Rostec has finally unveiled its hotly anticipated “Checkmate” fighter after weeks of touting its latest military weapon.
The new fighter jet was unveiled on Tuesday at the 2021 edition of Russia’s biennial MAKS airshow. The dramatized opening presentation, which can be viewed in English on Rostec’s Youtube channel, dispelled any doubts over the plane’s official name. “Pride, intelligence, power, reliability,” said the announcer. “This is the new fifth-generation light tactical fighter. This is the Checkmate.”
The fighter jet was manufactured by Rostec subsidiary Sukhoi, growing out of Russia’s Light Tactical Aircraft program, also known as the LTS program. The Checkmate brings a fairly respectable specs sheet, boasting a top speed of 1,900 kilometers per hour, an operational range of 3,000 kilometers or a combat radius of 1,500 kilometers, and payload in excess of seven tons. The warplane also offers short take-off and landing capability, thrust vectoring, the cost-efficient “Matreshka” automated logistic support system, design features aimed at stealth performance and low-maintenance functionality. As a multirole tactical fighter jet, Checkmate will boast a large and diverse armament suite for effectiveness against air, ground, and sea targets. These include the RVV-MD and RVV-SD medium- and short-range air-to-air missile, GROM E1 and E2 guided air-to-surface missiles, a wide catalog of guided and unguided bombs, S-8 and S-13 rockets, and more. The full range of Checkmate’s possible weapons configurations remains unclear but the presentation noted that it can carry up to five air-to-air missiles in internal weapons bays while deployed in its stealth configuration.
This level of performance and features integration is perfectly satisfactory, if not exactly game-changing, for a fifth-generation fighter jet. Rostec’s real trump card, however, is the price tag: the Checkmate is being offered for as low as $25-30 million per unit. With this aggressive pricing scheme, Russia’s defense industry believes that Checkmate is well-positioned to undercut the competing Dassault Rafale and JAS-39 Gripen in the global export market. "The light tactical plane is primarily an aircraft designed for export. Being aware of its flight characteristics, strike and reconnaissance capabilities and low radar vulnerability, we anticipate that the fighter will vie fiercely with its competitors. We view it as a rival for leading Western manufacturers of the so-called fifth-generation single-engine fighters," said the Director of Russia’s Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation Dmitry Shugayev. Rostec is also planning unmanned and two-seat variants that will drastically change Checkmate’s capabilities and mission purpose, helping the platform appeal to a wider customer base.
There is, however, one notable caveat when it comes to pricing: $25-30 million appears to be the baseline price before any customer-specific modifications, enhancements, and conversions. With Rostec leveraging the plane’s expansive customizability as one of its major selling points, it is not difficult to see certain weapons and avionics options adding significantly to the final contract price and perhaps making Checkmate less of the stellar value proposition that it appears at first sight. Additional pricing details will likely emerge as the first export contracts are inked— Moscow is estimating an initial market demand for around 300 fighters, with the plane being primarily marketed to “Africa, India, and Vietnam.”
Rostec says that Checkmate is scheduled to make its maiden flight in 2023, with serial deliveries to begin by 2027.
Mark Episkopos is a national security reporter for the National Interest.