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Discussion: Thunder and Tejas
July 27, 2017

Discussion: Thunder and Tejas

The Indian Air Force (IAF) finally inducted its first batch of Tejas multi-role fighters last week. Produced by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), the Tejas was under development for about 30 years, and it is the second homegrown fighter in the IAF’s history, the first being the HF-21 Marut. The Tejas is envisaged to replace the IAF’s legacy MiG-21bis fighters.

There is not much to add except the fact that the Tejas is a potent and fully capable lightweight fighter. In fact, it even got a bit of intriguing fanfare from Dawn News (a leading Pakistani newspaper), which stated that the HAL Tejas was “considered superior to counterparts like the JF-17.”

Sadly, Dawn did not add much to qualify the statement, which has fed into a lot of noise and one-sided chiding from South Asian enthusiasts. The following is not a conventional comparison, nor is there a conclusion of which one is better. Rather, Quwa’s position that is that the two platforms are broadly comparable, but excel over one another in context, i.e. specific areas.

The Tejas is already equipped with a helmet mounted display and sight (HMD/S) system in the form of the Elbit DASH. In fact, a fair assessment would also recognize that the Tejas’ radar, the Elbit EL/M-2032, is a credible and widely appreciated system. India also spent more time on airframe development, hence the reason why the Tejas entered service at a time when the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) is fielding three full JF-17 squadrons. In exchange for its development time, the Tejas enters the field with a fully digital fly-by-wire (FBW) flight system, a heavy use of composite materials, and a credible turbofan engine (i.e. GE404).

Today, the Tejas is the better equipped fighter. However, this does not mean that is the decisively superior platform. To suggest as much would be to claim that the PAF has capped all development of the JF-17, and as such, has no plans to configure the JF-17 with subsystems that are comparable to those on current and future Tejas variants. Moreover, the better unit does not mean its rival is not comparable, which is a far more important metric considering nothing remains static over the course of time.

The JF-17’s development was driven by necessity, but it was also encumbered by Pakistan’s problems. In terms of the former, the JF-17 was designed from the onset as a platform that would mainstream beyond visual range (BVR) air-to-air capability across the backbone of the PAF fighter fleet. It has achieved that objective thanks to the SD-10/A active radar-guided BVRAAM. Unfortunately, Pakistan’s problems – i.e. the economic mess thrown up by corruption and neglect – meant the JF-17 could not enter service with the ideal set of subsystems. For example, the JF-17 does not have a HMD/S system (but it will in the future).

Astute readers (especially those familiar with the JF-17) will notice that while the Tejas – inducted in 2016 – is fully equipped, the JF-17 – inducted in 2011 – is being improved via relatively frequent iterative cycles. In other words, the PAF is gradually adding modern subsystems – such as HMD/S – whilst also enabling the fighter to accrue real-world usage and experience (which will also feed back into the iterative cycle). It is also enabling an increasing number of PAF pilots and personnel operate within a modern air warfare environment, i.e. one built upon multi-role fighters, airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft, tactical data-link, etc. Lessons in these areas will feed into further development as well.

The advantages found in Tejas today – e.g. composite materials, HMD/S and others – will make it to the JF-17 Block-III, which will also incorporate systems found on planned Tejas versions, e.g. an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar. Infrared search and track (IRST) and improved turbofan engines (e.g. RD-33MK) are also being considered. As long as it remains in production, there will always be more advanced JF-17 blocks, each incorporating the current system of its day.

Of course, it is not all promise with the JF-17. The Thunder does possess a few advantages as well, and these – ironically perhaps – are borne from the very problems that encumbered its development. Difficulties in finding funds and overseas vendors shaped the JF-17 into an affordable and accessible modern day fighter. If Pakistan can acquire the modern platform alongside its weapons and subsystems, then chances are, so can almost any other air force using fighter aircraft. Should Pakistan succeed in making HMD/S, 5th-gen within visual range air-to-air missiles (WVRAAM), modern EW/ECM suites, and AESA radars accessible for itself, then it will have made them accessible for many other air forces as well.

The implication of this for some countries, such as Nigeria and potentially others, could be immense. Just consider Nigeria, which is one of Sub Saharan Africa’s top economies. That country does not have many foreign vendors willing to sell it sensitive equipment, and its funding constraints limit its ability to readily pursue the few existing avenues. However, with the JF-17 – which it is poised to begin inducting soon – the Nigerian Air Force (NAF) will possess a platform that is equipped with the same kind of air-to-air and air-to-surface weaponry found on any other current generation platform.

Furthermore, the NAF can ride upon the JF-17’s developmental work for the PAF, which would mean incorporating additional subsystems – such as HMD/S and a 5th-gen WVRAAM – without being beset with separate integration and expensive long-term support costs. With the exception of South Africa, Botswana and possibly other JF-17 users, no other country in Sub Saharan Africa would have a platform that has a development roadmap that is uniquely suited for countries with political and economic constraints.

Despite this, one might take a jab at the notion that the JF-17 would do best in certain environments, such as Sub Saharan Africa. Fair enough, but it does not change the reality that the JF-17 platform is meant to compete with the Tejas (and others), yet it has been developed without the luxury of free-flowing technology access or strong funding mechanisms. Yes, India is to be commended for having such capacities, but unlike a fighter plane, those traits are not easily transferrable to others. If the JF-17 is broadly comparable, but decisively more affordable and accessible, then it is a success. Whereas the Tejas would fare better in comparison to the JF-17 in the eyes of Bahrain or Jordan, the Tejas would have to compete against the likes of Saab and Korean Aerospace Industries (KAI) for those markets. The JF-17 on the other hand could present a compelling case for Nigeria, Namibia, Zambia, Azerbaijan, etc.

A lesson in the above is that it is easy to move goalposts as a means to determine ‘success’ or ‘superiority.’ In some respects, such as viability for countries clearly aligned with the U.S. or new/prospective NATO powers, the Tejas is the better option. Others, such as those looking for a modern multi-role system with minimal risk of third party regulatory hurdles (over avionics or engine), or a tighter budget, will prefer the JF-17. Simplistic comparisons do little to advance discussion and generate valuable knowledge, but nuanced case studies on specific areas could be helpful to determine the viability of one platform over another, albeit within specific cases.

  • Zill e Hussnain

    well according to their own gurus, it requires 2020 for the air force to have a proper version and if PAF starts getting JF17 Thunder Block III from 2018, we will have at least 50 Block III jets before Tejas required version hit the sky, http://www.defencenews.in/article/IAF-likely-to-get-fully-loaded-Tejas-version-it-wants-by-2020-6422

    • rtnguy

      U are talking about tejas Mk1A which will have israeli AESA radar. Given JF17s smoky engines, I doubt if AESA can ever be integrated to it.

  • Khalid Rahim

    All we need is change our mindset and our direction by bringing leadership with vision and principles. We can outclass our rivals in every class.

  • Catalyst

    An independent investigation by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India into the LCA programme identified 53 “shortfalls” in the plane. In a report in May, the auditor said that the plane wasn’t as light as promised, the fuel capacity and speed were lower than required and there were concerns about safety. Retired Air Marshal M. Matheswaran, a former deputy chief of the Integrated Defence Staff, said the LCA was obsolete.

    That is from Economic Times, India. It also states that GoI is pressuring IAF to induct Tejas despite these flaws. What is your analysis about these comments?

    Read more at:
    http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/articleshow/49254515.cms?utm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=cppst

    • Ashi Sidhu

      the decision for induction of tejas was certainly taken at political level and its a excellent one

  • bla bla

    @jigsaww
    Some comparion on JF17 block 3 and Tejas ?

  • sufi

    bilal sahib,marketing , sales , geopolitics etc. are all red herrings…….bottom lines is if there is a war between between india and pakistan then how is jf 17 going to perform against tejas and other lower end indian fighters…..i dont expect jf 17 to fight rafaele.

    • We won’t know how it will perform until it actually lines up a war record. That said, we do want to make sure it is up to par in terms of the technology used. The JF-17 has modern BVR, a modern – albeit non-HOBS – WVR, and a proper EW/ECM suite. How that fares in a real battle, we won’t know until we know, but the kit is a where it needs to be given the times.

  • Headstrong

    Well written and a balanced view. Could you enlighten us on the Bahrain air show issue? Why did the JF-17 pull out when the Tejas was being showcased? This may have been covered before – if so, I may have missed it.

  • Mohsin E.

    The main advantage, in my opinion, that the Tejas has over the JF-17 *as a platform* is its low wing-loading, standing at 50.7 lbs/ft^2. This is actually an incredible stat… For comparison, the Eurofighter is at 64, the Raptor is at 66, while the JF17 is at 76! Wing loading is a huge factor in maneuverability, and I’m actually kinda blown away by the Tejas, to the point of being skeptical…. I’m wondering if they got this by sacrificing something critical… But no point in such assumptions, let’s just call a spade a spade.

    Platform wise, just doing the basic math, the Tejas is FAR superior to the JF-17. I’m sure both aircraft will get comparable components eventually, but the fundamental aspect of a fighter aircraft is based around the air-frame, and the Tejas has a FAR superior airframe due to this one stat, like hands down, its not even a competition. In a dogfight, with *all else being equal* the Tejas would shred the Thunder. Sure we can argue over the relevance of dogfights now in the era of HMDS and 90 degree off-boresight WVRAAMs etc. but that doesnt matter when comparing platforms, because those components can be equipped on both aircraft. You take the barebone fighters and rank them against each other, while holding all other variables constant. And in that analysis, the Thunder gets splashed, unless it gets equipped with some ‘silver bullet’ or something…

    With that said, the PAF has a huge lead in the utilization of the JF-17 and its integration/training and operational use… However, in the long run, if the Tejas is inducted in sufficient numbers, that advantage will eventually melt away (unless the block 4 introduces a major design change, which increases the size of the Thunder’s wings, or drastically decreases the aircraft’s weight…)

    Whatever next gen platform the PAF is thinking about, hopefully, this time, they’ll take better account of wing-loading in their future design requirements! Maybe if they weren’t obsessing over the frekkin 100 Viper quota for the past 20 years and paid more attention to the Thunder birth during pregnancy, like better parents would’ve done, they would’ve made a better air-frame in the first place!

    • Lol … you said it. You’ve blown the horn and shut the doors behind you 😀

      That said, yes, they better not cut any fundamental design corners with the next generation fighter. If the FC-31 doesn’t cut it in a critical respect, then just go for a design that actually works and take the time to develop. We are already accustomed to ‘waiting’ ourselves (though we chide the Indians for it), but if you want a program that has genuine long-term viability in a difficult environment, time is what you’ll need to pay. I’d much rather wait until 2040 knowing we have a genuinely world class fighter in the oven than to the stress over the inherent flaws of something that is supposed to be our answer for the long-term.

      The Western technology aspect aside, I can see that this alone could be one reason why the current ACM may be interested in the Turkish TFX. The TFX’s design hasn’t been finalized yet, and if anything, the PAF can at least communicate some of the core no compromise considerations. At this stage, which is very critical, the Turks have the agency to ensure the TFX is a fully adept fighter. However, whatever the Turks do, they themselves stated in no uncertain terms that the TFX is going to be a pricey jet, but IMHO the days of proper defence on a discount are gone. Yes, you can control costs and stop wastage, but the days of “cheap” are gone; when you go “cheap” you end up compromising.

      • Quraishi

        If ur part of the program and the product is very good that u also get to make lots of profit from the pricey jet**

    • sufi

      good lord , you and bilal have lovingly killed the mocking bird.

      • Pakistan spent a lot on the JF-17. While there are some fundamental issues today, I don’t think they will necessarily be around forever. Yes, it’ll add to the overall cost of development, but re-working the JF-17’s design is bound to be less costly and time consuming than the development of a clean sheet design, especially one without compromises. In fact, a major airframe shift akin to the F-16A/B to C/D or Gripen NG could potentially be the bridge program in the 2020s.

    • Mohsin, how would you measure the advantages borne from the JF-17’s sustained turn-rate versus the instantaneous turn-rate of the LCA?

      Also, I know ITR is a huge advantage for the LCA in an HMD/S+HOBS environment, it’ll glean as many first-sight chances as it has missiles. To even begin compensating for that on current airframes, the PAF will need to work on improving the TWR (via composites, trying to go full digital with FBW, RD-33MK turbofan).

      • Smoking a Tejas

        The off bore site will help if you can lock long enough for a missile shot. From what I’ve been gleaning, HOBS sound great in theory but try moving your head for a shot while pulling high g’s. It’s like turning your head with a baby elephant. So it’s not the magic one all its supposed to be. And while actual lock on rates of these sights are classified they’re not instantaneous. So good smart flying is required with the HOBS an adding advantage.

    • Smoking a Tejas

      I recall an excellent series of discussions on the Chinese Defence Forum regarding the design characteristics of the Thunder and the Tejas. Do look it up. I’m sure some of those discussions are also available on the PDF. Any chance of one on this site Quwa?

    • MT

      some arm chair expert keep blaming composite built Tejas for being almost weighing same as Jf17 while latter is made of aluminium-They forget the main fact that Tejas has almost 60% more surface area than JF which makes it very agile for instantaneous turn rate

      Wind loading of Tejas is 60% Less than JF17– as its calculated by diving the mass/volume making is far more maneuverable which can seen from 200 meter turn shown by Tejas in bahrain airshow

      • Mohsin E.

        mass / area, not volume.

      • Smoking a Tejas

        A cursory analysis of videos for both fighters indicate a superior itr and roll rate for the tejas. However, the sustained turn rate and high alpha performance of the thunder was superior. The tejas was actually using more of the horizontal and less of the vertical. Understandable considering the inherent limitation of the delta which loses energy quickly in the vertical due to high drag. So it comes down to tactics and less about maneuverability in combat.
        And surface area is the wrong factor to justify greater weights since a delta by design is inherently simpler and stronger hence using less material for its specific surface area. Simply put, Tejas should be lighter given its delta planform

      • Quraishi

        Larger surface area as I often read in comments may also suggest lack of design optimization and more radar cross section. So there may also be significant payoffs to larger wing surface area.

        • MT

          Tejas has higher % of composite which provides it less than 50% rcs than jf17 without any composite

  • Shershahsuri

    Thanks brother

  • rtnguy

    I think the author misses the crucial point. That is the engine. Tejas makers chose american GE F404 over Russian RD93 because of one and one reason alone. Russian engines have very low MBTU of 2000hours. For RD93, its even lower. In contrast American engines have MBTU of 7000 hours. This means that if pakistan deploys 250 thunders, it will only have 150 available at max. Moreover integrating AESA radar with thunder given the poor engine will be a failure for sure. This is why India has now refused purchase of any russian aircraft and will only go for FGFA under condition that it is fitted with Izd engines.

  • MT

    1- Did any CAG Auditors/expert ever scrutinize JF17??
    JF17 has never been audited & accounted by any auditors in Pakistan.
    Otherwise the spec wont fudge 1352 KM of combat radius despite having a substandard RD-93 engine which guzzles fuel, leaves smoke & its spec show less internal fuel capacity than Tejas. Well such is the fan far & hubris of Jf17 that it brags 2 times more combat radius than F16.

    2. JF17 chinese radar is poor,unproven & there has been no official record of > 50 KM BVR test with JF17. It may have been tested with 40-50 sub KM range BVRAAM

    3. There has been no litening pod in JF– Well Pak just bought some 90 era French licensed Litening pod produced by Turks which are at par with 2nd Gen Israeli Litening pod while Tejas has incorporated litening pod3 in IOC versions & pod4 are being tested in FOC versions

    As Mohsin rightly point out
    =>some arm chair expert keep blaming composite built Tejas for being almost weighing same as Jf17 while latter is made of aluminium-They forget the main fact that Tejas has almost 60% more surface area than JF which makes it very agile for instantaneous turn rate

    Wind loading of Tejas is 60% Less than JF17– as its calculated by diving the mass/volume making is far more maneuverable which can seen from 200 meter turn shown by Tejas in bahrain airshow

  • Smoking a Tejas

    Source for superior STR? Doesn’t make a lot of sense considering the delta planform should demonstrate inferior STR even with all axis fbw. It’s a design trade off for superior high speed performance.

    • Mohsin E.

      I provided a source, for the Tejas vs Viper STR comparison above, and clearly stated my *assumption* that the JF-17 ranks below the Viper, and therefore ranks below the Tejas. If anyone has any stats that contradict any of this, please enlighten me, as I would LOVE to be wrong on this.

      • If you have FB, I recommend you add AC (r) Kaiser Tufail, it’ll be interesting to see what the conclusion would be considering he is of the view that the JF-17 should at least have parity (if not advantage) in STR.

        • Mohsin E.

          I don’t have FB, but I really wanna see some actual stats on this instead of guesswork… We have the STR of the Tejas, we just need the actual STR of the JF-17…

          • I think it might be worth it for this one discussion alone (the FB account). You can use my personal email to search my account on FB, we can link up and ask him.

          • Mohsin E.

            i just asked my cousin, he said he can get this info, but hes off base rite now for eid holidays. If I find out ill email you the figure. And if u find out from K. Tufail before me please let me know as well.

          • Abdul Rashid

            Hey, don’t forget to keep all us guys in the loop too if you find out anything. Thanks!

          • Abdul Rashid

            Up-voted for not having FB. I’m not the only one “behind the times”.

      • Smoking a Tejas

        Sorry my friend, I can’t see the valid source just a graph with some details by an apparent Indian enthusiast. Where are the numbers coming from? Most of these figures could be coming from attempted analysis of video footage for all I know. Look up the Pakistan and Chinese defence forums on the thunder and tejas and you’ll see lots of such fan graphs. In the absence of numbers from credible manufacturers, I’m not buying this analysis. I’ll go back to design and aerodynamic parameters to help me muddle through.

        • Mohsin E.

          You do realize that the burden of proof is on those claiming that the JF-17 has an STR advantage right? I didn’t make that claim.

          I’d also like to see a valid source for the JF-17s STR, but that graph is from a blog which cites the following paper:

          Jebakumar, S. K., “Aircraft Performance Improvements: A Practical Approach”, Center for Military Airworthiness and Certification (CEMILAC), March 2009, Bengaluru, India

          http://thebetacoefficient.blogspot.ca/2015/04/lca-tejas-versus-f-16-in-combat-part-i.html

          If anyone has a better source, please feel free to post it. I’ll say it again, I’ll be happy to be proven wrong.

          • Smoking a Tejas

            I don’t go for pakistani or indian sources based on the inherent bias. And you won’t get the data simply because it’s classified but conjecture away. Look up the jf 17 thread on the sino defence forum and a member crobato. He had a nice conversation with an Indian who had much the same perspective as you.

  • Smoking a Tejas

    While important, wing loading is not the end all of aerodynamic designing. Look up the Chinese forum under the jf 17 for a very good discussion on the matter.

    • Mohsin E.

      Dude just give me the link instead of telling me to find it. Quit being lazy 😛 Remember though, I want to see a direct comparison of STR between the JF-17 and the Tejas. So far, I haven’t seen any DIRECT evidence of any STR advantage the Thunder allegedly has. If anyone has data for this, please give it to me, as I really WANT to be wrong on this.

      And yea, wing loading isn’t the only thing, but you can swap out the engine and upgrade the FBW etc. Think about how many different engines the Viper has had over all the variants in its lifetime…. The basic air-frame though, that’s a different story. And Wing Loading is a factor of the air frame, and therefore a more static aspect of the platform. In fact, the F-35 is criticized due to high wing loading after all. It can’t turn well primarily because of high wing loading and this won’t be fixed easily, if at all.

      And regarding your point on the other post which I forgot to reply to, I know the Mirage vs Viper (Delta vs non-Delta) arguments, which point out flaws of the Mirage and how it bleeds energy in lower altitude turns etc. I’m sure people have tried to apply that to the Tejas vs Thunder case, but I won’t buy that line of reasoning. Just because the Mirage bled energy at lower altitude doesn’t mean every other delta winger is gonna have the same issue. With the Eurofighter, Grippen and Rafale (and even Chinese designs now) continuing the Delta wing and doing it well, that argument is less and less relevant today, as the FBW and TWR gets better etc. A lot of the Mirage vs Viper (Delta vs non-Delta) debate was mostly a US vs Europe thing anyway.

      Basically, I just want a direct comparison of STR between the Tejas and Thunder instead of relying on data of other other designs and assuming it applies to the Thunder/Tejas.

  • U

    Common! For a layman like me it was bad enough to hear Tejas being superior in some or perhaps most ways to the JF17. Now you come up with this! Does this mean the entire PAF is doomed? Because honestly F16 is all it has!
    I am wondering how reliable is your source?
    Billal (God never in my wildest dreams did I thought I will ask this Q) your comments on F16 vs Tejas plz.

    • Mohsin E.

      Dude feel free to post something official comparing all 3 aircraft’s STR… It’s not like I want the Tejas’ damn STR to be better than the rest! If you can find some more valid source then please, be my guest.

  • Quraishi

    I feel It may have been better had Pakistan went for a speciality air craft such as air superiority, which can used to neutralize enemy air threat, and then lesser capable bombers can easily achieve bombing objectives. Having a multi role fighter, capable of doing all role but mastering in none has gotten PAF in middle of nowhere. This ear is of specialization, jets for other roles could have been procured from abroad.

    Saying this it remains a fact that Indian project was lot older and was thus likely to be better. And their international diplomacy also played a big role in advancing technologies, something I feel is often over looked at.

    Anyhow I was talking with an F-15 pilot the other day and happen to ask him about JF-17. He briefly said that the first one was not so good, but after the upgrade (block 2) it’s good. Hearing that from an active F-15 pilot was motivating and made me feel that it is indeed a very good jet.

  • Muhammad Ali

    The World know Indian media and agencies top liar in the world. Tejas still not under operational and design not air friendly. Jf 17 4th generation jet fight and Tejas it self second generation design it not matter what you include in this. First make the design air friendly and minimum 4 generation design and make it 100% operational. Then you can compare. Truly its design worse then any jet fighter i seen. You can see wings is that look cool like flying a big plates! flying

  • Freebird

    LOL. But quantity has its own quality. Compared to other fighters, jf-17 is really inexpensive. Adding some jf-17 into inventory would be really game changer. By 2030 Turkey will have a fleet of 117 f-35, 100 TFX, some anka drones and armed hürkuş planes. Turkey can add 150 jf-17 into this fleet and that would be great. Btw I know one or two things about fighters and jf-17 is not that bad. It has the maneuvrability of f-16 and angle of attack of f-18. With good avionics, it would be a game changer.

  • Freebird

    Pakistan ministry of defence does a great job with a very little amount of sources. India does the vice versa even though they seem to be stronger now.

  • Muhammad Imran

    the difference between both the projects is that for Tejas all the technologies were made available while for JF-17, we had to worked with alot of technology constraints and embargoes. JF-17 is the best combination of appropriate technologies . second main difference is the project life span…! Tejas took more than three decades to evolve in present form and still the main client is not happy with it….while JF-17 was adapted by its main user since early.

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