* Su-XX is a Russian Airforce (RuAF) designation for in-service aircraft designed by the Sukhoy bureau. Since the “Checkmate” haven’t entered the RuAF service, it cannot be officially designated as Su-XX by the Russian military. This is an industry invented designation made to look like the RuAF designation for the advertisement purposes.
The latest word coming from the Russian official is that the maiden flight is now expected in 2025, or two years later of the 2023 date which was advertised in 2021. So in one year of development, the first flight was delayed for two years. That is what called “one step forward, two steps back”.
To be fair, I don’t know of any fighter jet program of the last few decades in the world, that proceeded on schedule. That being said, each time a promise like that is being thrown just to be moved back before the deadline, the industry is making itself look like a joke.
The fighter jet is an initiative of the Sukhoi, its patent OAK (“United Aircraft-building Corporation”), and, subsequently, its parent Rostech state-owned umbrella corporation. It is intended for the export, namely as a F-35A alternative and Chinese FC-31/J-35 export-oriented fifth-gen stealthy fighter jet. It is promising to be ~3 times cheaper than the F-35A, while providing compatible basic performance (like range, speed, maneuverability etc.). It will also allow for much greater level of ownership — unlike the F-35 which can be cut-off of by the US from the maintenance and regular upgrades, which will practically speaking “brick” it. So if you happen to be warry of the US sanctions or strong-arming, or not willing to pay the top price for your new jet, you may want to look elsewhere, like in to Russia or China.
The downside of the Russian project is twofold:
First — any major weapon system is desirable to have a large fleet, preferably in large number of countries. What is even more important, is for the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) to field and operate the system in significant numbers. This will assure the system would support wide and long-term support by the OEM through its lifetime. For example, US put all of its eggs in the F-35 program, and itself will be dependent on tuning and supporting this jet, to assure its operability for decades to come. Its wide spread across the globe will also assure development and support for third parties’ weapons and equipment, as well as strong logistics outside of the US.
Second — F-35 may not be a best performing fighter jet (and it surely isn’t), but it have the top-notch avionics and sensors in the world.
Russian “Checkmate” cannot compete in those areas. It is not even inducted into the RuAF — Russians have no interest in one-engine fighter jet, then they are developing and inducting the more capable two-engined Su-57 on a very limited budget. This is a problem which is well understood by the producer, and that’s why they are pressuring the Russian military to order some of these jets just to give it a legitimacy in the eyes of the potential foreign buyers. For about a year now, I saw no news regarding Russian decision one way or another — the Defense Ministry has started consultations with the OAK around September last year (IIRC), and that’s all.
Regarding avionics and other equipment, Russia isn’t in a best shape in this regard. It cannot rely on the foreign hardware and software, which greatly limits the capabilities of those systems. The economy-of-scale is also a big problem for the Russian 5th gen fighters. Thus either a much larger investments are needed to provide the same capabilities, or, which is actually a realistic option, the performance targets for this equipment will be much lower in comparison to the Western ones.
For example, Turkey can built better unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAV’s) than Russia can (at least for now), only because it is able to procure foreign of-the-shelf components and systems for its drones. Globalization made it possible to develop weapon system acting only as a system integrator — as long as you are not under western sanctions, of course. And I’m not talking about simple things like lithium batteries, but off-the-shelf of custom designed sensors, integrated circuits, communications, engines etc. — all those things that are the meat and bone of modern technology.
But all of the above doesn’t explain the delay. The only force-major I can think of is the acceleration in the Su-57 production and development, which may came as a result of the Ukrainian war. But more probably the reason is usual failure of the upper management to understand the realities on the ground and to make plans accordingly. I’m almost positive, this delay would pop-out even if there was no war.
Meanwhile Chinese are making progress in developing a naval version of their FC-31 — the J-35. Since there aren’t any potential customers for the Chinese carrier based fighter, this means it is intended for the Chinese aircraft carriers. As a replacement or supplement for the J-15. If this will succeed, it would also have a positive effect on the base variant, the FC-31, for its export prospects.
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