No, Russia Really Doesn’t Need A New Single-Engine Fighter

Despite decades of work on a lightweight fighter concept, the prospect of orders seems as remote as ever.

Russia MoD

Russia is working on the development of a new light-to-medium-weight fighter jet, reports suggest. In a significant change from recent-generation fighters from that country, the new design is apparently a single-engine configuration, rather than a twin-engine one. However, the Russians have explored a number of somewhat similar concepts in the past that did not ultimately enter large-scale production and it's not clear how many prospective customers there might be for such a jet now.

According to Russia’s TASS state-run news agency, Rostec, the Russian state-owned arms conglomerate, is “working on a concept” for the advanced fighter, which is said to be planned in both manned and unmanned versions. The prospective aircraft is described as being in the “light and medium class,” which is fairly vague, but could be indicative of a fighter that’s smaller than the Russian Aerospace Forces’ current Flanker family, and probably smaller even than the MiG-29/35 Fulcrum.

United Aircraft Corporation

The MiG-35 is currently the closest to a “light and medium-class” fighter offered by the Russian industry.

The news agency cites Rostec’s CEO Sergei Chemezov, who also provided the following statement:

“Work is underway to develop a combat aviation system of the future in its light and medium classes. Under the design, this may be a universal platform in the manned and unmanned versions. The company is working on the concept and the operational requirements for such a platform. We are doing this on our own initiative so far, without [federal] budget funds.”

The concept of a light single-engine new-generation fighter for the Russian Aerospace Forces is a relatively new one, although there have been long-standing efforts, spearheaded by Russian Aircraft Corporation (RAC) MiG, to develop a twin-engine new-generation fighter as a lighter counterpart to the Flanker family and the forthcoming Su-57 Felon.

There is no clear interest in such an aircraft from the Russian Ministry of Defense, making the continued focus on a jet in this class appear misplaced. Chemezov, however, told TASS that the new aircraft may be co-developed with one or more foreign partners.

“This is an interesting theme from the viewpoint of promoting such a plane for exports,” said Chemezov, but didn’t name any potential foreign customers. In the meantime, Rostec appears to be continuing design studies, at least, using its own funds, the company’s CEO noting further that “the [Russian] Defense Ministry may purchase it for its own needs as well.”

Interestingly, Chemezov also indicates that should Moscow decide to buy a new fighter in this class, then “the plane will have to be upgraded to the level required by the [Russian] Defense Ministry.” This suggests that the Rostec proposal could be for a less-sophisticated, and presumably less-expensive, export-optimized fighter, potentially in the same class as the JF-17 Thunder developed by China and Pakistan.

Asuspine/Wikimedia Commons

A Pakistan Air Force JF-17 Thunder over the Himalayas.

Back in 2017, Russia’s Minister of Industry and Trade Denis Manturov announced plans for the United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) to develop a fifth-generation light fighter in cooperation with other countries, although a single-engine configuration wasn’t specified. Part of the Rostec enterprise, UAC unites all Russia’s military and civil aviation design bureaus and manufacturers and, in turn, includes both MiG and Sukhoi.

The most likely candidate for the development and manufacture of a new light fighter is MiG, which has previously worked on the Lightweight Multifunctional Tactical Aircraft project, known in Russia as the Logkiy Mnogofunktsionalnyi Frontovoi Samolyot, or LMFS.

In December 2019, MiG ordered an aerodynamic study from the country’s Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute, or TsAGI, which has traditionally played a leading role in the preliminary design work for Russia’s combat aircraft. At that time, however, the study called for a twin-engine layout for the LMFS. It’s unclear whether this new effort and the LMFS project are now being run in parallel, or if the single-engine design has superseded the original LMFS.

Geektrooper2/Wikimedia Commons

Apparently dating from 2015, this is a TsAGI wind-tunnel model of a potential LMFS configuration, this time without canard foreplanes.

The 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. These were the heavyweight Multi-functional Frontline Fighter, or Mnogofunksionalni Frontovoy Istrebitel, abbreviated MFI, which led to a jet called the 1.42, which was flown in the prototype form as the 1.44, as well as the lightweight LMFS. At the time, it was planned for the MFI to replace the Flanker series, while the LMFS would supersede the MiG-29.

Artem Katranzhi/Wikimedia Commons

The Mikoyan 1.44 prototype tested the configuration for the MFI, the heavyweight counterpart to the original LMFS.

The demise of the Soviet Union saw work on the LMFS suspended and, more critically, the renamed Russian Air Force then decided to withdraw all single-engine fighter jets from its inventory. This led to the rapid retirement of all of Russia’s MiG-23, MiG-27, and Su-17 jets.

AVIA BavARia/Wikimedia Commons

Preserved at the Monino museum, this Su-17M4 is one of the many hundreds of single-engine tactical jet fighters removed from service in the early 1990s.

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.

MARINA LYSTSEVA/TASS VIA GETTY IMAGES

A pair of Su-57 prototypes.

Since then, MiG has continued low-scale, self-funded conceptual work on the LMFS, seeking foreign customers in the process, so far without success. In fact, the company is thought to have considered an alternative, single-engine version of the LMFS, although the twin-engine aircraft remained the focus of attention.

As it stands, there is a strong possibility that the fighter alluded to by Chemezov is the single-engine LMFS. If that’s the case, then the new design would likely inherit the same basic configuration: a large delta wing with canard foreplanes close to the wing leading edge. This kind of layout is typically selected by designers seeking to optimize a fighter’s maneuverability.

In terms of size and weight, the twin-engine LMFS is broadly similar to the MiG-35, with a length of around 51 feet, a wingspan of approximately 38 feet, and a maximum take-off weight in the region of 54,000 pounds. In a single-engine iteration, these figures may be expected to be somewhat reduced.

The original LMFS was always intended to have low-observable features, including at least one internal weapons bay, and these may well be retained on a single-engine version.

As for the powerplant, the LMFS was originally planned to use a pair of Klimov turbofans developed from the RD-33MK used in the MiG-35. The TASS report cites UEC-Klimov Company Executive Director Alexander Vatagin as saying the company has the “potential to restart the production of inexpensive single-engine fighter jets whose motor could be developed on the basis of the available RD-33 engine.”

Vitaly V. Kuzmin/Wikimedia Commons

A derivative of the Klimov RD-33MK turbofan has been suggested as a possible powerplant for the single-engine lightweight fighter.

The availability of an existing, advanced avionics suite from the current MiG-35 could provide the new lightweight fighter with the Zhuk-M radar, and other sensors. The opportunity exists, therefore, for off-the-shelf technologies to be integrated into a manned lightweight fighter, although creating an unmanned version would be an altogether more significant challenge.

Vitaly V. Kuzmin/Wikimedia Commons

The improved Zhuk-AE active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar.

However, all this begs the question: who would actually buy a new Russian lightweight fighter? The MiG-35 already on offer has yet to receive any significant orders. While Egypt and, reportedly Algeria, have opted for the MiG-29M/M2 export derivative, Russia has ordered only six MiG-35s, which will likely be used to re-equip an aerobatic display team, rather than being deployed to frontline units. The fate of the MiG-35 is something that The War Zone has discussed in-depth previously.

With no single-engine fighters left to replace, the Russian Aerospace Forces appear to have no requirement for an aircraft in this class. Even the twin-engine MiG-35 is struggling to find its niche in Russia since fighter units have been steadily replacing Soviet-era “lightweight” MiG-29s with “heavyweight” jets from the Flanker family. Meanwhile, the basic MiG-29 serves only with a single frontline Russian Aerospace Forces unit, based outside Russia, in Armenia.

tankasan/Wikimedia Commons

Erebuni Air Base, in Armenia, is the last bastion of the Soviet-era MiG-29 in frontline Russian Aerospace Forces service.

Looking further ahead, the emergence of the Su-57, together with the Okhotnik combat drone, would seem to further undermine the chances of Moscow buying yet another fighter type. The Russian Aerospace Forces clearly have a desire to transform the Okhotnik into an unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV), raising additional questions about what interest there might be to expend additional resources on acquiring a pilot-optional light fighter.

YouTube Screencap

The Okhotnik combat drone, which is now reportedly being tested carrying air-to-air missile surrogates for a planned “fighter-interceptor role.”

As it stands, foreign collaboration likely represents the best chances for a new Russian lightweight fighter, although most of those countries seeking an advanced jet in the “medium-class” — among them, India, South Korea, Turkey — have already embarked on their own twin-engine designs. There are already a number of light combat jets available on the export market from various countries, including the aforementioned Sino-Pakistani JF-17. Others include types derived from trainers, like Korea's FA-50 and India is looking to export its long in development Tejas light fighter.

With regards to India, a particularly large potential customer for new fighters, it still plans to buy 114 off-the-shelf Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA), with the winning contractor expected to become a strategic partner for the country’s future Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) program. However, a Russian lightweight fighter that remains, for now, a “paper project” is unlikely to threaten bids from rivals such as Boeing, Dassault, Eurofighter, Lockheed Martin, Saab, and even Sukhoi, all of which can offer proven aircraft types.

Further complicating matters, the MiG-35 is also participating in the MRFA tender and RAC MiG has continued to revise this design, again aiming it squarely at the export market. A new “renewed export configuration” MiG-35 was unveiled at 2019’s MAKS International Aviation and Space Salon in Moscow. This version includes a Zhuk-AE active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar and increased-area wing and tail surfaces.

Alexandr Ermakov/Wikimedia Commons

The “renewed export configuration” MiG-35 exhibited as a mock-up at the MAKS airshow in 2019.

There may be a requirement for a single-engine lightweight fighter to replace aging MiG-21 and F-5 fleets around the world. Still, few, if any, of the relevant countries appear to be in a position to afford to buy into a collaborative venture with Rostec, especially considering the small numbers of fighters each of those nations actually requires. It is worth noting that Russia has offered low or no-interest loans to friendly nations on multiple occasions to help secure arms export deals, but typically for the sale of proven designs rather than developmental efforts.

All told, for the time being, at least, it seems as if a new Russian single-engine fighter is a remote prospect.

Contact the author: thomas@thedrive.com