Despite another wave of deadly COVID-19 coronavirus infections ravaging Moscow and spreading out into the provinces, the Russian authorities went ahead with staging the MAKS-2021 air-and-space show on the outskirts of Moscow, in Zhukovsky. On opening day, July 20, President Vladimir Putin visited the exposition, observed the stands, and watched demonstration overflights by military and civilian aircraft. According to official Kremlin reports, Putin has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, but he still observes a strict isolation regime. At MAKS-2021, the Russian president strolled through the exhibition without a facemask, surrounded by a screen of body guards. According to a member of his personal press pool, he was at all times inside a “clean zone” bubble: no person or official was allowed anywhere near the president if he or she was not “clean” of COVID-19. A negative test is not enough. Anyone, no matter who, permitted close to Putin must first spend two weeks in total isolation under the watchful eye of the Federal Protective Service (FSO) to be proclaimed “clean” and allowed into the Russian leader’s presence (Kommersant, July 21). Apparently, Putin sees himself constantly and ubiquitously surrounded by deadly threats, and the same kind of paranoia seems to influence Russia’s external, internal and defense policymaking.
MAKS international aerospace shows have been held every two years in Zhukovsky since 1993, to demonstrate Russia’s capability to build modern civilian and military aircraft, air-defense systems and space missiles. A decade ago, at MAKS-2011, all the major world civilian aircraft producers were present, as Aeroflot and other Russian aviation-industry companies were, at that time, massively buying up foreign airliners. That year, Washington and Moscow were still pursuing their so-called “reset,” revamping bilateral relations following the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia. The United States Air Force sent to MAKS-2011 a sizable array of military aircraft: C-130J Super Hercules and С-5 Galaxy transport jets, a B-52 Stratofortress strategic bomber, and a Р-3С Orion intelligence/anti-submarine aircraft all stood on the tarmac in Zhukovsky, together with an A-10 Thunderbolt II attack jet and F-15E and F-16C fighters, which additionally put on a show by flying together with their Russian counterparts. Today, in 2021, Washington and Moscow’s relationship is at a critical low and a new Cold War–style arms race seems to be in full swing. No US representation attended MAKS-2021, while the Russian defense industry presented its latest weaponry that it claims is specifically designed to counter the US and allied militaries. The most promoted entry at MAKS-2021 was a mysterious new stealth fighter. Photos of the aircraft partially covered up were circulated before MAKS-2021 with a provocative slogan: “Do you want to see me naked?” (Kommersant, July 21).
The new plane, revealed and demonstrated to the public and Putin on July 20, turned out to be a model of a light, one-engine fighter jet designed by the Sukhoi aircraft design and production company, which is part of the United Aircraft-building Corporation (Obyedinyonnaya Aviastroitelnaya Korporatsiya—OAK). OAK, in turn, is a subsidiary of the Rostec state-owned defense-industry conglomerate; the two corporate entities say they plan to have a flying prototype of the new jet by 2023 and hope to begin production in 2026. Before the opening of MAKS-2021, lots of speculation circulated in the pro-Kremlin press about whether the new light fighter jet—suddenly, speedily and secretly constructed by Sukhoi—could seriously enhance the overall fighting composition of the Russian Aerospace Forces (Vozdushno-Kosmicheskiye Sily—VKS). Instead of relying almost exclusively on heavy two-engine jets of the Su-27 family (which includes the further modified Su-57 stealth jet) and a diminishing stock of increasingly mothballed light but also two-engine MiG-29 family, the VKS would possess heavy fighter “air superiority” jets and a large array of cheaper, tactical one-engine fighters—like the US Air Force does with its F-15s and F-16s or, now, F-22s and F-35s (Vzglyad, July 19).
This assumption turned out to be mistaken. The VKS did not order the new jet and apparently does not want it. The so-called stealth jet has been dubbed “Checkmate,” which in Russian is a three-letter sentence (Shakh i Mat)—not practical as a name for a weapons system. Defense industry representatives say the Checkmate plane may receive the designation Su-75, but that has not been officially confirmed. Rostec and OAK disclosed that they are promoting and producing the Checkmate on their own initiative, practically exclusively designed for export “to African [perhaps Egypt or Algeria] and Asian [India, Vietnam] nations.” The Checkmate’s production run is planned to be up to 300 units, “if there will be enough orders.” According to Rostec, the jet will be cheap in exploitation compared to the US F-35 Lightning II, and the price tag will be under $30 million apiece. Rostec is offering African and Asian countries possible co-production of the fighter. Russia’s VKS may also procure the Checkmate, according to Rostec, but that would most likely involve just a handful of jets to promote them abroad as part of the VKS inventory (Militarynews.ru, July 20; Interfax, July 22).
It remains unclear how good a fighter the vigorously marketed but still in development Checkmate may turn out. Its producers are certainly underscoring its stealth capabilities, but just how stealthy the Russian industry will manage to make it is uncertain. The Checkmate is reportedly built around the AL-41F jet engine used in the Su-35, which does not have a particularly low signature in the infrared spectrum, but its production is steady. If the Checkmate is primarily designed to be used by developing countries against each other’s militaries—or by India and Vietnam to deter China—that kind of technology might suffice. The director general of OAK, Yury Slyusar, boasted that the Checkmate “will obliterate its opponents,” including the US F-35 stealth fighter (Interfax, July 20). But such a matchup may be more friendly to the Russian side in the marketplace rather than on the battlefield, by providing a cheaper product to customers that cannot afford or do not have access to anything more advanced.