I have not used the word ‘vs’ deliberately, when I seek to analyse the capabilities of China’s JF-17 with India’s Tejas fighter aircraft. I find such comparisons unprofessional, although the pseudo intellectuals the world over, use the word ‘vs’ while comparing anything from toys to war machines. The JF-17 and Tejas debate has gone on for so long that it has become irrelevant. Comparison should be made only when the platforms under discussion have attained ‘near’ equal status. In this case we are looking at a ‘Fully Operational’ aircraft (JF-17) and an aircraft which has merely crossed the prototype stage (Tejas) and is well short of production of war capable machines, both in numbers and operational capability.
Equipping No 45 Squadron of the IAF with Tejas in 2016 was a ‘cosmetic’ act forced on the IAF by the two most incompetent, inefficient and unaccountable institutions of the nation, the Hindustan Aeronautical Limited (HAL) and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). Now, let us look at the actual comparison, based on documented data.
The term ‘First Generation’ and/or ‘Fifth Generation’ are mere semantics, used by people who either do not know enough or are attempting to fool the world. Few amongst these pseudos have coined words such as ‘4G +’. It might appear out of context but would convey in entirety the meaning of the letter ‘G’ while talking about equipment. A supreme court judge hearing the telecom scam case asked the Attorney General as to what the alphabet ‘G’ meant in the context of telecom. The answer was simple: ‘G’ meant ‘Generation’.
Separating and classifying aeroplanes based entirely on the technology inserted in ‘her intestines’ is nearly irrational. It is the performance that must decide the class. Unlike many of my more competent colleagues in the ‘cockpit’ I view the issue differently based on following parameters listed in order of priority:-
Most important parameter that will enhance the probability of survival in modern air warfare is a radar signature. All aeroplanes that carry externally slung armament/fuel tanks have huge radar signature. JF-17 and Tejas are no exception. Indeed JF-17 will, most likely have a bigger radar signature than Tejas, hence lower survivability in an identical threat environment.
For heat seeking missiles this parameter is of ultimate importance. RD-93 (a derivative of RD 33 engine on MiG-29) will almost certainly have a much larger heat signature than GE-414 equipped TEJAS.
BVR (Beyond Visual Range) Capability.
Both machines claim to carry BVRs, which may have ranges in excess of 50 km. But the issue is not BVR range; issue is the capability of airborne radar. In the absence of accurate operational data ‘my guess’ is that neither aeroplane has an airborne radar capable of ensuring a positive ‘lock’ on the target at the maximum range attributed to BVR.
Both aeroplanes are equipped with minimal ECM/ECCM suites and will be unable to protect themselves from radars/weapons spread from ‘S’ to ‘Ku’ band.
On paper, the weapon load of JF-17 is marginally higher.
Lo-Lo-Lo Radii of Action.
RD-93 engine is a fuel guzzler (RD-33 engine on MiG 29 consumes 280 litre/minute at max afterburner setting). Tejas will decidedly have a larger radii of action.
Survivability in Air Combat.
Tejas design will decidedly give her an edge over JF-17.
Mean Time Between Failures (MTBF).
This parameter cannot be compared as on date because of differing status of aeroplanes. Actual performance of JF-17 in operational units has been less than impressive with MTBF parameter touching fairly high figures. This evaluation is based on flying effort achieved by JF-17 units as mentioned in one of the defence websites. Most important and fundamental advantage JF-17 has over Tejas is the fact that JF-17 is a fully operational aircraft. PAC, KAMRA is claiming to produce 18-24 JF 17s every year as against only eight Tejas, as planned by HAL. In the event of a full-blown war with Pakistan in the near future, we shall definitely see JF-17s over our airfields and important targets but it is extremely unlikely that Tejas will overfly Peshawar. Tejas will be limited to Air Defence duties such as Combat Air Patrol (CAP) only.
Let me conclude this analysis by listing following facts applicable to all war machines starting from Hunter/Mystere/HF-24 era.
- All fighters are capable of flying at speeds in the band 900-1300 km al low level.
- Supersonic cruise capability exists only at a medium/high level. Truly supersonic cruise capability exists only in case of F-35s.
- Any fighter flying at speeds in excess of 1,100 km at altitudes below 50 meters is unlikely to be intercepted by any known SAM/AAR.
- Air Combat Fuel reserve is available for a maximum of Two Minutes.
- Lo-Lo-Lo radii of action at maximum weapon load is unlikely to exceed 500 km without mid-air refuelling.
No debate on strike element requirement is ever complete without mentioning about acquisitions in foreseeable future. F-16s remain on the top of the list. I am still expecting Modi/Trump to take the first concrete step towards this deal before general elections in 2019, notwithstanding SP/BSP alliance in UP and Mueller probe in USA. The Indo-US fighter aircraft deal is no longer an operational necessity for India and business opportunity for Lockheed; It is a necessity for both countries.
Gp Capt TP Srivastava has served for over three decades with the IAF, flying the MiG-21 and MiG-29. He has authored a book titled “Profligate Governance: Implications for National Security” dealing with national and international affairs, specific military affairs, geo-strategic scenario etc. He is currently based in the NCR and writes extensively on defence and security related issues