Thursday, 23 May, 2024


Blast off! Russia’s missile tests, rocket missions & new stealth fighter launch Moscow’s bid for supremacy in space & in the skies

July has been a remarkable month for Russian rockets, with Moscow announcing a handful of successful missile tests, the country showing off its warplanes at the MAKS international airshow, and launching the new Nauka space module.

Bringing together arms manufacturers from across the country and customers from across the world, the annual MAKS air show, outside the capital, saw the unveiling of the new Su-75 light combat aircraft, codenamed Checkmate. By all accounts, the presentation of the new fifth-generation light fighter jet was the pinnacle of the exposition, with developers promising Checkmate would make its maiden flight before next year’s event.

The jet, its makers hope, has the chance to become a future bestseller worldwide. In effect, there are no advanced light aircraft on the market right now. America’s F-35 Lightning II is a capable fighter, but it’s expensive, relatively heavy, and most importantly, “politically charged,” given relations so often dictate exports. All that makes Russia’s Checkmate an interesting buy for a number of regions, such as parts of Asia and Africa – and even Latin America.

The promotional video that came with the new aircraft featured the UAE, India, Vietnam, and Argentina. All look like appropriate prospective buyers, especially in light of reports about a potential joint Russian-Emirati project that has been rumored for a number of years. In addition, the Su-57, a fifth-generation fighter designed for the Russian Aerospace Forces, has now entered serial production. However, there remains the need to step up manufacturing and deliver these aircraft to the forces at a faster pace, but some of its technological solutions will be used to speed up work on Checkmate.

The military aircraft were not the only newsmakers. The civil aviation industry had something to show off with its Sukhoi Superjet and MC-21 projects. Work on them continues, and one particular area of improvement is localization. Even though they lack major international contracts, the Russian market has enough opportunities for both of them. Interestingly, not a word was said about the Russian-Chinese project that focuses on developing the CR929 wide-body aircraft, intended to challenge the dominance of the EU and US over the market. At the same time, Boeing and Airbus both actively participated in the air show with their civil aviation projects.

Secondly, the Russian Defense Ministry released a series of statements that made for an interesting backdrop for MAKS. The first featured a video of a successful test launch of a Zircon anti-ship hypersonic cruise missile.

Talk at the show suggested there would be another launch in the near future – this time, at the maximum range (1000+ km), and the target would be an aircraft carrier.

Although this missile is not going to become the primary striking power of the Russian Navy, which celebrated its 325th anniversary over the weekend, it does, however, have great potential when it comes to guaranteeing the destruction of the most important and secure targets both at sea and on land.

The second clip was met with even greater excitement – Russia’s military, for the first time, released footage of a live fire test of its advanced S-500 anti-aircraft system. In the foreseeable future, this system is set to become one of the key elements of the country’s integrated aerospace defense, theoretically capable of neutralizing essentially any incoming missile, including those coming from space.

The system’s development and deployment are timely, considering that we constantly face new, rapidly growing threats, especially when it comes to missile attacks, and we are not just talking about those from the US and other NATO countries. Once the S-500 system enters service, Russia’s missile defense capabilities will match those of the Americans on a new level, and that might help advance arms control. We are already seeing similar trends with high-precision long-range weapons.

However, the key discrepancy will remain, since Washington is deploying its systems globally. Nevertheless, Russia has demonstrated its ‘combat’ missile capabilities – these weapons could be used as ‘offensive’ and ‘defensive’ power. Next time, the Russian military should also show interceptions and destroyed targets, not just launches, which would be even more convincing.

The third notable advance was Russian space agency Roscosmos’ successful launching of the Nauka science module to the ISS. Not everything went smoothly, but all involved remain cautiously optimistic. Of course, this delivery is long overdue – Nauka’s mission was supposed to take place years if not decades ago, so this launch cannot really be considered a breakthrough.

However, we need to continue working on connecting modules in space – this practice will be especially important if Russia decides to build its own space station. It is also necessary for new large-scale space projects. Of course, regular ‘rocket science’ achievements seem boring, not as fun as the billionaires’ space tourism adventures, and it is difficult to draw the global media’s attention to these stories. It actually affects NASA as well, and it feels like even the latest Mars helicopter flights haven’t stirred much excitement in the general public.

Russia is increasingly positioning itself as a serious player that can meet its own needs in the field of transport, space and national security while introducing competitive solutions for sale on international markets. At the same time, the West’s sanctions remain a major factor, which, along with others, have stunted the development of the air and space industry globally. After all, healthy competition has been a much more effective tool of scientific and technological progress than attempts to ‘knock’ competitors out of certain markets by applying political pressure. Although in many areas, especially in defense contracts, political considerations are always an important factor.

One potential barrier to better understanding Russia’s aerospace advances is a published draft order from the security services, which includes a range of “information about military and technological operations” that can’t be disclosed to foreign states.

While that cloak-and-dagger approach may safeguard state secrets, it makes it tough for international analysts and buyers to know just how advanced Russia is becoming. Public achievements like Checkmate, the Zircon missile, and the Nauka launch may just be the tip of the iceberg.


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