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.