Photos have appeared on social media showing what appears to be Russia’s much-hyped new light-to-medium-weight fighter, or at least a mock-up of it, days after the country’s United Aircraft Corporation first teased that a new design was likely to appear imminently. Previous announcements indicated that the rumored fighter, described as “a fundamentally new military aircraft,” was to be officially unveiled at the MAKS international air show that will begin at Zhukovsky International Airport, outside Moscow, next week.
These new photos, which show the fighter at Zhukovsky, reveal a full-size airframe wrapped in a black protective covering. This reveals a stealthy-looking overall shape, including what seems to be a prominent chine along the fuselage centerline. The planform of the mid-set wing is not immediately discernable, but the twin tailfins are canted outwards. While rumors of the fighter have suggested it will be a single-engine design, that can’t currently be verified and there have also been reports of twin-engine fighter studies (author's note: see update at the bottom of the story). One of the images also shows a large hangar in the background, covered with banners promoting “The Checkmate,” as the new jet seems to be named.
A set of four images, showing the jet in different positions around the airfield, appeared on the Russian online social networking service VK, earlier today, credited to a photographer with the username V3tritium and carrying today’s date. That same name is also associated with an Instagram account, where another photo was posted, credited to Vlad Vinogradoff/V3tritium.
A similar photo was then repurposed by Rostec, for use on its Twitter account, with the phrase “Wanna see me naked?” overlaid.
Rumors of a new Russian fighter design from the United Aircraft Corporation — the organization that brings together the country’s major aerospace firms — emerged on July 11, when that company posted a cryptic teaser on its Twitter account.
This included the message (in Russian): “Everything is easier than it seems. #checkmate. Something seems to be on the way,” as well as a famous “UFO” photo doctored to include a Knight figure from a chessboard.
The Knight motif then appeared again on a countdown website, created by Rostec, the Russian state corporation responsible for UAC.
A video was then uploaded to YouTube on July 13, making it now clear that the new design was a fighter and suggesting that it was being pitched at the United Arab Emirates, India, Vietnam, and Argentina. Pilots from those countries all appeared in scenes in the video, as did the shadow of an aircraft over water, suggesting a probable twin-fin fighter design.
The aircraft we see in the images does not appear to bear any strong relationship to existing designs. The big question is whether this is a mock-up, or a real aircraft, and to what degree the aircraft’s development program has progressed.
It could well be that the new design actually traces its origins back many years. Part of UAC, the MiG company has previously worked on the Lightweight Multifunctional Tactical Aircraft project, known in Russia as the Logkiy Mnogofunktsionalnyi Frontovoi Samolyot, or LMFS.
LMFS dates back to the latter days of the Soviet Union and a 1986 call for the development of two complementary new fighter jets from the MiG design bureau. At the time, it was planned for the LMFS to supersede the MiG-29, but the demise of the Soviet Union saw work on the LMFS suspended.
However, the idea of a lightweight fighter didn’t disappear entirely and in the late 1990s the LMFS was resurrected to compete for the Future Air Complex of Tactical Aviation — in Russian, Perspektivnyi Aviatsionnyi Kompleks Frontovoi Aviatsii, or PAK FA — requirement. The MiG design was unsuccessful here, too, losing out to the Sukhoi T-50 project, which was formally selected in 2002 and has since become designated the Su-57.
Since then, however, MiG has continued low-scale, self-funded conceptual work on the LMFS, seeking foreign customers in the process. While the original LMFS was a twin-engine design, more recently the company has also considered an alternative, single-engine version.
We will keep a close eye on developments in Russia and bring you more details as soon as they emerge.
It will be very interesting to see the details of this new concept. The images we have are a bit reminiscent of the Subsonic High Alpha Research Concept (SHARC) and Joint Advanced Strike Technology (JAST) concepts that the United States explored in the 1990s, but the reality is we have likely seen glimpses of this design before.
I would expect it to heavily leverage lessons learned from the Su-57 and that it will likely take a similar 'balanced' approach to low observable (stealthy) features as its heavy fighter forebearer. You can read more about that here. The V-like tail is good for maneuverability, RF low observability and masking IR signature from various aspects.
We can probably also expect some avionics commonality with the Su-57, and thrust vectoring capability, possibly based on one engine. A Divergent Supersonic Inlet (DSI) is likely as well, which would simplify the inlet design while maintaining performance and help with reducing radar cross-section from the forward hemisphere. A radar baffle could still be necessary for the engine fan faces, especially if it is a single inlet configuration mounted ventrally, which isn't completely certain at this time. The image below has been floating around for some time supposedly showing the nose of a potential Russian light-to-mid-weight 5th generation fighter design and its DSI inlet. It's still possible a twin inlet design could be used.
The big factor here is money. Russia would have to make some very hard choices to execute the full development and fielding of this aircraft themselves. Hence the heavy marketing push for major export partners to help offset some or even all of the cost.
The development also comes as other countries are working on their own light-to-medium weight advanced fighters with stealthy attributes, such as Turkey and South Korea. These indigenous fighter programs could threaten some of the market currently enjoyed by Russian designs.
Regardless, MAKS 2021 just got a whole lot more interesting.
We have new images and analyses in our new article linked here.
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