Russia intends to “checkmate” India’s hesitation to join the development of its single-engine light tactical fighter jet Su-75, nicknamed ‘Checkmate’ by optimizing costs. The development of the aircraft, touted to compete with American Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II and Shengyang FC-31 Gyrfalcon, has been reeling under delays.
The prospect of being a part of an aircraft development program seems desirable to many defense experts in the country, but others caution against the current geopolitical situation and assess if India wants to be part of the program, which is yet to get a single prototype flying.
Considering whether India should be part of the Su-75 development program, Air Marshal Anil Khosla (retired) said it needs to be approached from multiple fronts. “A cost-benefit analysis needs to be carried out before any commitment. Russia needs funding and development partners for the project; can India get more out of the deal? Also, the question that needs answering is will the project affect ‘Atma-Nirbharta’ (self-reliance),” Air Marshal Khosla told the EurAsian Times. He has been the Vice Chief of the Indian Air Force (IAF).
His successor, who then became the chief of the IAF Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria, categorically stated in 2019 that “There are no plans for a foreign FGFA (Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft) now or in the foreseeable future. The FGFA for the IAF will be the indigenous AMCA for which work has already started,” the former IAF Chief said, heralding the age of indigenous in the forces.
Also, the fact that Su-75 is said to be a derivative of Su-57 (NATO reporting name ‘Felon’) doesn’t help its case. India had collaborated with Russia for the next-generation fighter program but then had a fallout over the transfer of technology and design specifications of the aircraft. India later pulled out, much to the shock of Moscow.
The latest speculation comes in the wake of a report in the Russian state media Tass that claims that based on the feedback from potential buyers, technical changes were made in the aircraft to optimize costs.
In June 2023, Rostec brought a new variant of the aircraft with a different tail section of the fuselage. It has enlarged flaperons and the wing leading-edge root extensions were slightly longer. Modifications were also made to the wing panels, which were taken from the Su-57.
The earlier patent for the three versions – a single-seater fighter, a two-seat combat trainer, and an uncrewed aircraft, submitted to the Russian Federal Service for Intellectual Property had a different configuration.
Sukhoi has been claiming that the Su-75 is the first aircraft to be fully designed on supercomputers. Compared to traditional experiment-based development, supercomputer simulation paves the way for rational design in relatively less time and price.
The Su-75 boasts of open architecture that will help enable technical changes in the shortest time frame. Rostec has also claimed the single-engine stealth fighter will be outfitted with an inboard compartment for airborne air-to-air and air-to-surface armaments, while it could carry a payload of over seven tonnes and will be capable of striking up to six targets at a time.
The Checkmate fighter will be capable of flying at Mach 1.8 (1.8 times the speed of sound) and will have an operating range of 3,000 km.
Su-75 – Checkmate For Western Jets Or Vaporware?
But the fact remains that in the absence of external funding and a buyer, the aircraft whose design began in early 2020 has been constantly pushing back the deadline for the prototype’s construction. Two test aircraft are under construction.
The Western media has started referring to the Su-75 as ‘vaporware’ as the aircraft is yet to materialize.
TASS quoted Director of Russia’s Federal Service for Military and Technical Cooperation (FSCTC) Dmitry Shugayev, who said that FSCTC was consulting with some foreign customers on cooperation as part of the Checkmate project. Russian Industry and Trade Minister Denis Manturov also said that foreign customers were displaying their interest in the fighter. A 2021 Checkmate advertising video featured “pilots” from Argentina, India, the United Arab Emirates, and Vietnam, signaling Russia’s intended markets.
Proponents of getting on board the Russian Su-57 or Su-75 highlight that 60 percent of the IAF’s inventory is still of Russian origin.
The Not-So-Spectacular Performance Of Russian Jets In Ukraine War
The performance of the Russian air force in the ongoing war against Ukraine has been less than impressive. The Indian experts are closely following the war as India has a lot of military hardware of Russian origin.
“We also need to ponder over these questions – how does the aircraft (Su-75) stand against the other 5th generation aircraft, especially the ones with our adversaries?” Air Marshal Khosla said.
He added: “To some extent, the world geopolitical situation and international cooperation etc also needs to be considered.” It is an important aspect of cooperation. Due to the ongoing war that will soon enter its third year, Russia is finding it difficult to export military spares. In the face of it, how the export of the fighter jet will be impacted remains to be seen.
The Kremlin announced that it would produce some 300 aircraft (Su-75) over the next 15 years and that several prototypes were being manufactured at the Komsomolsk-on-Amur Aircraft Plant, where the Sukhoi Su-57 (NATO reporting name “Felon”) is being manufactured. With the F-16 expected to reach Ukraine soon, Russia is augmenting the manufacturing of Su-57 fighter jets.
To Drone & Not To Drone
The IAF’s fighter strength has been dangerously dwindling. However, with an emphasis on indigenous, the import of fighter jets has been hanging fire.
The IAF, which presently has 31 squadron strengths against the sanctioned strength of 42, has been awaiting the government’s nod for a long time for the Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA).
The IAF needs a lot of aircraft to be recognized as a deterrence to the PLAAF (the People Liberation Army Air Force). However, they (the IAF) have not been able to convince the Indian government that the imported aircraft are required in such large numbers. 2024 is an election year in India, and the government is unlikely to give a nod to the MRFA deal before the polls in April.
After that, the whole process up to aircraft delivery will take 6 to 7 years. By then, Tejas Mk-2 may also be ready for induction. And this emphasis on ‘Make in India’ is why India is unlikely to join the development of ‘Checkmate.’
“Also, the dilemma related to force structure is also there. The recent wars and the success of drones call for planning about the investment in the new generation aircraft or the modern drones,” Air Marshal Khosla concludes.
In the latest deal, India will be buying 31 MQ-9B Reapers at the cost of US $3.99 billion, which many experts point out would have been enough to buy 32 more Rafale fighter jets. However, only time will tell if it has been a boondoggle of a deal or marks the entry of futuristic platforms into India’s inventory.
- Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology.
- She can be reached at ritu.sharma (at) mail.com
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