Russia’s premier jet fighter manufacturer Sukhoi has launched a second advertising blitz for its proposed Su-75 Checkmate export single-engine fighter at the Dubai airshow, following the concept aircraft’s heavily hyped unveiling this July at the MAKS airshow near Moscow.
This time, the stealth fighter is being promoted with a limited edition fighter-jet scented perfume, which according to Sukhoi’s parent conglomerate Rostec uses “original samples of metal alloys, glass and leather trim of the fifth-generation fighter's cockpit combined with light shades of juniper, patchouli, and oak moss. The five main notes of the composition blended well owing to the technogenic chord of the perfume.”
But despite the pungent swag, the latest stylized “trailer” promoting Checkmate arguably skimps on an embarrassing detail.
At a sequence beginning at the fifty-four-second mark ostensibly depicting the still-theoretical jet’s targeting system blasting ground vehicles with precision weapons, the ad uses footage apparently taken from an AH-64 Apache helicopter’s unique Target Acquisition Display System (TADS) targeting system built by Lockheed Martin.
The TADS abbreviation can literally be seen on the top and bottom left interface of the footage used in the Russian ad. Furthermore, indicators for the number of cannon rounds remaining for its 30-millimeter cannon can be seen on the HUD’s bottom-right corner.
You can compare the two TADS sequences to combat footage from TADS on Apache helicopters below, which also bear the TADS tag.
The presence of Apache footage was first noticed (to the author’s knowledge) by Russian military expert Rob Lee on social media, who points out TADS’s manufacturer Lockheed-Martin builds the F-35 Lightning II export fighters Checkmate is intended to compete with.
TADS is combined with a Pilot Night Vision System (PNVS), and includes a cluster of infrared and electro-optical sensors and a laser rangefinder/targeter mounted in a flexible turret in the nose of an Apache attack helicopters designed to pivot to wherever the pilot is looking. TADS/PNVS was first fielded along with early model AH-64A aircraft in 1983, though it has received a modernization in the 2000s called the TADS/PNVS-M Arrowhead incorporating a second-generation infrared sensor, zoom capability and automatic target tracking.
Russia does build its own infrared/electro-optical targeting systems, though are less widely employed. For example, only a minority of Russian warplanes in Syria were equipped with targeting pods, and Russia is known to have relied on imported Western infrared sensors for certain military purposes to which it has no longer has access.
Thus, it’s not confidence-inspiring for the advertisers to resort to using imagery from an American system rather than a Russian one. It does however fit with a pattern of deceptively using imagery form videogames and even war movies in propaganda to promote favorable narratives.
Checkmate Pitch 2.0
Sukhoi claims an Su-75 prototype could make its first flight in 2023, its ultra rapid assembly facilitated by using components already developed for the heavier Su-57 stealth aircraft. However, whether development can actually proceed that quickly and that the funding is there to make it happen is unclear.
Indeed, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has not only been prominently targeted by Sukhoi as a potential client, but also as a hoped-for source of development funding and aircraft components. In fact, Checkmate may be related to a project announced in 2017 for Russia and the UAE to jointly develop a new jet fighter. However, some observers believe the UAE’s low-energy courtship of of Russian jet fighter sales may be aimed more at exerting pressure on the U.S, which has wavered on but is likely to proceed with sales of F-35 stealth jets.
While the Russian military has claimed it will buy the jet—arguably a necessary confidence-building measure, but not an indication of more than a token buy—it’s aimed primarily for export to countries lacking either the political relationship or financial means to acquire and sustain U.S. F-35 stealth jets. India, Argentina, Vietnam, as well as others operators in Africa, Asia and South America are all hoped for clients.
The latest promotional video’s narrator also mentions Checkmate will “break the rules”, arguably not only in tactical sense, but implicitly by giving access to countries which can’t purchase F-35s due to their human rights record or are not trusted by Washington for other reasons.
In emphasis of the aircraft proclaimed low cost, he says “This is the plane for who know that the economy is the essential of any victory.” Along that theme, the end of the video seemingly implies customers could build Checkmate jets for themselves, perhaps in some sort of licensed arrangement similar to Indian Su-30MKI jet production.
The narrator also emphasizes the Su-75 would have open-architecture systems and that it could be assembled to the customer’s specification, implying hypothetical clients might have substantial access to its computers and hardware allowing for modifications including domestic software and hardware. This may be intended to contrast with Lockheed’s retention of a high degree of control over F-35 computers, which has frustrated operators, including the U.S. Air Force.
The marketing also depicts a Checkmate fighter working in conjunction with two drones: a surveillance drone and a jet-powered loyal wingman-style combat drone that’s actually a smaller, unmanned variant of Checkmate. (The unmanned Su-75 is believed to be of greater interest to the Russian military than the manned variant.) Emphasizing the Su-75’s projected capabilities as a drone-control platform presumably dovetail with the bevy of Russian combat drones expected to enter service in the 2020s.
However, the extent of the Su-75’s stealth features remains unclear. Though marketed as a fifth-generation jet (ie. stealthy) and clearly displaying some low-observable features like internal weapons bays, the manufacturer have been cagey in their language as to whether it’s a stealth jet.
An article by Russian TASS state news agency in particular boasts that the Su-75 can protect itself by performing missions “outside the area of the operation of air defense weapons”—not the sort of language one uses to promote a stealth jet designed to penetrate enemy airspace.
If Sukhoi can still turn out a versatile fighter as inexpensively and quickly as it claims, than Checkmate may still appeal to foreign clients even if it’s not really a true stealth fighter. We will know in a few years whether the still conceptual aircraft can make it into the air.
Sébastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including the The National Interest, NBC News, Forbes.com and War is Boring. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China. You can follow his articles on Twitter.