The dust has barely settled on the basic version of the new Checkmate stealth fighter jet, but Russian defense giant Rostec is already teasing the plane’s upcoming advanced variants.
During a television appearance the day after the hotly-anticipated July 20 reveal of Russia’s new Checkmate fighter, Sukhoi spokeswoman Anastasia Kravchenko reportedly said that an unmanned Checkmate variant is in the works: “This is the very same principle of open architecture that allows us to create both unmanned as well as manned versions of the same plane.” The TASS news report accompanying Kravchenko’s statement added, rather vaguely, that “an unmanned version of the fighter is being created on the foundation of a unified aviation platform.”
The report implied that manned and unmanned Checkmate fighters will be able to operate seamlessly within the same squadron. Still, it is unclear exactly how the unmanned Checkmate version will differ from its manned counterpart. The announcement of an unmanned variant raises numerous questions, with few accompanying answers: Will it use the same airframe, and will it be able to carry the same payload? Can it support all three of the standard configurations—“basic, medium, and full”—that were discussed during the Checkmate presentation? Will the unmanned version offer optional manned functionality for additional flexibility? Will the unmanned variant be directed by nearby manned Checkmate fighters, from a central outpost, or through some type of hybrid control scheme? To what degree will the unmanned version be able to function autonomously? Given the costs and complexities of developing unmanned aircraft technology, it is not unreasonable to assume that this version of Checkmate will command a hefty premium over its manned counterpart.
Kravchenko added that a two-seat Checkmate variant is also under development. As with the unmanned model, it is unclear if that version of the plane will differ in performance and specifications from the standard single-seat model. In prior decades, two-seater fighters were commonly employed for ground-strike missions—the second seat was used by a Weapons Systems Officer (WSO), primarily responsible for operating the plane’s targeting systems. But fifth-generation aircraft like Checkmate have largely removed the need for a WSO, simplifying and automating the tasks that previously required constant human attention through artificial intelligence and machine learning. It appears more likely that the two-seater Checkmate model will be offered as a training aircraft for export markets, similar to the upcoming two-seat Su-57. A two-seat variant could be something of a gentler introduction to the Checkmate platform, lowering the barrier of entry for new pilots while also functioning as a notional enemy target during wargames.
It remains to be seen if Sukhoi is open to creating country-specific versions of the Checkmate fighter, significantly altering the plane’s basic capabilities to suit a foreign customer’s mission requirements. Sukhoi’s own Su-30, and its many national variants, are a successful precedent for this type of approach.
Mark Episkopos is a national security reporter for the National Interest.