On Tuesday Morning, Russian aircraft manufacturer UAC unveiled the nation’s newest stealth fighter, the LTA Checkmate, at the MAKS air show at Ramenskoye airfield near Moscow. While information about this new 5th generation platform has steadily made its way to the media in recent months and some images even found their way onto the internet last week, we now have the most complete vision of this budget-friendly entrant into the stealth competition yet.
It’s important to remember that this new jet is not an operational platform, nor is there any strong indication that a flying tech demonstrator even exists. In other words, capabilities, cost, and even the overall design of this new fighter are all liable to change before this jet ever starts afterburning its way through production (if it ever does). Russia’s struggling economy and limited defense budget all but assure that the nation won’t be able to fund continued development, let alone production, of the LTA Checkmate single-handedly, so the future of this fighter program is largely in the hands of the foreign market. Russian officials have claimed that they invited delegations from 65 nations to come to the event and get a closer look at the fighter for this specific purpose.
According to today’s announcement, UAC believes they can start delivering new Checkmate fighters within five and a half years, with the first fighter for testing slated to be complete in 2023. ROSTEC officials predict orders of 300 aircraft, though they did not specify if they meant domestic, foreign, or total.
If Russia wants to make the LTA Checkmate its first successful stealth fighter on the export market (let alone in the sky), they need to make this jet look capable, reliable, and perhaps most importantly of all, affordable. These focal points were all on display on Tuesday, with mentions of the aircraft’s automated supply chain system and streamlined maintenance processes getting top billing alongside the usual fighter-fare.
And while it’s important to remember that this fighter is actively being marketed (in other words, exaggeration or extreme optimism may well be in play in terms of announced capabilities), it’s also equally as important to remember that Russia has a long and illustrious history of making grandiose claims about new military technology, only for it to fail to meet expectations…or even ever manifest, after the initial headline-grabbing announcements.
So, with a baseball-sized grain of salt, let’s dive into what UAC says their new fighter can do, and why it matters for the future of Russia’s ongoing staring contest with the West.
We’ve already analyzed where the LTA Checkmate fits into Russia’s defense apparatus and what it will take to get the fighter into service in this article. The following will largely pertain to newly announced information.
The LTA Checkmate aims to be the cheapest stealth fighter on the market
To be clear, being budget friendly does seem to be the focus, or at least one of the focuses, of the Checkmate. According to UAC CEO Yuri Slyusar, this new jet will ring in at under $30 million per airframe, making it the least expensive stealth fighter anywhere on the planet by a wide margin (assuming that price holds). While projected operating costs were not specified, a press release distributed during the event also emphasized cost savings in that department.
Of course, $30 million isn’t something to scoff at, but when compared to America’s two stealth fighters, the F-35 and F-22, it’s an absolute steal. The F-22 was the world’s first operational stealth fighter, but was canceled with just 183 of 750 ordered jets built. That massive cut in volume dramatically increased the per-unit price of the fighter to more than $200 million. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has consistently lowered its per-unit cost over the years and now rings in at under $80 million per aircraft, but both Lockheed Martin and the Pentagon have been accused of fudging those numbers by the nonpartisan government watchdog, Project On Government Oversight (POGO).
In their analysis of F-35 costs, an F-35A actually costs the taxpayer around $110 million, with the F-35C ringing it at $117 million and the short take off, vertical landing (STOVL) F-35B breaking the bank at nearly $136 million a piece in 2020.
It isn’t as easy to ascertain costs for China’s Chengdu J-20 or Russia’s existing stealth platform, the Su-57, though experts have weighed in on both. The China Power Project established by the Center for Strategic and International Studies estimates that the per-fighter cost of the J-20 could be as high as $120 million, with the Su-57 likely closer to $100 million.
If these numbers are broadly accurate, then the LTA Checkmate would cost less than a third of its least-expensive competition, making it a viable low observable option for nations that can’t drop nine-digit checks on a single piece of equipment.
Russia claims it uses AI to support pilot operations
An ongoing concern for fighter pilots in a high-end fight is managing mental load. Traditionally, a fighter pilot has to keep track of multiple gauges and sensor read outs as well as the terrain, friendly nearby aircraft, the target, and any potential threats. Until recently, pilots had to combine all of this information in their heads, but flying supercomputers like the F-35 streamline the process and free up pilots to focus on the task at hand. Not only did UAC claim the Checkmate fighter would leverage onboard supercomputers, but they went a step further and claimed the aircraft would also use artificial intelligence, or AI, to further reduce the mental strain on its pilots.
This idea isn’t unheard of. In fact, it the was basis behind the U.S. Air Force and DARPA’s Alphadog Flight Trials held last year. The event pitted real human fighter pilots against AI in virtual dogfights, but the stated aim has long been to improve the AI while increasing pilot comfort with the idea. Eventually, the plan is to use AI in the cockpit as a co-pilot of sorts, handling monotonous tasks for the pilot, or even responding to inbound missiles faster than humans are capable of.
However, to date, AI hasn’t found a place in any fighter cockpit, and it seems unlikely that Russia will master the craft by 2023, when the first Checkmate is projected to take to the skies.
It is likely that the Checkmate fighter will leverage its onboard computers alongside some degree of sensor fusion to provide an enhanced awareness of the battlefield, like most fighters of its generation.
It won’t be able to match other 5th-generation fighters in a dogfight
All those cost savings have to come from somewhere, and even with the assumption that claims about the Checkmate will be exaggerated for marketing purposes, its claimed capabilities still fall short of the other jets of its class.
While every other 5th-generation fighter on the planet has a claimed structural limit that exceeds 9gs, the Checkmate claims only 8. G forces are measured in relation to the natural weight of gravity on earth; 1 G is what you experience all the time while walking around, so 9 Gs is literally 9 times that. Here’s an explanation from F-35 pilot instructor and Sandboxx News contributor Major Hasard Lee:
“Right now, as you’re reading this, you’re probably at 1G, or one time the force of gravity. Your weight is what you see when you stand on a scale. I weigh approximately 200 pounds, 230 with my gear on. For most people, the peak G-force they’ve experienced is probably on a rollercoaster during a loop—which is about 3-4G’s. It’s enough to push your head down and pin your arms by your side. Modern fighters like the F-16 and F-35 pull 9G’s, which translates to over 2,000 pounds on my body.”
You can read all about Hasard’s experiences pushing his F-16 to 9 Gs and just what an incredible toll it takes on your body in his article about it here.
Being limited to 8 Gs means Russia’s new Checkmate won’t be able to perform maneuvers as aggressively as other stealth fighters, or even non-stealth 4th-generation jets. Of course, that’s not necessarily a huge problem though. The Checkmate can bank on its low observability when squaring off against non-stealth fighters like the F-16, and this jet probably wouldn’t be sent out to pick fights with F-22s.
The Checkmate fighter has a claimed range of 3,000km (1,800+ miles)
The single-engine Checkmate weighs in at significantly less than the twin-engine Su-57, and in conjunction with its stealthy but high-lift delta-wing design, seems to offer good range. It’s unclear whether its claimed 3,000km range is based on a stripped-down ferry-flight, but that seems likely.
If this range holds true into production, it would give the Checkmate superior range to that of America’s F-35s, the furthest-reaching of which is the carrier-capable F-35C with a maximum range of a bit shy of 1,400 miles in the best of conditions. The F-22 Raptor can beat the Checkmate’s proposed range, but just barely, and with the addition of stealth-killing external fuel tanks.
Russia claims the Su-57 has a combat radius of around 930 miles, which is significant (that suggests a total range of 1,860 miles with a combat load), and it seems the LTA Checkmate is similarly aiming for long-distance operations.
Its claimed service ceiling of better than 50,000 feet is on par with its 5th generation competition, many of which claim operational ceilings of “better than 50,000 feet” without further specifics.
It will be able to carry hypersonic air-to-air weapons internally
According to Tuesday’s announcement, the Checkmate fighter will be capable of carrying three RVV-BD long-range air-to-air missiles internally without compromising its stealth profile. The RVV-BD (also known as the R-37M or by NATO as the AA-13 Arrow) is a hypersonic weapon originally designed to take out tankers, AWACS, and other command and control aircraft from beyond the range of their fighter escorts, or about 124 miles.
Capable of achieving speeds in excess of Mach 6, the missile is believed to leverage an active data link for guidance, supported by the fighter’s onboard computers rather than the pilot, before switching to active radar homing in the final leg of its flight path.
Like the Checkmate itself, the RVV-BD was purpose-built with the export market in mind, and was designed to be easily mated to Russia’s export-iterations of both Su and MiG fighters. It seems logical, then, that the LTA Checkmate would be designed to leverage these weapons, as both stealth fighters and hypersonic weapons are currently considered extremely valuable for national militaries.
That added girth means a lot of added weight too. Depending on the source, the RVV-BD weighs in at between 1,100 and more than 1,300 pounds… meaning a single one of these missiles weighs as much as six Aim-9Xs, or nearly four AIM-120s. The most modern iteration of America’s furthest-reaching air-to-air missile, the AIM-120D, has a reported range of at least 87 miles, though its actual maximum range has never been disclosed. Unlike the RVV-BD, however, the AIM-120 tops out at around Mach 4, well below the hypersonic barrier of Mach 5.
However, storing three of these weapons internally is a pretty tall order. At around 13’9″, the RVV-BD isn’t that much longer than a normal air-to-air weapon, but its 15″ diameter is more than twice that of air-to-air weapons like the AIM-120 carried internally by the F-22 and three times that of smaller, short range weapons like the AIM-9X.
Those RVV-BDs will be housed in the aircraft’s primary weapons bay, with another smaller bay further forward on the fuselage that will likely house smaller defensive air-to-air munitions. Per the display, it seems likely that this new Checkmate fighter will also carry a 30mm cannon, similar to the GSh-30-1 autocannon found in the Su-57. Managing targets and other pertinent information will be accomplished via an all-glass cockpit dominated by one large primary display that’s sure to serve a variety of purposes based on the situation alongside the usual variety of cockpit bells and whistles one might expect of a fighter designed in the 21st century.