Thursday, June 13, 2024

Market Study Indicates Tejas May Soar In Global Exports, Along With JF-17 & J-10

By Aritra Banerjee

A recent study brokered by ‘Research And Markets’ titled World’s 4 Leading Light Fighter Jet Aircraft Programs – 2021-2022 – Program Factsheets, Strategy Focus, Comparative SWOT Analysis, Latest Contracts & Developments and Market Outlook’ found that two leading Asian air powers are leading the global market. 

The report analysed four leading Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) for the global export market. The four contenders are Sweden’s Saab JAS 39 E/F Gripen, India’s Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) manufactured Tejas Mark I/II, China’s Chengdu Aircraft Industry Corporation (CAC) manufactured J-10 and JF-17. JF-17 is jointly manufactured with Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC).

Of the four leading LCAs assessed, two come from Asian geopolitical arch-rivals, India and China. How will LCA offerings from these historically antagonistic nations fare in the global light fighter market amidst a “renaissance” in the global defence and aerospace industry? But first, a tale of the tape.

How Does Tejas Fare Against The JF-17? 

Former Indian Air Force Chief Air Marshal RKS Bhadauria opined that even the LCA FOC [Final Operational Clearance] version is ahead of the JF-17, implying that the Mark-1A would be a lot ahead of the JF-17s too. 

The LCA Tejas Mark-1A, he had said, was slated to have top-of-the-line BVR, the indigenous ASTRA or better. The IAF then also had plans to integrate other top-of-the-line sensors and weapons onto the aircraft. 

However, a polarity in views has been exhibited within other quarters, echoing the speculation that the JF-17 would be on par technologically by the time the IAF fields the Mk-1A at forward bases. 

JF-17’s latest Block III version has the Chinese KLJ-7A active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar and a digital fly-by-wire flight control system along with network-centric warfare capability, a new helmet-mounted display, a holographic head-up display, and an infra-red search and track (IRST) system as part of its avionics package. 

It also comes with a radar cross-section reducing airframe, a new electronic warfare system, and a weapons upgrade. The aircraft is speculated to be armed with two newer dual-head PL-5EII short-range air-to-air missiles (AAMs) in the near future. PAF has even claimed to get a more extended range and more sophisticated PL-15 AAM (150 km) integrated into the warplane later.

How Does Tejas Fare Against The J-10? 

Like the Tejas, the J-10 is a single-engine, delta configuration jet; however, it is a bit longer and larger. The J-10 has ventral air intakes, and sports swept front canards and wings in the low wing position, while the Tejas Mk-1A has a high wing configuration with body side air intakes. 

The J-10 first entered series production in 2005 with approximately 468 aircraft in service and has three variants: the J-10 A, the J-10B, and the J-10C, the latter being the most sophisticated. On the flip side, the Tejas Mk-1A just received its first order in January this year, with 83 aircraft slated for induction into the IAF’s arsenal from 2023. 

Regarding features aiding the aircraft’s combat performance, the J-10B has a thrust vectoring variant flying with the indigenous WS-10B catering to the aircraft’s enhanced manoeuvrability, which some claim gives it a decisive edge in aerial combat. This is not a commercially offered variant as the Chinese domestic engine has not been a success yet. 

However, another view is that the Tejas has an advantage in high altitude combat and when it comes to cruise speed, sustained turn rate and climb rate. This is because it needs lower thrust to maintain sustained flight. 

The Tejas Mk-2 variant is being designed to lower the aircraft’s drag by 8% while enhancing its transonic acceleration by 20%. The J-10’s B and C variants and the LCA Mk-1A and Mk-2 sport AESA radars. While the Mk-1A comes with the Thales AESA radar, the upcoming Tejas variant is predicted to boast an indigenously designed Uttam radar. 

The Tejas’s smaller airframe gives it another potential advantage over its J-10 counterpart in within-visual range (WVR) engagements, where it could make itself a more challenging target to engage. 

The Tejas Mk-1A/2 variants could fire the indigenous Astra Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missile. The Mk-1 variant carried out a test of the Astra in 2019. For its Mk-2A variant, IAF is likely to opt for the Astra Mk-2, which reportedly boasts a 200km range. 

The J-10B and C, on the other hand, can fire medium-range air-to-air missiles; the PL-10 and the ultra-long-range PL-15 BVR missile – the latter outranges all the missiles in its class in the world, at 300 km, but it is for slower-moving targets like AWACS or tanker refuelers. 

The J-10C took part in a live-fire exercise while being propelled by the indigenously developed WS-10 Taihang engine in mid-2021. The engine reportedly offers considerable stability and has undergone regular upgrades to weed out teething issues; however, it is still not a stable variant and thereby not commercially offered.

As of now, the aircraft uses the Russian NPO Saturn AL-31 turbofan engine. Another feature which the J-10C sports but the Tejas lacks are Infrared Search and Track (IRST) features outside the cockpit. However, this feature is likely to be seen on the Tejas Mk-2. 

Military aviation analysts have opined that the J-10C boasts an uber-sophisticated EW suite. There is a view that the J-10C will be fielded once the Tejas Mk-2 gets inducted in the IAF sometime between 2028-2030. 

The induction of the Tejas Mk-2 could be a game-changer; however, the real challenge remains the pace at which HAL and ADA can develop and deliver the upcoming indigenous aircraft to the IAF and whether it meets their requirements.

Experts On Export Prospects

India based author and columnist Joseph P Chacko told Indian Aerospace & Defence that the Gripen, Tejas, JF-17 and J-10 are the only full-fledged cheap light fighter export options barring the United States, which sells the F-16. There are, of course, trainers cum fighters that are out of this discourse. 

These fighters are dependent on the US or Russia for their engines. These Asian planes are 4-4.5 generation aircraft and are touted as cheaper than their western counterparts. These planes are normally pitched to third world countries or nations with lower economic clout. LCA has been pitched to the United States as a trainer and not as a fighter aircraft.

The Chinese option has been described as particularly attractive as it comes with fewer strings attached. Sometimes, the Chinese price them more attractive for a larger pie of the country’s economic resources. Chinese fighters use their own and Russian equipment and are largely safe from sanctions. However, on the flip side, Chinese equipment broadly has been described as unreliable and subject to political blackmail over the availability of parts. 

The Chinese planes don’t come with the reliability of parts and upgrades, the analyst told this correspondent. The LCA is yet to be sold, so we don’t have enough data to understand the Indian behaviour once the planes are sold. There are also concerns over sabotage attempts by the rivals to defame its competitors.

This category has been deliberately vacated by the US and Russia as they have migrated to heavier categories and do not see large scale purchases in the light category since the largest buyers’, India, and China, have built their own competencies. India and China will have to contend with piecemeal orders for these aircraft. 

The Philippines based South Asian airpower analyst Miguel Miranda shared his assessment: I wish to emphasise that US-made fixed and rotary combat aircraft will dominate the market in the 2020s, for apparent reasons. The USA sees itself in a generational struggle — ‘great power competition — against four regional adversaries: China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea.

Supporting regional allies means multi-billion-dollar contracts for single-engine 5th generation aircraft such as the F-35A/B and the AH-64 Guardian attack helicopter. Combat UAV sales are expected, too, with the MQ-9 Reaper, the Predator C Avenger, and the Loyal Wingman all now available to US allies. The USA has stacked the market in its favour.

There’s also another trend that has so far been ignored when trying to forecast aerial combat and the market for needed assets in the 2020s. This is the jet-powered UCAV. After an impressive start in the 2010s, the EU has now faltered in this effort. China and, remarkably, Iran are now world leaders in semi-stealth and stealth UCAVs that have a flying wing or delta wing airframe.

The USA is also testing its own jet-powered UCAVs, and so is Russia with its Okhotnik UCAV. This year alone, three more countries revealed prototypes of jet-powered UCAVs. These are Ukraine, Turkey, and India.

The emergence of highly manoeuvrable long-range UCAVs can actually shrink demand for so-called light fighters because UCAVs are more cost-effective and support varied payloads, including precision munitions.

I find it ironic how the budget light fighters of China and India, despite having world-class features, have minor to non-existent sales prospects this decade without serious diplomatic support–diplomacy itself is the best pitch to any government.

Even Saab’s JAS-39 Gripen is only exported in small batches. Likewise, the J/F-17. It doesn’t help that Russian Su-30, Su-35, and MiG-35 (perhaps even the Checkmate) can be acquired with novel payment methods that sidestep US sanctions. 

As I pointed out, the real opportunities for enhancing a country’s airpower are no longer in manned light fighters but UCAVs and other cost-effective weapons such as loitering munitions, road-mobile ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, non-line of sight missiles, and multiple rocket launchers.

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