Could Sukhoi Checkmate Knock Out Lockheed Martin's F-35 in Hypothetical Air Battle?
19:38 GMT 07.08.2021 (Updated: 09:35 GMT 24.10.2022)
The Checkmate, a new Sukhoi 5th-generation single-engine light tactical aircraft unveiled by Rostec on 20 July at the MAKS-2021 airshow, is seen as a more affordable alternative to Lockheed Martin's F-35 Lightning II. International observers are wondering whether the Russian jet could outmanoeuvre its American competitor in a hypothetical dogfight.
When comparing the Russian and American fifth-generation fighters, one should bear in mind that they differ a lot in terms of aerodynamic design and capabilities, according to former designer of JSC Sukhoi, Vadim Lukashevich.
For instance, the F-35 is built with horizontal stabilisers, while the Checkmate has "ruddervators", i.e. control surfaces used by planes with a V-tail configuration. The only thing the two jets have in commont is that they belong to the same weight class, the designer told
Moreover, the Russian and American manufacturers placed emphases of different features: while Lockheed Martin and the Pentagon have focused on the overall dynamism of the fighter's combat system at the expense of its manoeuvrability, Sukhoi has made manoeuvrability the cornerstone of the Checkmate's system, according
Russian test pilot Anatoly Knyshev. The test pilot believes that this feature will give the Russian warplane a serious advantage over the F-35.
While both fighters are designed to avoid detection, the range of the Checkmate's Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar will reportedly be greater than that of the F-35, according to Knyshev, which means that the Russian fighter will "see" his rival earlier and therefore gain an upper hand in the battle.
As a rule of thumb, the one who detects his rival first shoots him down first, the test pilot told Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper. The Checkmate's jam-resistant radar will be capable of engaging up to six targets "even under conditions of strong electronic interference", and will work in tandem with the jet's electronic warfare systems, according to manufacturers.
It's equally important what weapons a pilot has at his/her disposal to shoot the opponent down, Knyshev remarked. The Checkmate could reportedly be armed
with three R-37M hypersonic air-to-air missiles (NATO reporting name: AA-13 Arrow), which remain "the fastest and longest-range air-to-air missile in the world", according
to Military Watch Magazine. Paired with the fighter's radar system, the R-37M is capable of engaging aircraft at ranges of up to 400 kilometres flying at Mach 5 - Mach 6 (6,125-7,350 km/h).
For comparison's sake, the F-35 typically carries four AIM-120 AMRAAM medium-range radar-guided missiles; or it could carry up to six AIM-120s, if equipped
with a new Sidekick rack. The AIM-120 can accelerate to Mach 4 (4,900 km/h) and has a maximum operational range of 180 kilometres. This means that no matter how early the F-35 detects its rival, its ability to nix it is limited by the range of its weaponry.
The Checkmate will have a combat radius of 1,500 kilometres, versus 1,093
kilometres for the F-35 on internal fuel.
When it comes to the planes' maximum speed, the Checkmate boasts the ability to hit Mach 1.8 (2,205 km/h) while its rival has a top speed of Mach 1.6 (1,960 km/h). But here comes the rub: as Defense News reported in June 2019, at extremely high altitudes, the F-35C jets "can only fly at supersonic speeds for short bursts of time before there is a risk of structural damage and loss of stealth capability".
The media outlet warned that the problem may make it impossible for the Navy’s F-35C to conduct supersonic intercepts. What's worse, the Pentagon closed the deficiency report under the category of "no plan to correct". This usually means that "the operator value provided by a complete fix does not justify the estimated cost of that fix", according to Defense News.
Meanwhile, the Russian-made multi-role stealth warplane's price tag is less than half that of the F-35, while Checkmate's flight-per-hour cost is a mere seventh that of the Lockheed Martin jet.
Formidable Rival is Mired in Controversy
Still, Russia's stealth fighter is no match to the F-35, insists
the National Interest's Kris Osborn. Besides, it is "not real, yet," insists the former Pentagon expert: the Checkmate has yet to make its maiden flight while the American strike fighter took off for the first time in December 2006.
Osborn further argues
that "the ability to present a threat of any kind" to the F-35s relies on the Russian warplane's ability "to seamlessly and securely network with other Checkmate jets and fourth-generation aircraft". Besides this, Osborn doubts that Russia could produce a large enough fleet of Checkmates to present a "counterbalance to the global allied reach of the F-35 programme."
However, The National Interest's commentator has fallen short of mentioning that the F-35 programme has been mired in controversy for quite a while. On 22 April 2021, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) went so far as to call the F-35 the "most costly weapon system in history".
According to the agency's estimates, the F-35 sustainment costs over its 66-year anticipated life cycle have steadily increased since 2012, from $1.11 trillion to $1.27 trillion, despite reported efforts to slash them. Furthermore, the GOA emphasised a difference of $3.7 million per aircraft between actual sustainment costs and what the services project they can afford over the programme life cycle. The GOA lamented the fact that despite this massive spending, the jet's mission capable rates "still fall short of warfighter requirements".
Thus, in April 2021, Lieutenant General Clint Hinote, the service's Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategy, told
Defense News that "every [F-35] fighter that rolls off the line today is a fighter that we wouldn’t even bother putting into [modern war] scenarios". Lt. Gen. Hitnote revealed that the Air Force is using the more F-35 Block 4 aircraft – which is still under development – for massive military drills.
Meanwhile, in mid-July, Air Force Lt. Gen. Eric Fick, who runs the F-35 programme, told the US Congress that dozens of F-35s are down for engine repairs. As of 8 July 2021, a whopping 41 F-35 aircraft needed repair. Given that in May the US Air Force got its 283th F-35, it means that nearly one in seven of the US Air Force's F-35s cannot fly at all, according
to Popular Mechanics.
But that is not all: on 2 August, a subpanel of the House Armed Services Committee urged the Pentagon to conduct an investigation into the F-35 jet’s pilot breathing systems and reported instances of oxygen deprivation.
The project has repeatedly come under heavy criticism from the US Congress, with House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith going so far as to claim in March 2021 that he "want[ed] to stop throwing money down" for the project. In late June, Smith again threatened to mothball F-35s in favour of other platforms, according to Defense News.
While the problems related to the F-35 are continuing to snowball, it remains unclear whether the US will stick to its sophisticated joint strike fighter or will shift to other promising platforms which would compete with Russia's Checkmate in the forthcoming decades.