KYIV, UKRAINE: On Tuesday, Russia’s Unified Aircraft-Building Corporation (OAK) and Sukhoi Aircraft Company took advantage of the Moscow Aviation and Space Expo (MAKS) opening day to unveil a new single-engine stealth fighter. The deployment of this aircraft, now called Su-75 Checkmate Light Tactical Aircraft, was the centerpiece of the traditional first day visit to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s show.
It’s a new design that Moscow hopes will create a niche for its fighter jet industry in the export market. Their intention is to reverse sales of competing aircraft built by other countries – the Swedish JAS-39E / F Gripen, the Lockheed Martin F-35. and even the Shenyang J-35, a developing Chinese aircraft even longer than the Su-75 – offering a cheaper, Russian-made alternative.
But there are serious questions that need to be answered about both the marketing strategy and the technical capabilities of the aircraft, which could combine to add the Su-75 to the long list of military aviation programs that does not. have never found life as an export.
In recent years, the only new generation fighter produced in Russia has been the Sukhoi Su-57, a twin-engine model having the general shape of a stealth aircraft. Other fighters still produced in Russia like the improved MiG-29 (called MiG-35) and Sukhoi Su-35 are older models dating back to the 1980s. They have little appeal nowadays, while competing models are more technologically advanced and affordable.
The Su-57 has so far been produced in small numbers (only 78 in total to order) with the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) as the sole customer – and has turned out to be much more expensive than initially expected. It was also crippled when India, seen as the most promising export customer for the Su-57, refused to become an R&D or production partner; Russian fighter programs have traditionally relied heavily on external customers to help launch and finance production.
Hoping to avoid this situation again, Russia offered cooperation on the development of the Su-75 in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 2017. An agreement on the cost-sharing of the program between the two countries was due to be signed at the Dubai Airshow in November 2017. But an 11-hour announcement that Washington would reverse the previous policy and allow the Arab states Allies to acquire the F-35 scuttled the deal.
Always a promotional video release just days ago revealed that Russia has not given up on a sale to the oil-rich and financially powerful Gulf state. The film opens with a pilot from the United Arab Emirates packing his flight kit after receiving a jamming alert on his smartphone.
This scene is followed by pilots in three countries considered by the Russians to be the closest customers – India, Vietnam and Argentina – receiving a similar return-to-base signal. They all join a group with pilots from a dozen other nations on an airfield as the plane rolls out of a hangar. The message: The Su-75 may be another multinational program, just like the F-35.
However, the plane won’t be available anytime soon. The first flight of the new prototype will take place in at least two years. A version produced in series at least five to seven years in the future. And countries that are considered the best prospects for overseas sales may not be able to wait that long.
Design and performance details
Discussions with Russian industry sources, as well as an evening presentation on July 20 by OAK General Manager Yuri Slyusar and Su-75 Chief Designer Aleksei Bulatov provided details on the program.
- The project has gone beyond the stage of paper design and mock-up, the aircraft presented this week being a real prototype demonstrator. Its design uses lessons learned from the Su-57 and is powered by one of the larger aircraft’s two 5th-generation izdeliye 30 engines.
- The Russian design team used a full set of high-end digital assets, with the shape of the plane’s plane being developed using computational fluid dynamics and radar cross-section configuration tools ( RCS) based on a supercomputer.
- The operation of the aircraft is taken care of by an automated logistics system called “Matryoska” – a reference to the famous handmade wooden nested dolls – to symbolize the ease and modular composition of the aircraft. The aircraft’s electronic infrastructure is entirely open-architecture and uses mainly on-board diagnostic systems. This minimizes the amount of equipment needed at an aerodrome to maintain the aircraft. (One such system echoes the F-35 ALIS system, which has been a major source of headaches for operators of the jet produced by Lockheed Martin.)
- Like other stealth designs, the Su-75 carries missiles in an internal weapons bay. Information plaques displayed with the prototype indicate that it carries the same air-launched munitions that are used by both the Su-35 and Su-57. The maximum gun load is listed as 16,300 lbs.
- The single engine produces 24,000 lbs of dry thrust and 39,000 lbs of afterburner. This should produce a thrust-to-weight ratio greater than 1.00, but questions remain as to the aircraft’s curb weight. The range of the aircraft with internal fuel without external tanks is 1,800 miles.
The design team also claims that there is high wing lift efficiency associated with the design. Particular attention was paid to the vertical “V” shaped tail unit which partly explains the low RCS of the aircraft.
Overall, although the aircraft is touted as a new development, it would be based on a lightweight fighter concept originally developed at the Mikoyan Design Bureau over 7 years ago. A longtime specialist in the Russian aviation industry in Moscow told Breaking Defense: “It is somewhat surprising that this design is now attributed to Sukhoi, as most of the serious work on this type of single-engine platform has been performed at MiG for a long time. since.”
The two officials who made the presentation said that one of the main priorities of the Su-75 was “today there is no single-engine fifth-generation fighter available at a reasonable price.” The customers we spoke with want an aircraft that is inexpensive and in which they can define their own needs. “
The unit cost associated with the aircraft is US $ 25-30 million, which is the price the design team believes will appeal to its key target customers. This focus on export sales is critical to the success of the program, as VKSs are not currently interested in designing a single engine.
Slyusar said OAK and Sukhoi’s hope is that they will be able to “romanticize” the VKS by ordering the Su-75, but to date the program is funded by company funds and there is currently no government support. In the meantime, there are “conversations going on with different potentials. [export] buyers “and that one of the additional modifications to the hunter under discussion is” a carrier version “.
Sources in Moscow point out that the VKS is in desperate need of affordable fighters that can be built in large numbers, but the force leadership may not support production of the Su-75. It would also be problematic to sell this aircraft to export customers without this being a record program in Russia. Additionally, if there are only a handful of export sales, the numbers fall short of the economies of scale required to sustain a production run.
A carrier variant of the Su-75 would almost certainly be offered to the Indian Navy as a replacement for the capable fighter MiG-29K that the force currently operates. The design team also evaluated the possibility of a two-seater variant, as well as an unmanned version, but no potential buyers have expressed interest in either option.
The big question mark is whether the Moscow industry can carry out this design concept to produce a fully functional aircraft. The defense industrial base has undergone significant contractions in capacity and overall size since 2017. Critical personnel have also died in the past year due to the COVID pandemic, including the general designer of the office of NIIP radar design, Yuri Beliy.
While the designers at Sukhoi have proven that they can produce an actual prototype of this new aircraft, the non-ferrous / composite materials used in its construction may still be a question mark. In his presentation, Slyusar said it would take at least a year to complete the static “shake and bake” tests of the aircraft structure. It will be a real test for the Russian composite materials industry, which is not as developed as in the United States or Europe.
These materials are the key to the low RCS of the aircraft. Not only should they be produced to extreme tolerances and the sections joined without even a micron between them, but they should also have their radar absorption properties “built in” to the furnace to make the aircraft a low platform. maintenance as advertised. But Russia’s approach to stealth in the past has been the opposite – a heavy reliance on coatings and appliques which are labor intensive and require top-to-bottom refurbishment. down after each flight.
The other factor is that what makes a modern fighter jet effective in combat are its on-board systems, which in the past were the “long pole under the tent” of Russian fighter designs. The izdeliye 30 engine is not yet in series production and is still in the flight test phase. In addition, according to industry sources, Russia has still not been able to design a cost-effective AESA radar package and has problems with the technology required to manufacture the radar transit / reception modules.
OAK and Sukhoi officials say the plane is expected to make a maiden flight in two years and serial production could begin in four years, although most seasoned observers say 5-7 years is more realistic. Program projections like these tend to always shift to the right, even in countries with more than a generation of experience designing stealth aircraft.
Therefore, it is not unreasonable to suggest that full-scale production of the Su-75 could take much longer, if ever, to come.