Until the unveiling of Russia’s Checkmate fighter in late July 2021, the Chinese J-10 was the world’s only single engine fighter in production that was in use by a potential Western adversary. The large majority of non-Western fighter classes, including all serving Russian fighters, Iran’s Kowsar and North Korea’s license built MiG-29s, instead use twin engine configurations. The J-10 entered service in 2006 as a basic fourth generation lightweight fighter, with considerable upgrades to the design since leading to the entry into service of the J-10C from April 2018 as a much improved ‘4++ generation’ platform. Coming from a similar weight range, and integrating many of the same technologies as Russia’s Checkmate fighter, the two are in many respects comparable despite the Checkmate being a fifth generation design. A comparison of the two programs and the capabilities of the fighters they produce is thus possible in order to assess not only which aircraft will have the edge in combat, but also which program will be most detrimental to Western geopolitical interests.
The J-10C and Checkmate were both developed as lighter and cheaper counterparts to fifth generation heavyweight fighters – in the case of the former the J-20 and for the latter the Su-57. Both place a high emphasis on ease of maintenance and a low operational cost. The two fighters are well optimised for visual range combat, with both emphasising manoeuvrability and being the world’s only single engine fighters with thrust vectoring engines. Both use new generations of short range air to air missiles, the PL-10 for the J-10C and the R-74 for the Checkmate, both of which are capable of high off boresight targeting cued by helmet mounted sights. Each fighter deploys two short range missiles in standard air to air configuration. The PL-10 is considered the superior missile, however, for its ability to engage targets at more extreme angles. It remains uncertain which engine the Checkmate will use, but if it uses a derivative of the Su-57’s Saturn 30 engine it may have a higher thrust/weight ratio than the J-10C and thus a manoeuvrability advantage at all ranges. The J-10C’s WS-10 is one of the most powerful fourth generation fighter engines in the world, and the fighter is currently unrivalled in its thrust/weight ratio.
For longer range engagements the J-10C deploys four PL-15 missiles, while the Checkmate deploys three R-37M missiles. Alongside the European Meteor, these are considered the top missiles of their kind in the world. The PL-15, however, is produced on a much larger scale and is very widely used by Chinese fighter units as a standard armament for its J-10C, J-16 and J-20 fighters. The R-37M by contrast, although compatible with several fighters such as the Su-30SM and Su-35, is scarcely used in Russia due to its high cost. The PL-15 program thus receives more investment and benefits from economies of scale in production, indicating it could have some performance advantages. The missile has a shorter range than the R-37M on paper at 250-300km compared to 400km, however, and the R-37M is also faster which gives the targets less time to react. China’s superiority in sensor technologies and electronics, however, means that the PL-15 will likely have a stronger radar and be more difficult to evade in many situations. Unlike the R-37, it is confirmed to use a modern AESA radar.
For long range engagements the Checkmate has the benefit of being built around a radar evading stealth profile with strong frontal stealth, meaning it will be much more difficult to detect at range. The J-10C has a very small radar cross section for a fourth generation fighter, however, and makes use of advanced radar absorbent coatings which also make it challenging to detect at longer ranges. The Checkmate’s stealth capabilities are nevertheless expected to be far superior, which could be the fighter’s most significant advantage. The Russian fighter is also expected to deploy a wider range of more advanced cruise missile classes, with the J-10C primarily reliant on the YJ-91 for standoff strikes. The J-10 is thought to have superior network-centric warfare capabilities, which China’s military aviation sector has long emphasised much more than Russia, which can be particularly useful for launching cruise missile strikes.
The J-10C and Checkmate are both well matched as advanced lightweight fighters with next generation capabilities, and alongside the America F-35 they are both close contenders for the title of the world’s most formidable single engine fighter. A significant difference, however, is that while the J-10C is currently used only in China, and no significant efforts have been made to export the class, the Checkmate is oriented towards foreign markets and is expected to be fielded in greater numbers abroad than in Russia itself. As the world’s cheapest stealth fighter, the aircraft could well be deployed by several potential Western adversaries such as Iran and Syria and is this more likely to see combat than the J-10. The fact that the Checkmate will be more widely used, and appears intended to compete with the F-35 for multi billion dollar contracts on export markets, makes it a much greater threat to Western interests than the J-10C in terms of its proliferation potential. The J-10C, however, has played a much more important role in China’s own fleet modernisation efforts than the Checkmate likely ever will for Russia due to the Russian Air Force’s preference for heavyweight high endurance aircraft such as the Su-30 and Su-57. This combined with a much larger productive capacity in China means that the Checkmate is unlikely to match the J-10C’s rate of production which, financed by China’s considerable defence budget, is high despite a lack of exports.