Dubai Airshow

Russia Signals Ambition To Overturn UAE F-35 Sale

 - November 12, 2021, 5:30 AM
A model of Russia's "Checkmate" fighter stands on display at Moscow's MAKS 2021 air show.

For only the second time ever and for the first time outside of Russia, the new single-engine Checkmate fighter graces a display platform here at Dubai 2021. United Aircraft Corporation (UAC, Stand 895) and the Sukhoi Aircraft Company (Chalet S16) revealed the program only this past July on the opening day of the Moscow Aviation and Space Expo (MAKS). The airplane, which is also sometimes referred to as the Su-75 or the Light Tactical Aircraft (LTS in the Russian acronym), represents an effort by Moscow to stake out a portion of the export fighter aircraft market.

The officials who gave a briefing on the program at MAKS spoke of what they see as a lack of an inexpensive, single-engine lightweight stealth fighter in the world market.  The other two most stealthy single-engine designs—the Swedish JAS-39E/F Gripen and the Lockheed Martin F-35—both cost considerably more than the $25 million to $30 million that the Checkmate designers quote for their program.

The public briefings on the program all contained few specifics of where the Sukhoi design team and UAC believe they could market the Checkmate, but other marketing material released to date shows that the primary target customer is the UAE—hence its appearance at this year’s Dubai show.

A promotional video released just prior to MAKS begins with a pilot in the UAE looking out at a Dubai skyline from an upper-floor apartment.  It shows him packing up his flight kit after he has received a scramble alert on his smartphone.  Subsequent scenes show pilots being similarly summoned in the three other countries that Sukhoi rates as its most near-term potential buyers: India, Vietnam, and Argentina.

Having received “red alert” type signals on their phones they drop whatever they are doing to find any available means to reach an aerodrome in another nation. Pilots of other nations then join them as the Checkmate rolls out of a hangar in front of them, showcasing the Russian company's proposal for the aircraft to be built as a multinational program with numerous partners.

A Long-Running Campaign

Sergei Chemezov, a long-time ally and confidante of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the head of Russia’s Rostec defense industrial holding company, proposed cooperation on the development of the Checkmate to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 2017 during the IDEX show at the beginning of that year.  Nine months later, at the Dubai 2017 Airshow, the two countries scheduled the signature of an agreement to share the cost of developing the project.

However, a change in U.S. policy announced on the eve of the Dubai event reversed a previous position on F-35 export sales.  The change would allow allied Arab states to acquire the U.S. aircraft. The Emirates’ ability to purchase the same fighter as the Israeli Air Force torpedoed the Russia-UAE project.

At least until now, that is. 

News that the $23 billion agreement for the UAE to acquire up to 50 of the U.S. stealth aircraft might have derailed due to concerns over Abu Dhabi’s growing military partnership with China appears to have prompted the Russian push to offer the Checkmate. Beijing has sent such a large volume of defense equipment to the UAE, raising concern by U.S. officials that the Chinese plan to establish a base in the Emirates—a step that could sink the entire deal.

Following a policy review earlier in the year, the Biden Administration said the F-35 sale could move forward.  But since that time questions have surfaced about the ability of the Emiratis to secure the Lockheed Martin aircraft’s technical details away from any Chinese prying eyes.

The package for the UAE includes the F-35s plus 18 of the General Atomics MQ-9B Reaper drones, weapons, and other items, all of which won approval in the 11th hour of the Trump Administration.  Transferring the attack drones and the F-35’s advanced weapons complement ostensibly was justified as a hedge against the increased belligerence of Iran.

Art of the Possible

Notwithstanding the apparent opening for the Checkmate, there remain many questions about both the marketing strategy and the airplane’s technical capabilities. Meanwhile, the Checkmate’s lack of record with the Russian military hampers its prospects in the export market.

The design announced at MAKS in July calls for an aircraft with a 40,000-pound takeoff weight and a thrust-to-weight ratio of not less than 1:1.  That mandates the use of the new izdeliye engine now in developmental test; however, the developers have not set an end date for its availability.

The aircraft is also supposed to retain the “supermaneuverability” aspect historically emphasized in the Sukhoi Su-27/30/35 family of fighter designs.  The engine would come equipped with an axisymmetrical thrust vectoring nozzle.  Its maximum speed would exceed Mach 2.0 and it would be capable of short takeoff and landing performance with the use of the nozzle, according to a report by TASS, the Russian state news agency.

However, whether or not the package is possible with all of the problems facing Russian industry and the major subsystems—the engine and the radar—still not yet ready, remains in question. Even if Russian industry can romance a princely sum from the UAE to fund development, those issues make the entire project a very difficult task.