Cheap and stealth fighter aren’t words that ever go together into a sentence. However, Russia since this time last year has been trying to promote its new Su-75 fighter as a cheap version of stealth. But for Putin, it seems his war in Ukraine could make the project unworkable. We asked a real expert to breakdown what this all means and what the future holds for the Su-75: Unveiled at the annual MAKS airshow last summer—and closely inspected by Vladimir Putin himself—the Sukhoi Su-75 “Checkmate” is a single-engine, single-seat multirole fighter designed for Russian export markets. It is estimated to be able to carry up to seven tons of both air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions and boasts the same advanced avionics suite found in its cousin, the Sukhoi Su-57 “Felon.”
The fighter is intended as a (much) cheaper alternative to the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning. Indeed, it’s estimated starting price at around $30 million before customer-specific modifications puts it far below the F-35’s $78 million price tag, as well as the F-22’s $125 million tag. These price categories put it in much closer competition with the Dassault Rafale and JAS-39 Gripen.
The Su-75 May Never Fly
Yet it is not even clear that the Checkmate will truly get off the ground anytime soon. Rostec, Sukhoi’s parent company, has said it expects a maiden flight in 2023 with production beginning in 2027 (two years later than originally promised). Yet like so much advanced equipment within the Russian defense industry, such as the T-14 Armata tank and Su-57, it is unclear if dates such as these are to be believed at all.
The Checkmate is designed to fly on the Saturn Izdeliye-30 engine, but even the Su-57—Russia’s premier fifth-generation fighter—is not yet fully outfitted with the Saturn. International sanctions, both after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and since its February full-scale invasion of Ukraine, have significantly limited the country’s ability to access the resources needed to produce fifth-generation fighters. This is especially true of export bans on semiconductors—key components to the advanced computers operative in today’s fifth-generation aircraft.
Su-75 Export Market Problems
On top of this, it is not evident the markets targeted for Su-75 export—Vietnam, the United Arab Emirates, India, Argentina, and some African countries—are truly viable. The Su-75 is meant to compete with the F-22 and F-35, yet none of these countries are poised to need such a capability. Moreover, as cheap unmanned aerial vehicles like the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drone continue to make their mark, countries with tighter defense budgets will likely turn more frequently to this option.
The Checkmate’s situation is even further complicated in that its rapid development and production is essentially dependent on investments in the Su-57 being used to jumpstart Checkmate production. Yet with the Su-57 facing many of the same constraints of the Su-75, the Su-75 will almost certainly be set back even further than currently expected.
Sanctions Could Hurt Su-75 Sales
Lastly, another effect of international sanctions hurting Russian defense exports is that Russia is no longer able to trade in United States dollars, making the international transfer of Su-75s more complicated than they might otherwise be.
In short, the predicted failures of the Su-75 are not just in a lack of demand, but also in the successes of the sanctions leveled against the Russian regime since 2014. Though many have decried the failure of sanctions to “work,” look no further than how US financial and economic power has stymied the development of Russia’s most advanced military equipment. The Su-75 is just one more example of this failure by the Russians and success by the United States and its Western allies.
Alex Betley is a recent graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy where he was an International Security Studies Civil Resistance Fellow and Senior Editor with the Fletcher Security Review.