SU-57 CHECKMATE: THE BEAR'S GAMBIT?
Russia pulled a sneaky on everyone.
While every military analyst has been focused on China's J-20, Russia has upped the ante by unveiling the Su-75 "Checkmate". One look at it tells you all you need to know, this aircraft will be a direct competitor against the F-35; both in the skies and the marketplace.
More modest than the J-20 and Su-57, the Checkmate utilizes a single-engine design that obviously strives for stealth. Unlike The Shenyang FC-31, which simply looks like the twin-engine F-35, the Su75, simultaneously looks like nothing else in the air whilst also being hauntingly familiar.
Why does it look so familiar?
Because the Su-75 utilizes elements from two fighter designs that lost to the F-35.
The most... Interesting design choice has to be that front engine intake. A similar intake appeared on Boeing's ill-fated JSF contender, the X-32. This very intake earned the aircraft its infamous nickname: MONICA. (No, this isn't a Friends reference) Being a divertless supersonic inlet (DSI), this design has several advantages, including weighing less than traditional mechanical ramps while also improving stealth characteristics.
Either that... Or Sukhoi's engineers have a particularly twisted sense of humor...
The Su-75's Pelikan tail seems highly reminiscent of another, less known JSF contender.
While much is known about the rivalry between Boeing's X-32 and Lockheed Martin's X-35; there was a third JSF entry that never made it to prototype phase. This being from McDonnell Douglas, manufacturer of legendary fighters like the F-15 Eagle, F/A-18 Hornet, and F-4 Phantom II.
McDonnell Douglas's JSF design seemed to split the difference between Lockheed Martin's more conventional design and Boeing's radical big-mouthed stubby delta. Sporting Lambda wings and a Pelikan tail, McDonnell Douglas's design was easily the sleekest of the three. Unfortunately, its proposed exhaust gas powered lift system was deemed unacceptable. A redesigned lift system using a second turbine was deemed too complicated.
McDonnell Douglas's expulsion from the JSF program was more or less a death sentence for a company that specialized in jet fighters. It was soon merged with Boeing.
The Pelikan tail does offer advantages to a traditional layout. Since it combines four surfaces into two, there is considerably less drag. It is also inherently stealthier than a traditional layout. The YF-23's Pelikan tail design is likely one of the reasons why it is considered stealthier than the YF-22.
Unlike the Chinese Shenyang FC-31, no one can accuse the Su-75 of being a carbon copy of a western fighter design. While the Checkmate may borrow a few aspects from other fighters, it is still very much its own design. It certainly has much less resemblance to the Su-57 than the F-35 has to the F-22.
The spec sheet reads like just about every other 5th generation fighter currently in development: Stealthy design, internal weapon storage, AESA radar, IRST, and the possibility of an unmanned version. A top speed of 1.8 and a g-limit of 8.0g keep it competitive (on paper) with the F-35.
While the promotional material suggests that Sukhoi has leveraged "existing technologies" developed for the Su-35 and Su-57; one wonder how it is even remotely possible to offer competitive performance to the F-35 Lightning II at one-quarter the price.
The truth is... It isn't.
That's not a bug. That's a feature.
Instead of being looked at as the Russian equivalent to the JSF, the Checkmate should be seen as the modern equivalent to the MiG-21.
The MiG-21 was not the best fighter of its day. While its performance was impressive, it was not sophisticated compared to its contemporaries like the F-4 Phantom II. Therein lay the secret to the MiG-21's success: It did not need to be. The MiG-21 offered performance nearly on par with the most advanced western fighters at a fraction of the cost. This made the MiG-21 the most prolific jet fighter ever made.
One can only imagine the amount of sleepless nights that the MiG-21 caused for western military planners. With over 10,000 copies built and seeing service in about 60 countries, it was quite literally all over the place. This allowed for many Soviet-friendly nations to maintain an air force capable of giving the mighty American war machine a bloody nose.
Now... Imagine a "5th generation" MiG-21. One with sophisticated sensors, a stealthy design, and equipped with the latest in air-to-air missile technology. Now imagine that fighter in the hands of whatever "rogue state", third-world despot, or even an increasingly belligerent Russia.
Unlike the Su-57 "Felon", which will likely follow the F-22's example and see less than 200 built; the simpler, cheaper Su-75 could see production in the hundreds, if not thousands.
Perhaps the biggest lesson we can learn from the Su-75 Checkmate is that it represents what the Joint Strike Fighter could have been.
Imagine a world in which the JSF stayed closer to its initial concept. A simple, affordable fighter meant to replace the F/A-18 and F-16. No STOVL version, no gold plating, and no convoluted software. That fighter would look an awful lot like the Su-75.
By utilizing existing technologies and keeping it simple, the Su-75 will likely prove to be slightly less versatile than the F-35... But see service in parts of the world that would formerly never dream of operating a 5th generation fighter.
Much like the MiG-21, the Su-75 could end up serving as a near-peer adversary serving in places you would least likely expect that sort of thing.
This sort of thing seems to be cyclical. The west develops a bleeding edge aircraft (F-4) only to be countered by something "almost as good" (MiG-21). This forces the west to "go back to basics" (F-16) for a while only to lose focus and develop the "next generation" (F-22 and F-35) at ludicrous cost, only to once again be countered by something "almost as good" (J-20 and Su-75) forcing them to "go back to basics" again (F-36 Kingsnake?)
Perhaps, like the MiG-21 before it, the Su-75 will remind us that affordability is what sells fighters.