a week of promoting teasers for a new ‘mystery’ fighter called the Checkmate, Russia formally unveiled the lightweight stealth fighter on Tuesday. President Vladimir Putin inspected a mock-up of the Checkmate fighter on the opening day of the MAKS-2021 International Aviation and Space Salon on Tuesday.

Being developed by the Sukhoi design bureau, the Checkmate has not received a formal aircraft designation, yet. The Checkmate is lighter than the Sukhoi Su-57 twin-engine fighter and has a single engine. Sukhoi claimed the prototype of Checkmate will make its maiden flight in 2023 and deliveries could start by 2026. Sukhoi also claims the new design could have an unmanned version.

Reports said the new aircraft will be able to carry up to 7.5 tonnes of weapons in internal weapons bays and on external hardpoints.

Speaking on the sidelines of MAKS, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov was quoted by Zvezda TV, a media outlet controlled by the Russian ministry of defence, as saying that the Checkmate would primarily be intended for export.

Borisov told Zvezda TV, “First of all, 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.” Borisov also conceded that the export success of the new aircraft would depend on how quickly its development was completed.

The head of Russia’s main arms export conglomerate Rostec, Sergey Chemezov also mentioned India as being a prospective buyer. Russian news agency TASS reported, “Chemezov named India, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Latin America as potential buyers.”

Interestingly, the first teaser of the Checkmate project, promoted last week, showed an Indian pilot prominently, giving rise to speculation the aircraft would be on offer to the Indian Air Force.

What will the Indian Air Force think?

The Checkmate is unique for more reasons than being just a new stealth fighter. It is the first new single-engine fighter that Russia is developing since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian Air Force and Navy have mostly used twin-engine fighter aircraft, primarily based on the Su-27 and MiG-29 designs. According to experts, the Russian military preferred twin-engine aircraft given the greater safety margins they offered in the event of engine damage while patrolling Russia’s vast frontiers.

Developing a ‘cheap and cheerful’ single-engine fighter, apparently, did not make sense for a cash-strapped Russia, even though single-engine jets are cheaper to fly and cost lesser to operate than comparable aircraft with two engines.

Justin Bronk, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a British think tank, described the Checkmate as being a “somewhat low-observable spiritual successor to the MiG-21”. The MiG-21 is the most mass-produced jet fighter, with the aircraft still serving in the Indian Air Force. The MiG-21 was first inducted into the Indian Air Force in 1962.

In a chat with aviation magazine Hush-Kit, Bronk was sceptical about India being interested in the Checkmate fighter. Bronk told Hush-Kit, ” India is likely to be very wary after its experiences with the PAK FA/FGFA programme and poor support for the Su-30MKI fleet post acquisition.”

The PAK FA was the name of the project that developed the Su-57 stealth fighter. Russia had initially announced it would co-develop a version of the Su-57 with India for the Indian Air Force that would be named the Fifth-Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA). In 2018, then defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced India was pulling out of the FGFA co-development project. Reports had indicated the Indian Air Force had concerns about the stealth features and engines of the Su-57.

Cost?

Chemezov had told reporters the Checkmate “is expected to cost $25-30 million”. All stealth fighter projects such as the US F-22 and F-35 and Russian Su-57 have seen massive cost overruns and development delays in their development. Information about Chinese stealth fighter costs has been opaque. The need to develop advanced materials and electronics and also adopt new manufacturing techniques and processes has meant costs have inevitably gone up.

It was in 2019 that the per-unit cost of the F-35 fighter fell to under $80 million, after hundreds of aircraft were built.

Commenting on the cost of Checkmate, The Drive, a US website, noted the “figure of less than $30 million that has been presented seems to be wildly optimistic”.

The developers of the Checkmate have claimed it will have an automated logistics system known as Matreshka. The F-35 featured a similar system called ALIS, which monitored the aircraft’s performance in flight and transmitted data back to Lockheed Martin, the manufacturer. However, ALIS was panned for various flaws such as detecting false issues, leading to unnecessary grounding of aircraft. It had also led to concerns about loss of sovereignty among export buyers of the F-35 as the manufacturer would have details of the aircraft’s deployment.

Desi vs Videshi?

In addition to the possibility of cost overruns and likely difficulties in development, the Indian Air Force will also have to factor in indigenous projects that are in development. This includes the Medium Weight Fighter (MWF), a single-engine fighter based on the Tejas, and the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), which is a heavier twin-engine aircraft with stealth features.

In an interview to Hindustan Times in February, Indian Air Force chief R.K.S. Bhadauria declared the force was firmly behind the AMCA. The AMCA is scheduled to make its first flight by 2025-26. Bhadauria told Hindustan Times, “They [DRDO] are looking at a timeline of 2027 to 2030 to put the stealth fighter into production. If that materialises, the fighter should be operationally available to IAF as a squadron by 2032.”

Bhadauria added the Indian Air Force was keen on incorporation of ‘sixth-generation’ technologies that go beyond mere stealth into the AMCA. “There is a possibility of equipping it [AMCA] with directed energy weapons, superior anti-missile systems, advanced missile approach warning systems, and teaming it with unmanned systems,” Bhadauria told Hindustan Times.

The Checkmate is not expected to be ready in time to compete for an Indian Air Force requirement to buy 114 combat aircraft, that is being pursued by companies in the US, Russia and Europe. But it will need to arrive in time and offer enough capability to woo the Indian Air Force away from the AMCA and MWF projects.