WorldWill Russia’s ‘Checkmate’ really be an affordable stealth fighter as claimed?

Will Russia’s ‘Checkmate’ really be an affordable stealth fighter as claimed?

Frontier India had reported on the launch of the Russian Checkmate stealth fighter aircraft christened as the SU-75. While the SU-75 has a payload capacity of seven tons which is lower than its SU-57 counterpart which boasts a payload capacity of 10 tons, it still boasts a lethal array of weapons despite having a lower capacity to hold weapons. The Checkmate still packs a lethal punch with its arsenal ranging from RVV-MD Short-range Missiles, RVV-SD Medium-range Missiles, standoff range, ground-attack missiles, glide bombs, precision-guided bombs, rockets, and a host of other munitions.

The Checkmate is an uber ambitious project and plans over an unmanned variant have also been discussed. However, a recurring theme with such grandiose programs are their exorbitant costs, which go far beyond what was initially envisioned. These additional expenditures usually result from unforeseen technical challenges which may arise.

Yury Slyusar, the General Director of United Aircraft Corporation which Sukhoi is now a part of, stated that the aircraft’s goal is to make it [Checkmate] an affordable 5th Generation stealth fighter. While he had not specified the cost of the aircraft during the media interaction and said that the cost would need to be worked out during negotiations with prospective customers based on their operational requirements. However, industry insiders place estimates between $25-30 million per aircraft.

If the SU-75 truly comes down to the speculated rate, then it could become a worthy contender in the global aerospace market. It is poignant to note that it was not long ago that stealth aircraft had been reserved to the domain of uber-wealthy nations. However, this trend eventually became more democratized with the birth of the F-35. Over a dozen air forces around the world operate stealth aircraft, and if the Checkmate’s stated goal of affordable stealth fighters is met then it would likely be a gamechanger in global airpower.

Stealth has often been touted as the holy grail of fighter aircrafts, as it offers near unparalleled operational capabilities. The advantage of remaining virtually undetected until delivering a strike is a revolutionary facet of air combat, strike missions, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance among a host of other operations. However, coming back to the core concern, which is cost.

The F-35 for instance reportedly costs $100 million per aircraft, and that is just right off the bat. Compounding expenses such as maintenance and logistics among other deductibles only add to the end users’ financial woes. Adding to the list of concerns is the cost of losing an aircraft in operations, training, or even as a result of a maintenance malfunction.

It is simple economics that the sheer cost involved means that the aircraft will be purchased in lower numbers and be deployed sparingly as even a loss of one affects operational ability. Keeping all of the aforementioned in mind, if Russia successfully develops a low-cost stealth fighter and maintains a steady supply, then it could be seen as a game-changer.

Some have questioned Moscow’s ability to pull it off, however it is poignant to note that Russia has a proven experience in designing and developing a stealth fighter. The serial production of the SU-57 is a case in point and the insights gained from the project may translate well into the SU-75.

A video by Rostec highlighted how the Checkmate intends to streamline maintenance operations while requiring a mere skeleton crew. Furthermore, it went on to show that the SU-75 would not need special supplementary equipment, like special hangars which are often overlooked aspects of aircraft manufacturing. It is also poignant to note that there have been countless stealth aircraft designs by numerous countries in recent years however designs alone do not mean much. Experts point out that the real challenge is the ability to manufacture in bulk along with maintaining a steady supply at affordable rates. This requires optimisation in manufacturing as aircraft manufacturing is inherently expensive. Factories need to be built, machines and robots purchased, and skilled labour recruited.

Moscow has historically remained non-transparent regarding finances of their aircraft projects, this is in contrast to the United States which has been known to release annual budgets, detailing where it is intended to be spent. Discrepancies quickly become a subject of the media glare and erupt into political slugfests. However, in Russia, such transparency is a pipe dream. The only indications on a project’s status tend to be delayed, how many aircraft have been procured or in the case of the SU-57, foreign involvement.

New Delhi and Moscow had begun collaboration on a variant of the SU-57 known as the Sukhoi HAL FGFA which ended up with India pulling out of over costs. This was how the Russian people came to know about the increase in the project’s overall amount. Following this development, Russia had decided to lower the number of SU-57s which it intended to procure down to 76 aircraft. This number is speculated to go down unless Russia finds other countries which will offset the cost. Similar to what America had done with its F-35.

A commercial released before the Checkmates unveiling showed a diverse mix of pilots from air forces across the world next to the stealth fighter. Analysts believe that this was indicative of the SU-75’s export orientation, an observation which is not far fetched as Russia heavily relies on exports to offset costs as aforementioned. This allows it to build aircraft for the purposes of its own air force.

For instance, the SU-30 had received billions of dollars from both India and China during the late 1990s. This was to aid in the aircraft’s development. Russia had not initially intended to operate the aircraft however its export success made the manufacturing economical and allowed the Russians to enhance the aircraft and induct it into service. As of now, the Russian Airforce operated around 130 SU-30’s.

However, it is equally crucial to note that the SU-30 was considered a major modification of the existing SU-27, so the Russians had the technological base, they had the core design and possessed the existing manufacturing facilities and equipment from the initial production. One may draw parallels from this with the case of the US-made Hornet and Super Hornet.

Building a brand-new aircraft from scratch is a different beast. This is universal and not limited to Russia. This can perhaps best be encapsulated by the case of the F-35. It had taken billions of dollars over decades to develop the F-35. However, compared to that the F-15EX, based on the existing F-15 was developed in three years as the spadework had been done.

To surmise, Russia’s Checkmate has a long way to go before it gets slated into service despite claims of it being operational by 2026. Whether the SU-75 becomes operational by a time frame close to what has been claimed largely depends on the number of countries which plan to procure it. However, the stealth fighter does show promise.        

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