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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

Russia’s New Su-75 Stealth Fighter: On the Brink of Never Flying?

Su-75 artist rendition.

Meet the Su-75 Checkmate – As if Vladimir Putin didn’t have enough P.R. and propaganda issues with all the setbacks and unbearably slow progress of his so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine, the status of Russia’s stealth fighter program is not doing much for Vlad’s—or Russia’s—pride either. The Sukhoi Su-57 “Felon“, in spite of the public interest in it, sparked by its (Hollywood-embellished) appearance in Top Gun: Maverick, has the dubious distinction of being the Johnny-come-lately (or would that be “Vanya come lately?) in the 5th generation stealth fighter race.

To add insult to injury, the Felon’s would-be successor, the Su-75 “Checkmate,” appears destined for an even lengthier “Rain Check,” so to speak.

Reversal of Digits, But No Reversal of Fortune

Whether or not the siloviki at the PJSC United Aircraft Corporation (UAC; the parent corporation of Sukhoi) were deliberately going for an anagram or inverse digits game vis-a-vis the Su-57 when they decided on the “75” designation for the new aircraft is anybody’s guess. But if one is inclined to a certain degree of superstition, then one could say that the numbers “5” and “7” are an unlucky number in the Russian aircraft industry.

The Russian defense industry tycoons—or oligarchs if you prefer—certain tried to make a big splash when the unveiled a mockup at the 2021 Dubai Airshow. As my 19FortyFive colleague Brent M. Eastwood writes, “Russian designers have resorted to a sparkly marketing campaign to hype the fighter, even going as far as bottling Checkmate perfume to wow the crowds at an air show.”

Methinks I’ll stick with Christian Dior cologne, thank you very much/merci beaucoup/spasibo.

The problem though, as Brent adds, is that “Russia’s defense industry is known for over-promising and under-delivering, despite Putin’s usual bombast about new defense weaponry coming to the forefront.” Or to use an unflattering Texas phrase, “All hat, no cattle.” A month ago, Sergey Chemezov, the head of defense contractor Rostec had the unenviable talk of informing Mr. Putin the new fighter would not be ready until 2027–two years later than the previous promise.

Given Putin’s temperament as of late, one cannot help but wonder how well this bodes for the job security of Mr. Chemzov and his counterpart over at UAC/Sukhoi. For basis of comparison, the “Felon” began development in 2002, but didn’t make its maiden flight until January 2010 and finally got officially introduced into service on Christmas Day 2020 (presumably not gift-wrapped with a bow under Putin’s tree).

Western sanctions certainly aren’t helping the cause of the Checkmate’s metaphorical gestation period either. Nor is the dearth of interested would-be foreign customers thus far. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov claimed at the beginning of the year out the presence of an unnamed “anchor customer,” but said it will be marketed to African nations, Vietnam, Latin America, and India.

Su-75 – More Bang for the Buck or Rumble for the Ruble? 

If the Su-75 actually turns out to be anywhere nearly as good as advertised, it has some serious potential. As noted by 19FortyFive’s Wesley Culp:

“According to Sergei Chemezov…the Checkmate will have a range of roughly 1,800 miles without external fuel tanks, and a maximum combat load of more than 16,500 pounds. Chemezov has also claimed that the per-hour cost of flying the Su-75 will be seven times cheaper than the U.S. F-35 stealth fighter, which he called its main selling point.”

If true, this would certainly make it more appealing to more cash-strapped and impoverished nations like those prospective African and Latin American customers as well.

In addition, if the hype is to be believed, then the Su-75 will be capable of carrying modern Russian air-to-air, air-to-surface, anti-radiation missiles, as well as guided and unguided bombs. Supposedly this arsenal will include hypersonic missiles.

Talk is cheap, however, regardless of how cheaply Rostec and UAC/Sukhoi boast that they will be able to produce their much-hyped future fighter. And if the aforementioned sanctions and other obstacles to the production of the Su-57, there’s one other potential problem, as brought up by my old friend & mentor John V. Parachini—and co-author Peter A. Wilson—of the RAND Corporation:

It may not have stealth capability at all: An analysis of Russian official media stories and Rostec press releases about Checkmate do not mention stealth technology. Without that, it’s far-fetched to call this a 5th-generation aircraft.”

That last bone of contention may prove to be the ultimate kicker that keeps the so-called Checkmate in check, so to speak.

Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security.

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Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon).