Dubai Airshow

Russia Shifting Priorities to New Fighter Designs

 - November 13, 2021 (All day)
A prototype of Russia's twin-engine T-50, now known as the Su-57, features a blended body to facilitate a lower radar cross-section.

As tensions continue in the Middle East between states mainly aligned with the West and countries like Afghanistan, Syria, and Iran, Russian industry will look to exploit opportunities for defense exports in the region. Here in Dubai, Russian export agency Rosoboronexport (Stand A05, A06) hopes to convince potential customers that the country stands ready to move beyond capable but increasingly expensive upgrades and derivatives of the Sukhoi Su-27 and Mikoyan MiG-29.

The latest and most advanced variants of the aircraft—the MiG-35 and the Su-35—have enjoyed only moderate success in the export market due to the aircraft becoming more expensive to both initially procure and operate on a cost per-flight-hour basis.

“Russian fighters just do not offer the same option of being so much cheaper to operate than their Western analogs,” said a Polish defense analyst.  “The old adage of ‘you buy and pay for fighter aircraft by the pound’ really applies here.  What we [in the Polish armed forces] have discovered is how expensive it is to operate a MiG-29 versus an F-16, as Poland has both aircraft in inventory and can make some one-for-one comparisons.”

For those and other reasons the MiG-35 still does not have any foreign customers and so far only the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and Egypt have procured the Su-35, and in small numbers.  While the “Super Flanker,” as it is sometimes labeled, is an effective platform (and is also the new aircraft for the Russian Knights demonstration team), it is also very large and heavy and even more expensive to operate than the original Su-27 design.

“Fifth-generation” Options

To avoid the trap of obsolescence, Russian industry has been working on new-generation aircraft designs since the beginning of the previous decade.  Initially, those efforts largely focused on developing a counter to the U.S.-design Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptor originally known as the PAK-FA/T-50. Russian industry subsequently produced a set of prototypes used to validate the onboard systems of the aircraft’s design.

The series-production configuration of the aircraft is now known as the Su-57 and carries many of the features of the American fighter—a twin-engine design that features a blended body to facilitate a lower radar cross-section.  The overall size of the aircraft, however, is smaller than that of the Su-27 or Su-35 design, but still larger than the MiG-29.  Like the previous-generation aircraft it is meant to replace, the engines are separated to create a smaller aerodynamic cross-section with an elongated tail stinger housing a situational awareness radar between them.

The details of the Su-57 design highlight what one of the critics of the entire concept of “fifth-generation” fighters—U.S. aviation analyst and author James Stevenson—has to say on the subject.  “The label ‘fifth-generation’ is actually more of a marketing gimmick than it is anything else,” he told AIN.  “Technically there are only four aircraft in this category: the F-22, the Chinese J-20, the Su-57, and the F-35 – so, two U.S. designs, one Russian, and one Chinese.  If you count a fifth design—the Shenyang J-31/FC-31 and its derivatives—you can perhaps say that there are fifth of these types of aircraft that exist today.”

“But what you will notice is that they are distinctly different aircraft with what are in some cases almost mutually exclusive mission profiles,” he continued.  “The act of being stealthy to one degree or another is only one of the aspects of these aircraft that earns them the title of being next-generation, but in many respects that is the only major characteristic that they all share.”

Other observers have pointed out that the Su-57 is the least invisible of all of those aircraft, while some aspects of its configuration that are readily visible—such as some notable platform misalignments—would give it a larger radar signature than any of the others.  But in the case of the Russian mission objectives, stealth is not the only design driver that matters.

The other difficulty the Su-57 faces centers on the fact that its production costs have gone higher than originally projected, particularly while it remains at a very low initial rate of production. At the beginning of the last decade, many assumed that India would join as one of the program’s partners and that other nations operating one or more models of the Su-27 and Su-30 would become export customers.

Neither development came to pass, meaning the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) stand as the sole customer.  In addition, neither the NIIP N036 Byelka Active Scanning Electronic Array (AESA) radar nor the izdeliye 30 fifth-generation engine under development has entered series production.  For the time being, the Su-57s undergo assembly with the same NIIP N035 Irbis passive array (PESA) radar set and 117S/AL-41F-series engine installed in the Su-35.

Next Move is Checkmate

The biennial Moscow Aviation and Space Salon (MAKS) is always used as a platform for Russia’s aerospace sector to beat its collective drum about its accomplishments.  Always occurring in the summer of odd-numbered years, it also presents a perfect forum for announcing new initiatives that the industry plans to roll out four months later at Dubai.

That scenario played out again this year with the introduction of a new single-engine fighter design concept.  While the aircraft’s nickname is Checkmate, some analysts also call it the “Su-75,” although supposedly no official designation exists yet for the model.

The aircraft unveiled on July 20 at MAKS was originally described as a “prototype”, but later reporting indicated that the vehicle being shown is a non-flying “hybrid” that is part prototype and part mock-up.  The general director of Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation (OAK), Yuri Slyusar, and Sukhoi Design Bureau chief designer Aleksei Bulatov gave the briefing on the program at MAKS, but discussed only some basic data.

The two industry representatives said first flight would take place in two years and that series production could begin as soon as four years from now, notwithstanding skepticism about that timeline by industry analysts that place the start of assembly no sooner than seven years from now.

The program ostensibly would fill a need in the international market for an affordable alternative to Lockheed Martin’s F-35.  The Russian design team states that the Checkmate would cost between $25 and $30 million.

The biggest hurdle for the Checkmate might well center on its lack of funding from the Russian state and no orders from the VKS.  The program could create some economies of scale in that it would be powered with one of the same two izdeliye 30 engines now undergoing testing for the Su-57 program and feature a derivative of the same N036 AESA radar.

However, in the past, the VKS has shown little enthusiasm for smaller, single-engine platforms and most Russian analysts say that has not changed much in the past few years.

“Without Checkmate being a program of record with the VKS it may be a hard sell for any export customer,” said one long-time Russian aerospace industry specialist.  “In the end, however, they may have to accept this program for the simple reason that the Su-57 is probably not affordable in the numbers required to replace the current fleets of previous-generation fighters.”