Russia’s New Stealth Fighter Might Be A High-Flier

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Russia’s new stealth fighter apparently has a really big wing. That could mean two things.

It might be that Sukhoi, the company behind the new “Checkmate” fighter, is aiming eventually to sell Checkmate to the Russian navy for use from the fleet’s sole aircraft carrier.

It also could be that Checkmate—which Rostec, Sukhoi’s parent company, clearly aims to offer on the export market—is supposed to operate at high altitudes, where a big wing is advantageous.

Rostec gradually revealed Checkmate in the lead-up to the MAKS air show at Ramenskoye airfield in Moscow Oblast. Late last week, photos leaked of the Checkmate mock-up or demonstrator under a tarp. Then photos circulated depicting the uncovered Checkmate. Finally on Tuesday, Rostec orchestrated a formal unveiling.

The photos reveal key features of the Checkmate design. Its divertless inlet and angular ruddervators point to a small radar signature. And what appears to be a large wing for such a short fighter might imply either a naval application or a high ceiling—or both.

A big wing boosts lift and allows a plane to climb higher than a similar design with a smaller wing can do. The downside is that a big wing can be draggy and result in a slower top speed relative to a small-wing design.

Extra lift is an obvious bonus for a naval fighter that must launch and land on the deck of an aircraft carrier. Consider the U.S. Navy’s variant of the F-35. The Navy’s F-35C has a wing that’s nearly half-again as big as the wing of the land-based F-35A. That big wing helps the F-35C safely to operate from the fleet’s supercarriers with their steam catapults.

The Russian navy’s sole flattop, the ailing Admiral Kuznetsov, boasts a 1,001-foot deck but has no catapults. That makes a big wing even more valuable. Russian carrier fighters need all the lift they can get.

Checkmate’s big wing could be valuable even if the navy passes on the type. A high ceiling has obvious benefits for sensor coverage and weapons range. A high-flying fighter can see and shoot farther than a lower-flying fighter can do.

It’s not for no reason that Lockheed Martin designed the U.S. Air Force’s F-22 stealth fighter to operate “above 50,000 feet.” The type’s actual ceiling might be 60,000 feet.

Checkmate could top out between 40,000 and 60,000 feet, “if not even higher,” according to Tom Cooper, an aviation expert and author. “I would say: optimized for high-altitude ops.”

Flying high also confers a range benefit. Checkmate might need help in this regard. Its small overall size seems to hint at a modest internal fuel capacity.

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