For global aerospace and defense companies, the Middle East has undoubtedly emerged as a lucrative fighter jet market. After the Eurofighter Typhoon, Rafale, and F-35, the latest Russian Sukhoi Su-75 ‘Checkmate’ has appeared on the scene.
In July 2021, the fifth-generation Checkmate was unveiled at the MAKS airshow in Russia. It was preceded by a media blitzkrieg that dropped a broad hint at what is to be expected from this stealth fighter jet.
The CheckMate will be making its first overseas debut at the Dubai Air Show, scheduled for November 14-18.
A teaser film released a week before its July launch shows a number of air force pilots from several countries. Each person sets aside their regular tasks, starts wearing a flying suit, and joins the plane on an airfield.
The pilots are from Argentina, India, and Vietnam, However, there is one additional country whose pilot can be observed in the final segment after his appearance at the beginning.
This piques everyone’s interest: is the UAE a prospective buyer of the new Russian fighter jet?
UAE Eying A Stealth Fighter
At the MAKS 2021 in Zhukovsky, Russia’s Rostec State Corporation and its United Aircraft Corp. (UAC) showcased a new stealthy, lightweight fighter plane called Checkmate. It was designed by the Sukhoi Design Bureau.
As mentioned earlier, the teaser video indicated that the UAE is one of the prospective clients of this new fighter jet. Around 2017, Russia and the UAE were in negotiations about developing a light fighter plane.
But then, the Gulf country is also looking for a stealth fighter. The UAE had struck a $23 billion arms deal with the US under the Trump administration, as part of which it is supposed to receive 50 Lockheed Martin F-35s from 2025 onwards. However, the Biden administration is reviewing the entire proposal afresh, putting the deal in limbo.
This offers a great opportunity for Moscow to pitch the latest fifth-generation warplane, Checkmate to Abu Dhabi. Rostec, Russia’s state-owned company, struck a deal with the UAE Ministry of Defense for the joint development of a light fighter jet during the IDEX conference in Abu Dhabi in February 2017.
The agreement, however, was never followed up on and eventually faded into obscurity.
Recently, the Checkmate was described as a product of Russia-UAE cooperation in various reports citing unnamed industry sources. According to speculations, the plane was designed specifically to meet the needs of the UAE.
It says CheckMate would replace UAE’s aging F-16 fleet if the country decides to buy the aircraft. The report further claims the UAE is best positioned to finance the program even though there is no update on the joint development plans.
Needless to say, the UAE has been eyeing the F-35 for years. The American aircraft is considered one of the most advanced fighter jets in the world. But delays in the F-35 deal could prompt the UAE to turn to Russia.
F-35 Or Su-75?
One more challenge before the UAE is that any potential deal with Russia could invite US sanctions, like in the case of Turkey.
Exploring this aspect, defense analyst Parth Satam wrote for The EurAsian Times, “The Su-75 was sketched as a commercial rival to the F-35, which costs less than half at $25-30 million, as against the $80 million per unit price of the latter.
“Moreover, with the Russian inclination for simplicity, the Su-75 is expected to be without the litany of technical issues that bogs the F-35, which led the US Air Force to officially admit the plane was a ‘failure’ and that it could do without it.
“So far, the UAE has not officially gleaned interest in acquiring either the Su-75 or even the Russian Pantsir hybrid gun-missile anti-aircraft system. But it is sure to invite action from the US if it announces any such acquisition.
“While sanctions for such a key US ally, which has firmly been in the US camp, are unlikely, Washington is certain to drop Abu Dhabi from the F-35 program. Looking at the present geopolitical situation, one can guess in what direction the UAE might head.”
On September 15, 2020, Israel and the UAE normalized diplomatic relations with the support of the US, and soon after, the Arab nation requested an F-35 deal. Initially, Israel was uncomfortable with this proposal but later relented.
The Israeli Ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, said on December 7, 2020, that Israel feels “very comfortable” with the potential delivery of the F-35 to the UAE because the latter is anti-Iran.
Since 2003, Israel has been a vital contributor in the development of the aircraft, with the first F-35 arriving at Nevatim Airbase in December 2016. Israel boasts its F-35I ‘Adir’ fighter jets, claiming they are nearly invincible to the rival Syrian and Iranian air defenses.
Israel has openly said that they will not oppose the deal of UAE getting the F-35. It will, however, ensure that this weapon will not be deployed against it.
According to US legislation passed in 2008, Washington would assist Israel in maintaining its Qualitative Military Edge (QME), which means that Israeli forces will have superior military systems capable of neutralizing and defeating any credible traditional threat posed by any state, coalition, or non-state actor in the Middle East.
The US has many options for meeting this requirement while continuing to transfer F-35s to the Emiratis. It might sell them a less capable export version of the plane with fewer sensors and armaments. The other option is that the US will give a few upgrades to Israel’s fleet of F-35I Adir.
The Trump administration announced a deal to sell the F-35 joint strike fighter to the UAE on January 20, 2021. This agreement was put on hold by the Biden administration in late January 2021, but President Biden approved it on April 13.
However, now it appears Washington has put pressure on the UAE to remove Chinese tech company Huawei from its telecommunications network, with some believing that this could pose a threat to the F-35 sale.
The new administration will continue to process the contract, according to a State Department representative, but the deal’s contents will be reviewed and discussed with Emirati officials.
If the UAE succeeds in getting the F-35, it will be able to sidestep Russia entirely. If it fails, however, Russia may become a major contributor to its air force.