A teaser trailer is an ingenious invention: a short video designed to raise the public’s interest in some piece of media by deliberately not revealing anything about it, save for maybe a taste of the general aesthetic of the final product.

Apparently, nowadays fighter jets are media too, as on July 13, 2021, Russian state corporation Rostec released a teaser of their upcoming single-engine fifth-generation fighter jet. It is an unexpected turn indeed: the entire publicity campaign, which included the teaser, was subtle and well-thought-out, making use of recent events, long-running myths about Russian technological capabilities, and pop-culture references aimed with pinpoint precision.

Even the type of the new aircraft Rostec is going to reveal was not spelled out, Western analytics had to piece it together bit by bit. General consensus was clear from the start though: obscured silhouettes, shadows, and close-ups in the teaser point towards a single-engine fifth-generation fighter jet, a lighter counterpart to the recently adopted Sukhoi Su-57 Felon.

The buzz surrounding its development was there for a while already. “Insider information” got leaked to state media channels from time to time, high-standing public figures kept vaguely confirming that such a program exists, and in late 2020 a news photo showed a model of yet unknown jet strategically placed on the desk of Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov ‒ with a stealthy nose and a single air intake.

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The numbers

Concrete information about the development was, as always, almost non-existent. The bits mentioned by authoritative sources were either very vague or quite obvious, and the most important questions never got answered.

Nevertheless, the jet is said to be a “completely new development” – connected neither to the Su-57 nor to the previous generations of light jets. The speed of the new aircraft is supposed to be over Mach 2, the thrust-to-weight ratio greater than 1, and the engine is going to feature thrust vectoring, ensuring both supermaneuverability and short take-offs. 

The only concrete figure leaked by the company was the jet weight: less than 18,000 kilograms (39,700 pounds). The number most likely refers to gross weight, making the new aircraft slightly heavier than the light jets of the previous generation, such as the MiG-19, the F-16, or the HAL Tejas. 

The one engine, used by the fighter, is rumored to be the Izdelye 30, originally designed as an upgrade for the Felon. Its thrust – 11,000 kgf (24,250 lbf) dry and 18,000 kgf (39,700 lbf) with afterburner – correlates nicely with the supposed weight, but might indicate that the jet is not going to be capable of supercruise, as its power-to-weight ratio is significantly smaller than that of known supercruising jets. 

Another peculiar thing revealed by the trailer is the overall shape of the aircraft. Previous visualizations (made on the basis of one blurry picture and a whole lot of speculation) supposed that the aircraft is going to have canards – a valid guess considering Russia’s obsession with low-speed maneuverability. Yet, the teaser had a shot of the jet’s shadow on the surface of the water, and it shows a conventional tailplane configuration, no canards, and a shape very reminiscent of the F-35, the Yakovlev Yak-141, or the Boeing X-32.

The shape was further confirmed on July 16, as photos of the aircraft’s mockup at Zhukovsky airfield emerged. It corresponded closely with Borisov’s model, confirming both the air intake placement and the tail design.

The direct competitors of the new jet are, obviously, the fifth-generation light fighters: the Lockheed Martin F-35 and the Shenyang FC-31. Their pairing with the “larger brothers” – the F-22 and the J-20 – is likely to be emulated by the new Russian jet.

The implications

Rostec’s teaser has two underlying themes. One of them is the focus on export, personified in figures of men from UAE, India, Vietnam, and Argentina rushing to meet the jet on its supposed reveal. The last shot of the video shows them staring at the obscured aircraft, in the company of pilots that somehow includes a Chinese and an American, as well as several others in vaguely NATO-ish uniforms. 

That could be interpreted as an attempt to target the main potential buyers (Vietnam has long been in negotiations to buy Su-57s, and Argentina is speculated to be eyeing Russian jets as well), but UAE has already sealed their F-35 deal, and India – torn between the Rafale purchases, the HAL Tejas and the intense development of the HAL AMCA – is a rather unlikely customer. 

Another, much simpler reading is more likely: the intention was to show the exotic locations and the global scale of the reveal, with portrayed countries’ potential interest in the new aircraft being of secondary importance. The reveal itself, judging from Rostec’s messages, is supposed to be this world-shattering event, something that would change the aviation industry and “checkmate” the competitors. 

The fact that the word “checkmate” itself has long been a meme and is used mostly with sarcasm did not bother Rostec. Instead, the company chose to use a photo of a flying saucer – popularized by a poster from the TV show X-Files – as another promotional image, modifying it with an image of a chess piece.

There was also another image of a chess Knight riding atop a Tic-Tac-shaped object, as viewed from the cockpit of the F/A-18. Seen together, they are a clear allusion to the latest UFO craze, which was started by the US Navy footage and led to the much-discussed Pentagon report. 

In it, the newly-assembled task force identifies Foreign Adversary Systems – technologies deployed by China, Russia, or other countries – as one of the possible sources of unidentified aerial phenomena, a new euphemism for UFO. The bit was widely reported in Russia and spiced up by a mix of ridicule and pride, a sentiment channeled in Rostec's publicity campaign.

“Those super-fast, supermaneuverable, undetectable tic-tacs you have been seeing were our jets all along,” the company’s tweets loudly imply. The narrative is not original in Russia; it first appeared back in the 1990s, on the wave of bitterness that followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Despite such subtext, it is highly unlikely Russia has already built the new plane. The shot in the teaser with the undercarriage of the supposed jet was clearly a flat cutout; the mockup is most likely just that – a fiberglass body on a landing gear of the Su-57. 

There are many other indications that the new plane is going to take a lot of time to take off. The Izdelye 30 is not going to be mass-produced at least until the mid-2020s, and even then its introduction is expected to be slow, with serial Su-57s still receiving previous generation engines for a while. The mockup of the new plane lacks the serrated nozzle of the engine as well.

The Su-57 itself is only beginning to be introduced into service, four years behind schedule; the new jet might be seen as a way to cheaply increase the number of fifth-generation fighters in the Russian air force, but running two expensive programs in parallel is hardly an optimal way to do that.

In any case, Russia quite definitely bets on the international market to boost the new program. The problem is, despite all the fancy chess metaphors, it is already a couple of steps behind its competitors. The F-35, with hundreds built and sold, has been a go-to stealth fighter for some of Russia’s potential customers, such as the UAE; the FC-31, although not yet introduced, is almost guaranteed to become a cheaper alternative in several years; the Indian HAL AMCA has the benefit of being a long-running development program as well, as does the Korean KAI KF-21. Rostec is going to face a lot of difficulties trying to sell its new jet, and the bloated publicity campaign is just another proof of that.

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UPDATE 19-07-2021, 11:00 (UTC +3) Since the publishing of this article several new photos of the mockup, as well as a video by Rostec was published. The mockup confirms previous guesses about single air inlet and stealth features of the aircraft, and shows another unusual feature - V-tail, a rare feature also seen on the Northrop YF-23 prototype. The aircraft appears to have weapon bays right in front of the main landing gear, as well as slide-back canopy. 

Meanwhile, Rostec's video contains a closeup of what appears to be the Izdelye 30 engine mounted on the aircraft, and attributes the aircraft to Sukhoi company.