By Sri Krishna
Russia’s fighter aircraft dubbed as “mystery jet” is expected to be unveiled on July 20 when the curtain goes up on the six-day MAKS-21 air show in Moscow till July 25 with the build-up going on for long. For more than a decade, Russia has been attempting to sell the MiG-35, an upgraded version of the MiG-29 fighter, to the Indian Air Force. Having heavier armament capability and more advanced engines and radar than the vintage MiG-29, the MiG-35 was first presented to the world at Aero India in 2007. However, having failed to impress the Indian Air Force which was then in the market for purchase of 126 aircraft which finally went to French company Dassault Aviation for their Rafale fighter aircraft, the Russians are once again making a pitch for what it described as “checkmate,” aircraft.
Undeterred by this setback, Russia has continued to describe India as a prospective buyer of the MiG-35 as also the heavier Sukhoi Su-35 for the Indian Air Force tender for 114 fighter aircraft, which has an estimated value of around $15 billion. As part of its sales pitch, Russian defence contractor UAC is blitzing social media with posts hinting at a new fighter jet with images of the fighter being shown as a knight piece in the game of chess.
Russia’s United Aerospace Company (UAC), an umbrella corporation that includes the famed Mikoyan-Guervich (MiG) and Sukhoi design bureaus, posted the image on Instagram with the aerospace company comparing its new, unnamed fighter to a UFO, linking it to US military’s sightings of unexplained aerial phenomena in recent years. The UAC, a conglomerate of Russia’s aircraft design bureaus and manufacturers, released a teaser video of the new fighter. After months of speculation, that something top secret and special was happening at Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation, the countdown has begun.
The video appears to show pilots in four nations—the UAE, India, Vietnam and Argentina—waiting for the new aircraft. The Indian pilot is seen playing chess when he gets a text message saying, “It’s coming”. The aircraft’s layout is shown only twice in the 35-second video: First, when it is shown flying over desert terrain and second, its silhouette is seen flying over a water body. The layout of the aircraft’s silhouette appeared to resemble the MiG-35 in its wing design. However, it appeared to have a single-engine exhaust, giving rise to speculation it could be a lightweight single-engine fighter that Russian companies have talked of developing for years.
Speculating on Twitter, Stephen Trimble, defence editor for Aviation Week, said the aircraft could be an upgrade of the MiG-35 or a “lightweight stealth fighter”. Giving details of the project, UAC announced it would present a “fundamentally new military aircraft.” A spokesperson for Rostec, Russia’s armament export company, said, “Russia is one of the few countries in the world with full-cycle capacities for producing advanced aircraft systems, as well as a recognized trendsetter in the creation of combat aircraft. The new product developed by UAC specialists should arouse genuine interest not only in our country, but also in other regions of the world, including our competitors abroad.”
UAC has launched a website for the project that has been dubbed ‘Checkmate’, along with a timer for its official unveiling. The build up for the aircraft has been on for long. In May, Russian media reported the Sukhoi design bureau was developing a single-engine fighter. At the time, Russia’s TASS news agency had reported, “The Sukhoi company is developing a single-engine light tactical plane with the take-off weight of up to 18 tonnes. The plane’s maximum speed will be above 2 Mach (twice the speed of sound). It will also have super-manoeuvrability and improved take-off and landing performance, thanks to a thrust vector control engine…”. Rostec had previously invited India to join the development of a single-engine fighter.
Dubbed ‘Checkmate,’ it could be a light fighter jet with supersonic speed capability and low radar signature. According to reports, the mysterious shadow of an aircraft over water in Rostec’s promotional video was similar to the Mikoyan MiG-35 multirole fighter jet. The aircraft could be mainly oriented towards export.
“Russia is one of the few countries in the world with full-cycle capacities for producing advanced aircraft systems, as well as a recognized trendsetter in the creation of combat aircraft,” a Rostec spokesman commented. “The new product developed by UAC specialists should arouse genuine interest not only in our country but also in other regions of the world, including our competitors abroad.” It says the upcoming unveiling will be of a “fundamentally new military aircraft.” It also praised Russia’s status as a world leader in “making combat aircraft,” suggesting that the new plane could be a fighter jet.
“We are convinced that the new product developed by UAC specialists will arouse genuine interest not only in our country but in other regions of the world, including our competitors abroad,” the statement added.
Chess is a motif of the aircraft’s promotion which is surrounded by mystery. In a midnight move, the UAC website launched a countdown clock next to an image of a black knight chess piece. It invited web users to “turn the chessboard” and view a 34-second trailer.
Adding to the intrigue is a tweet in Russian on the UAC Twitter account that says: “everything is easier than it seems. #checkmate. Something is planned.” Meanwhile, according to reports Rostec had previously said it was developing a single-engine fighter jet. It reported that speculation also included other possibilities such as a down-sized Su-57, or a 4.5 generation jet to challenge the F-16 Viper and the Chinese-Pakistani JF-17 Block III. There is strong speculation that Russia intends to do a hard sell with India.
For more than a decade, Russia has been attempting to sell the MiG-35 (NATO code name Fulcrum), an upgraded version of the MiG-29 fighter, to the Indian Air Force. The Indian Air Force was apparently not impressed with the Fulcrum, but Russia has continued to describe India as a prospective buyer. In May of this year, Russian news agencies reported the Sukhoi design bureau was developing a single-engine fighter.
At that time, a report said, “The Sukhoi company is developing a single-engine light tactical plane with the take-off weight of up to 18 tonnes. The plane’s maximum speed will be above 2 Mach (twice the speed of sound). “It will also have super-manoeuvrability and improved take-off and landing performance, thanks to a thrust vector control engine …”
If confirmed as a single-engine fighter, the new fighter could be considered the Russian counter to the US F-35 project, which has been developed with industrial partnerships with multiple nations such as the UK, Australia, Italy and Israel. That would also make the “Checkmate” name apt. Especially if the price point is much lower than the F-35 or other US and European fighter jets, currently being offered.
The 2021 edition of the MAKS International Aviation and Space Salon is to take place at Zhukovsky airport near Moscow from July 20 to 25, 2021.
– The writer is a senior journalist and media consultant. The views expressed are of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda