Historically, the moniker of ‘fighter aircraft’ came into use much after the advent of such machines. The British Royal Flying Corps (the Air Arm of the British Army in World War I, until the Royal Air Force formally came into existence in April 1918) and later the Royal Air Force referred to these machines as ‘scouts’ until the early 1920s, after which the UK shifted to the nomenclature of ‘fighters’. The US Army continued to call them ‘pursuit’ aircraft until the late 1940s and then similarly changed their overarching nomenclature to ‘fighters’. Indeed, today, there are many classes of fighters designed to perform a variety of roles. Fighter aircraft development has advanced from the First Generation subsonic aircraft in the mid 1940s-1950s to the current Fifth Generation Fighters, in vogue through the post millennium decades (the latest Sixth Generation Fighter Development Programs have been announced by a handful of countries including India, France, Germany, Japan, Russia, UK and US) Fighters currently fall under a plethora of classifications, from interceptors to Air Superiority Fighters (ASF)/ Multi-Role Fighters (MRF). Today’s modern fighter aircraft predominantly fit into the latter classification. Both the JF-17 ‘Thunder’ Block III and Dassault Rafale, being compared in this article, fall into the category of Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA).
What is a MRCA?
A MRCA could be defined as a fighter aircraft capable of undertaking multiple roles hitherto fore assigned singly to erstwhile fighter aircraft. Various assigned roles could be those of air interdiction, Suppression of Enemy Air Defence (SEAD), and Close Air Support (CAS). The MRCA would be an aircraft which combines two major roles of air-to-air combat and ground attack.
What is the Need to compare the Dassault Rafale and the JF-17 Block III?
In the convoluted security calculus of the South Asian Region, India and Pakistan stand out as predominant military powers. Both Nations vie for military supremacy in the land, sea and air domains, spurred by historical and modern day geopolitical realities. Both Nations have looked to the world market for world beating military technology, while simultaneously embarking upon indigenous programs to upscale military capabilities. The latest military acquisitions on both sides of the Western Radcliffe Line stand testimony to this fact. In the air domain, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) is inducting the JF-17 ‘Thunder’ Block III MRCA, while the Indian Air Force (IAF) is in the process of inducting 36 Dassault Rafale MRCA- these would assume the role of frontline multi-role fighter aircraft for both Nations, primarily responsible for protection of the respective air spaces of these Nations.
Present Acquisition Profile
The Dassault Rafale, manufactured by French aircraft manufacturer Dassault Aviation, translates to ‘gust of wind’. The aircraft is a 4.5 Generation Medium MRCA (MMRCA), is equipped with twin engines, canards and delta wings and is intended to perform a variety of missions including interdiction, aerial reconnaissance, CAS, deep penetration strike (DPS), anti-ship missions and nuclear deterrence missions. An order for 36 Rafale MMRCA (including 28 Rafale EH- single seater version and 8 dual seater version for the IAF) were placed by India in September 2016 with the French manufacturer for a cost of €7.8 billion with an option to deliver 18 more post completion of contract. The Rafale has been exported to several countries, including India, Egypt, Qatar, Greece and Croatia and has been used in combat over Afghanistan, Libya, Mali, Iraq and Syria. 26 aircraft have presently been inducted into the IAF including those being operated by 17 and 101 Fighter Squadrons.
The Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC), Kamra Joint Fighter (JF)-17 (‘Thunder’) is the PAF version of the Chinese Chengdu Aircraft Company (CAC) Fighter-China (FC)-1 Xiaolong (‘Fierce Dragon’) and is a joint venture between these two firms. 58% of the JF-17 airframe, including its front fuselage, wings and vertical stabilizer, is produced in Pakistan, whereas 42% is produced in China, with final assembly taking place in Pakistan. By April 2017, PAC had manufactured 70 Block I aircraft and 33 Block II aircraft for the PAF. These aircraft were used in anti-terrorist operations in North Waziristan Province near the Pakistan-Afghanistan Border in 2014 and 2017. Post this, 26 JF-17B Block II dual-seater variants were delivered to the PAF by December 2020. In December 2020, PAC began serial production of a more advanced Block III version of the aircraft with improved radar and avionics, a more powerful engine, electronic countermeasures (ECM) and enhanced weapons capabilities. The Block-III variant is a 4.5 (4+) Generation light MRCA equipped with a single engine and intended for a variety of missions including interception, ground attack, anti-ship, and aerial reconnaissance. 50 of these aircraft are slated to be delivered to the PAF by 2024 at the rate of 12 aircraft per year, commencing in late 2021/ early 2022. As of this year, the earlier versions of JF-17s are operational in seven fighter squadrons at Jacobabad, Mianwali, Kamra, Mushaf, Peshawar, Rafiqui and Quetta.
A holistic comparison of capabilities between the above assets would necessarily include multiple factors including Generation, aeronautical design, avionics, weapon systems and stealth/ survivability features, as enunciated below:-
Generation. As mentioned, both the Rafale and JF-17 Block III are 4.5/4+ Generation aircrafts. This nomenclature refers to 4th Generation fighters that have been upgraded with Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, high-capacity data-link, enhanced avionics, and the ability to deploy modern weapons currently in vogue. These aircraft fall short in the area of true stealth technology, a facet of 5th Generation fighters. It must, however be remembered, that these Generations (or splits thereof) are not watertight, formal or universally agreed upon and may often blur into one another. These divisions at best represent the widely acknowledged difference in capabilities over the development roadmap of fighter aircraft.
Aeronautical Design. The greater maximum take-off weight of the Dassault Rafale would indicate requirement of greater lift for take-off and therefore requirement of greater ground speed/ runway length. However, this aspect would also translate into a larger payload carrying capability in terms of weapons and fuel drop tanks for the Rafale. Conversely, the Rafale also enjoys a superior rate of climb when compared to the JF-17, which, along with the close-coupled canard-delta wing (CCCD) design of the former, would aid in reduction of take-off/ landing distance, favourable for operating from airfields in mountainous terrain and essential for ship-based operations, should the Rafale be contracted for the same. The super-cruise capability, greater fuel-carrying capacity and greater combat range of the Rafale would aid in DPS manoeuvres, for which the aircraft is intended. The marginally greater speed and higher service ceiling of the JF-17 would offer it some advantage. However, the superior loaded thrust-to-weight ratio of the Rafale would translate into greater power available to the latter for aerial manoeuvres. This is further augmented by the CCCD design of the Rafale, which lends to greater manoeuverability due to variable centre of gravity and high agility even at high angles of attack, an aspect in which the JF-17 would lose out, due to its lower thrust to weight ratio and ‘cropped delta-wing’ design. The instantaneous turn rate (ITR) of the Rafale is reported to be greater than 36º/ second, while that of the JF-17 Block III is expected to be about 24º/second, thus allowing the Rafale a tighter turn radius and a quicker rate of turn, factors essential for success in close air-to-air combat situations. The Rafale also enjoys a greater sustained turn rate and greater G-Limit capability over the JF-17, giving the former an advantage in a dogfight/ evasive manoeuvre situation.
Radar & Avionics. The Thales RBE 2AA AESA of the Rafale has a greater range and target track/ engagement capability in an adverse Electronic Warfare (EW) environment than the Chinese KLJ 7A AESA Radar on the JF-17 Block III. Coupled with the significantly smaller RCS of the Rafale, this facet would allow optimum use of Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missile capability by the Rafale. The Thales AESA also comes with real-time generation of 3D maps for terrain- hugging navigation (offering increased survivability in a contested environment) and targeting. A further disadvantage for the JF-17 is that its AESA radar is air-cooled, which offers significantly less efficiency (and probably lower Mean Time Between Failure) than the cryo-cooled Thales AESA Radar. The cockpit avionics and IRST of the two aircraft are comparable. However, the Rafale has a major advantage of voice-controlled cockpit commands, lending to lower pilot fatigue and faster implementability.
Armament. The greater number of hard points on the Rafale would mean greater weapon carrying capability. Additional hard points could also accommodate fuel drop tanks without compromising armament. The greater stated ranges of the BVR AAM on the JF-17 Block III might not provide the latter significant BVR advantage due to its shorter radar detection ranges, which are well within the maximum range of the missile. Additionally, the PL-15 is a larger and heavier missile when compared to the Meteor: the Meteor will consequently be capable of tighter turns and is therefore likely to be better suited for engagement of hostile, high-speed fighter aircraft as compared to the PL-15. Lower target engagement capability of the JF-17 vs Rafale AESA radars (4 vs 8 targets) and lesser number of hardpoints would translate into greater ‘1 on 1’ lethal capability in favour of the Rafale. The Rafale will also integrate the SCALP (Storm Shadow) and BrahMos-NG Air to Surface missiles (previously covered in an article @Chanakya Forum https://chanakyaforum.com/brahmos-cruise-missile-indias-contender-in-the-supersonic-vector-race/ ), giving it lethal ground attack capability.
Stealth & Survivability
The Rafale airframe is composed of approximately 70% composite material with radar absorbent material coating. The airframe is designed with serrated patterns along trailing wing/ canard edges, concealed turbine blades and a serpentine like air-intake. This significantly reduces the RCS of the aircraft when compared to the JF-17 Block III, earlier variants of which have an all- metal body, with the Block-III variant also likely to have a comparably lower composite/ radar absorbent material element, if at all. While the JF-17 Block III is also likely to have a range of survivability features as mentioned, the Rafale is equipped with the world beating, fully integrated, multi- function ‘Spectra’ EW System. The Spectra provides multi-spectral threat warning capability against hostile radars, missiles and lasers, wherein it carries out reliable long-range detection, identification and localisation of threats, allowing the pilot to instantly select the most effective defensive measures based on combinations of radar jamming, IR/ radar decoy or evasive manoeuvres- all aimed towards providing unmatched situational awareness/ survivability. The Spectra also allows customisation and regular updation of the threat profile specific to the user country, thus allowing ‘tailor-made survivability’. Rafale also enjoys superior multi-sensor data fusion capability, integrating inputs from the sensors, AESA radar and Spectra. The Rafale can also deploy a towed missile decoy, capable of mimicking the aircraft profile and thus mitigating the threat from the JF-17 ‘s missiles with radar seeker warheads.
SPECTRA EW Suite: Source-thalesgroup.com
A holistic interpretation of the comparisons made in this article would indicate that the Dassault Rafale is a superior MRCA when compared to the JF-17 Block III in aspects of design, avionics, lethal capability and stealth/survivability. This would provide the IAF a definitive edge over the PAF, with induction of similar numbers of these aircrafts in both Air Forces. However, the significantly lower cost of the JF-17 Block III would indicate the probability of large acquisition orders for the PAF beyond the present contract of 50 aircraft. This is likely to give PAF a ‘quantitative’ edge, should there be a significant disparity in numbers. This argument alone should act as a primer for subsequent development/ acquisition contracts by India, perhaps a maritime version and acquisition of the advanced Rafale F4 MRCA, with advanced stealth and EW features, as well as expeditious development of the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) 5th Generation Fighter, earlier covered in an article @ Chanakya Forum https://chanakyaforum.com/lca-tejas-ready-to-touch-the-skies-with-glory/ .
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of Chanakya Forum. All information provided in this article including timeliness, completeness, accuracy, suitability or validity of information referenced therein, is the sole responsibility of the author. www.chanakyaforum.com does not assume any responsibility for the same.
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