In the absence of an India-Pakistan cricket match for quite some time, and no possibility of one in the near future, the possibility of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited’s Light Combat Airport (LCA) Tejas taking on the Pakistani JF-17 at the Bahrain International Airshow was a dogfight that aviation enthusiasts on both sides of India-Pakistan borders were looking forward to. The media had already hyped up the stakes and the comparative capabilities of both flying machines have been given adequate coverage in media in both countries.
A study of both the aircraft reveals that there is but little in common between the two. Even the primers that led both the countries to attempt developing their own aircraft are quite different.
For India, the requirement was to replace an aging MIG 21 fleet and it opted for making its own aircraft. The LCA program started in 1983. The driving force was to master the technology for fighter aircraft design and production. All through its development phase it was driven by specifications that the Indian Air Force wanted. Tejas was inducted on 11 Jan, 2011. The airframe, radar, avionics, cockpit, ejection system, landing gear, and software, are Indian in origin. It uses a General Electronics engine for propulsion.
The origin of the JF-17 design goes further back and points at MIG 21 being the take off model. The Russians pursued a new variant of the MIG 21 as part of their Project 33 in 1980 and abandoned it in 1986. The Chinese apparently purchased the designs. The Pakistanis joined the programme, later. JF-17 was inducted in 2011 in the Pakistani Air Force (PAF). With the aircraft being a joint venture, it is unlikely that Pakistan could have taken the technology strides that India has been able to.
Though not a 5th generation product, LCA – Tejas is accepted globally as a 4.5 generation aircraft. In the bargain, India has its own platform based on a new design that can now be used to progress the development of an Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft. The JF-17 remains a 3rd generation aircraft that desperately tries to close the gap to 4th generation standards. Though its avionics are superior to MIG 21, there are other limitations that disallow its being termed a 4th generation aircraft.
The Indians opted for GE engine when its home grown Kaveri failed to provide the right thrust. The JF-17 uses the Russia Klimov RD-93. The software to fly the planes is also different. The Tejas uses specialised software developed by the Aeronautical Development Agency, while the JF-17 has gone in for C+++. Further, while the Tejas has relaxed static stability with Fly-by-wire (FBW) controls for all three axes, the JF-17 has only pitch axis FBW. The bigger difference lies in the objectives of the IAF and the PAF. The PAF will utilise the JF-17 for filling the gap between MIG 21 and an MMRCA. It is to be the main combat aircraft. The IAF has gone in for as close to a state-of-the-art machine as was feasible. It intends utilising it for medium role combat missions.
LCA is also a faster aircraft with a higher climb rate. It has a better weight to thrust ratio, a primarily composites body with a smaller radar signature. It has more hard points for bombs and missile loads. It also has far superior avionics as compared to JF-17. From the maintainability point of view, it should be easier for the Indians to maintain their aircraft with most of the technology being domestic, while the Pakistanis may have to depend far more on the Chinese. It is to JF-17’s credit that it has been battle tested for ground attack roles, already.
The Chinese were perhaps driven to the JF-17 collaboration with Pakistanis in order to keep the 2nd front threat potent for India rather than the best design and technology that could have driven the development of JF-17. In fact, the JF-17 is not really in the same class as LCA-Tejas and a comparison between the two is hardly called for. The JF-17 has not made it to the Bahrain Airshow either; be it by design or default!