Russia keeps saying time and time and again that its Su-75 stealth fighter will take to the skies and that foreign buyers will embrace it as a cheap version of the F-35 stealth fighter. At the moment, none of that seems possible:
Though Russia’s highly-touted Su-75 “Checkmate” won’t make its maiden flight until at least some time in 2026, the program is reportedly still progressing, and possibly at a quicker pace than some western analysts may have anticipated.
Recently, the United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) – a division of the state-owned military-tech conglomerate Rostec – announced that it would build four prototypes of the lightweight single-engine fighter in the coming months.
“We use advanced super-computer technologies in the Checkmate project, which enables us to cut substantially the timeframe of building the prototype and begin the flight tests already in 2024. Now preparations have been launched for the production of two prototypes. In all, we plan to build four prototypes,” UAC CEO Yury Slyusar told Tass during the Army 2022 international military-technical forum, Russia’s largest military trade show.
The Army 2022, which is normally a high-profile event, was significantly more low-key this year. It concluded on Sunday, and the Su-75 was among the biggest program to receive any notable attention from the foreign media.
Su-75: Slow But Steady Development?
UAC has claimed that steady progress has been made on the aircraft’s development since it was unveiled last summer at the MAKS 2021 international airshow outside of Moscow. A mock-up of the aircraft, which was designed by UAC subsidiary Sukhoi Aircraft Company, was further displayed at the Dubai Airshow 2021 in the United Emirates (UAE) as an attempt to draw interest from potential foreign buyers.
The Checkmate has been marketed as a derivative of the Su-57 fifth-generation fighter that would be more affordable than the American-designed Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II. Slyusar had said that foreign customers have outlined their requirements for the Su-75 Checkmate fighter, and its further development will address those needs.
“Over the time since the project’s presentation at the MAKS 2021 airshow, work has been organized to get a feedback from potential customers,” said Slyusar. “Aside from the customers’ additional requirements, work has been carried out to optimize the cost and analyze certain technical solutions, which has made it possible to substantially raise the competitive edge and the commercial attractiveness and reduce technical risks in creating the domestic single-engine airplane.”
Su-75: Not an F-35 – Not Even Close
The Su-75 is seen primarily as an export aircraft, and Russian state media has described the program as being in the prototype stage. The Checkmate is based on a modular design, which could allow it to utilize a variety of fifth-generation technologies. Moreover, the UAC chief has said that development is now focused on a “baseline single-seat” variant of the fighter as well as an unmanned version.
“The work on the Checkmate’s unmanned version has been ongoing since the early stages of designing. The unmanned version can be created alongside the singe-seat airplane,” Slyusar continued. “The potential for the unmanned aircraft’s flight tests will be developed as part of the outpacing work on the manned version.”
The single-engine fighter will incorporate stealth technology, and that will include an internal weapons bay to carry air-to-air and air-to-surface missiles, which indicates that the Su-75 could serve as both an air superiority and ground attack aircraft. It can carry a payload of more than 7 tonnes of armament, and reportedly will be capable of striking up to six targets at a time. Current specifications, which haven’t actually been put to the test or confirmed, call for the aircraft to have a top speed of Mach 1.8 and an operating range of 3,000 km. It will also have an open architecture configuration to meet the customer’s requirements and unique artificial intelligence technologies.
What the Experts Told 19FortyFive About the Su-75
Although Russia has boasted that it would be more affordable than the F-35 Lightning II or Sweden’s JAS-39 Gripen, it isn’t clear if its capabilities are actually on par with those advanced aircraft.
“Russia’s military is principally interested in an unmanned version of the Su-75, as it invests in production and maturation of the higher-end twin-engine Su-57 jet,” explained aviation expert Sebastien Roblin.
“The manned Su-75 will have a tricky needle to thread on the export market, given the stresses U.S. sanctions may impose on prospective buyers and lack of clarity where Checkmate falls in between a true stealth fighter and a 4.5-generation fighter incorporating radar cross-section reductions like a Rafale or Super Hornet,” Roblin continued. “However, Sukhoi may hope that governments that presently can’t access and/or afford F-35s, like India or Vietnam, maybe still be tempted by an ‘in-between’ light fighter with ostensibly low operating and units costs, networkable sensors, open-architecture digital systems, and at least some stealthiness achieved through an optimized airframe and engine geometry and use of internal weapons stowage.”
“The Su-75 Checkmate feels like Russia’s last-gasp effort at grabbing hold of a small piece of the international fighter jet market. Russia is being squeezed on the sophistication side by NATO and other Western allies such as South Korea, and on the price side by China (which already has two advanced stealth fighter projects),” explained Dr. Robert Farley, a military expert and Senior Lecturer at the University of Kentucky. “Given serious questions about the ability of Russian industry to produce advanced equipment, and lately to produce any equipment beyond Russia’s immediate military needs, the future of the Checkmate seems in serious doubt. Much will have to change before buyers decide to risk investing in sophisticated Russian equipment and a long-term maintenance and upgrade relationship with Moscow.”
Yet, as the old Porsche ad campaign reminded us, “there is no substitute,” and that’s certainly true of the F-35. Any nation “investing” in the Su-75 could learn the hard way that you get what you pay for, and the Checkmate will be a poor substitute for a true fifth-generation warbird. Finally, as no prototypes have been built to date, the Su-75 is, for now simply the greatest example of Russian vaporware.
Expert Biography: A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes.