Since the onset of internet revolution, the scale of information transfer has increased upto a scale where 8 out of 10 people today consider internet posts as their source of information. While it indeed serves as an outstanding platform for necessary data sharing, the readers should also be very much critical on what they see, what they believe and what they share. The public discussions and debates related to strategic affairs are always a subject with limitations.
A proportion of information never makes it to the public due to “risk of national security” and the ones that make it, also contain some made -up and assumed figures, such as radar range estimates, radar cross-sections, and much more data which are only shared among actual operators.
However, discussions on forums also offer a great deal of information, but flaws are eminent and need official clarifications based on facts and figures provided from actual statistics and thorough analysis. These flaws give birth to Myths and these are ‘used’ to win arguments, especially on social media platforms that are no less than a digital battlefield.
Sources of Myths
Before heading straight into the topic, it is necessary to understand that myths can be sourced from anywhere on the web. But most specifically, these arrive from nationalist media of rival countries. A media house based in China may find several errors in F-22 while a US-based media can point out flaws with J-20. Second can be various social media handles with mass public, whose tweets are sometimes converted into news and it all then spread like a virus (a pretty understandable example to define).
Another is clickbaits, where the entire focus is on luring people to click the link. These usually do not contain any credible sources (or in many instances, there isn’t even one).
Another is very famous, the armchair generals found on social media. So lets now head into the chapter and see the realities behind some of the major military aviation myths.
1. Unreliable J-15
The majority of the Chinese origin weapons remain under long-term controversy due to their alleged lack of originality. Ground vehicles like Dongfeng Mengshi family that resembles a lot to HMMWV “Humvee”, helicopters like Z-20 that share a near accurate design as that of UH-60 “Blackhawk”, combat aircraft like J-15, that is the same design as that of Russian Su-33, that we are going to talk about in the following:
J-15 is unreliable for deck (carrier) operations due to large size and heavyweight characteristic.
The Shenyang J-15 “Flying Shark” final design was prepared after thorough study of a Su-33 unfinished prototype named T-10K, that was recieved from Ukraine back in 2001. The airframe was evaluated by Chinese engineers at AVIC and following similar improvements as that of Russians, Chinese developed a matured variant from the unit. Hence, design similarities between J-15 and Su-33 are obvious.
While it is indeed true that the aircraft is heavyweight, with Max TakeOff Weight (MTOW) of 6.5 tons according to expert figures, same as that of original Su-33. However, as both the aircraft carriers in service with PLAN are in Short TakeOff But Arrested Recovery (STOBAR) configuration, the aircraft needs to generate enough power on the launch point to achieve the required lift for takeoff, unlike the USN CATOBAR carriers that comes with catapult sytem for quick launch of fighters. Therefore, the payload affects the J-15’s takeoff ability and it needs critical inspection of the loadout before the operations.
This, however, isn’t at disadvantageous as it is projected in various forums. The aircraft do have limitations in its payload capacity, but still can carry a loadout in variety of combinations:
1. 4x PL-12 BVR-AAMs and 2x PL-8 CCMs for standard Combat Air Patrol, occupying nearly 1 tons of weight.
2. 4x PL-12 BVR-AAMs and 4x PL-8 CCMs for standard intercept, occupying nearly 1.5 tons of weight.
3. 2x YJ-83K Anti-Ship Missiles, 2x PL-8 CCMs , and 2x PL-12 BVR-AAMs for standard anti-ship operation, occupying nearly 2 tons of weight.
These specifications are already tested, demonstrated and actively in service without serious issues. Being a fighter tasked for the role of a carrier borne air superiority platform, the organisation expects its performance to be sufficient to deal with variety of threats in the sea as well as over it.
The size of the aircraft, is indeed massive, as it is based on Flanker family of course. With a Length of 21.9 m and a wingspan of 14.7 m, one squadron of the aircraft constitutes significant space on the deck. Small deck size was another factor that led to the procurement of MiG-29K by Indian Air Force, technological superiority was another factor. A J-15 occupies complete space (till the edge) on the elevator/lift of PLAN “Liaoning” aircraft carrier, the first aircraft carrier in service and first to host J-15 fighter squadrons, followed by PLAN “Shandong”, developed in house by the nation under Type 002 project.
The aircraft does have some limitations when operating from aircraft carriers, but still not ineffective as stated by many other information outlets. In fact, even if it suffers such problems, the Chinese have no other option for its replacement. The current planned FC/J-31 5th generation fighter aircraft for career operations is not yet ready and PLA plans to deploy the same J-15T on their upcoming Catapult equipped Type 003 aircraft carrier.
2. B-52 is now obsolete
One of the most common theory that we come across in various discussions is that bombers are now obsolete. Back in time, the bombers, as the name suggests, were defined as “bomb trucks” which could accommodate a heavy payload of munitions in its bomb bay, which was not possible for any fighter aircraft. And even today, the payload capacity of aircraft like US B-52 “Stratofortress”, or Russian Tu-160 “Black Swan” is still unmatched by any fighter jet in the world. However, critics believe that as the bombers were originally configured for the conventional bombing, with direct insertion into the combat zone, the present era with precision-guided munitions reduced the necessity of conventional bombing. And introduction of Beyond Visual Range (BVR) air-to-air missiles, the bombers would be at high risk while operating in a mission.
As Precision Guided Munitions are most commonly used strike solutions, old age bombers are now obsolete for modern warfare
While the quantity of strategic bombers present in the modern era is quite less than what was in the previous century, they still hold a significant position in the Air Forces of the US, Russia and China. USAF at present has 3 types of strategic bomber platforms available, that are: B-52H “Stratofortress”, B-2A “Spirit” and B1B “Lancer”. While there is a complete generation gap between B-52 and B-2, the B-52 still adapted to face modern-day challenges, since its induction in 1955. The aircraft’s analog instruments are now replaced with digital systems, radars are enhanced for better precision and EW suite provides better survivability during combat missions. The aircraft has a more diverse weapon package than what it had during Cold War.
Conventional bombing is still practised in many situations. A chain of enemy fortifications, or a convoy of vehicles, both are very common targets in battlefield and hence, conventional and cheaper bombs are seldom preferred for heavy effect. However, this is safe only when the airspace is not contested and free from any adversary air-to-air or surface-to-air threat, eg Afghanistan, where coaligion forces on ground recieve Close Air Support on regular basis. While it’s also true that precision bombing is now more common, the B-52 also integrates solution for this as well. It is now capable of carrying satellite guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs), AGM-86 Air Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM), Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles (JASSM), and much more, all that can be deployed from far way ranges (standoff) without directly entering the combat zone. This ensures the safe in-flight operarions of the aircraft.
While B-52H is old, the aircraft still holds a lot of potential to follow the offensive doctrine of United States military and one of the most effective asset to be utilised in battlefield. Even its counterparts, like Russian Tu-160 and Chinese H-6, are very much capable of large scale bombing of any hostile strategic location, by deploying necessary munitions at standoff ranges, safe from interceptors.
3. Immature Su-57
The period of Cold War witnessed immense development and funding by superpowers on strengthening their military arsenal. From secretly developing high grade platforms for offensive tasks, to mass producing assets in order to keep the military preparedness high throughout the year. However, as the USSR disintegrated in 1991, the economy declined drastically and the US held the position as the sole superpower, with status untouched by any other nation or even regional alliances. However, a succession of Russia didn’t put the military research and development at stake. The funding was indeed cut short and major programmes were either delayed or cancelled, but few still made their way to make Russia one of the strongest nations and weapon exporters of the world. The latest 5th generation Su-57 “Felon” is one of the examples.
Even after being new, the Russian 5th generation fighter aircraft is still nowhere close to true 5th generation standards
Before directly jumping into mythbusting, we need to understand what actually are the criterias for an aircraft to be called as 5th gen:
1. Supercruise: Ability to sustain supersonic speeds for higher time, without afterburners. It can be attained by reliable engines with fuel efficiency and light airframe (not to be confused with overall weight).
2. Stealth: Ability to avoid radar (airborne or ground based) detection for long time. It can be attained with coating of Radar Absorbent Material (RAM) and composites.
3. Data fusion: Capability to recieve, process, utilise and transfer multiple data at faster rate, along with networking with other units.
4. Low Probability of Intercept Radar (LPIR): Radar with low radiation spread, that heps in dodging enemy passive radar systems.
All these are, infact present in the Su-57. The main argument is the delay in the aircraft’s induction by the owner, Russian Federation itself. Started under “PAK FA”, project was kickstarted in 2002, with Sukhoi leading the design phase. The first prototype T-50 took to the skies for first time in 2010, officially rivaling the American counterpart F-22 “Raptor”, 10 years later than the latter.
However, the funding was not enough and Russia approached its allies offering joint development of the platform. India, that was itself searching for new Multirole fighters was a suitable contender and it went successful when Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) programme was approved to jointly produce a customized variant of Su-57 and share the costs of development. However, there was still dissatisfaction regarding the costs between them as well, leading to further more delays, and causing Russia to independently invest on its first 5th generation aircraft.
Now while the Su-57 has recieved its first official order in 2020 for 76 aircraft, the point is clear that it is late. Other fighters in the same league, the Chinese J-20 entered service in 2017, even when the first flight took place an year later than T-50. The drawbacks are that the production plant will first focus on fulfilling the requirements of Russian Air Force and then looks at exports. Another drawback is the crash occurred in 2019 during a test flight of the serial produced unit (bort number “01 blue) due to control system failure. While it was not the first time a jet crashed during a testing stage or even a 5th generation platform, it really affected the reputation of Russian aerospace firm and most specifically, the Izdeliye 30 engines, exclusive to Su-57 and will be present in the serial production variant as well.
However, crashes and accidents during test stage of a system provide the engineers with necessary insight to make necessary tweaks related to software, hydraulics or other problematic components.
With a rich history and experience of producing some of the marvellous families of fighter aircraft from Mikoyan and Sukhoi, and also receiving interests from many foreign customers, it is expected that Russia will be able to attain the necessary equivalent of 5th generation platform to its adversary in coming years while also offering significant edge to its allies from regional threats.
4. Incapable Tejas
Tejas is a single engine lightweight fighter aircraft, and second combat jet to be researched and developed within India. The aircraft is primarily focused to replace the ageing fighters of the Indian Air Force, including the MiG-21 “Bison” and retain the role as a “point defence” fighter. With an attempt by the nation to attain self-reliance in the defence industry, many derivatives of the platform are also working in parallel, that include twin-engine OmniRole Combat Aircraft (ORCA) and Twin Engine Deck Based Fighter (TEDBF), sharing similar design characteristics albeit differences in roles and major components.
Tejas took a long time for development and hence, a highly immature and incapable platform
The Tejas came out from the LCA programme initiated in late 80s, with the final design was freezed in 1990 and original Phase 1 for full-fledged development started in 1993. After overall design and avionics tested both artificially and on ground, the first prototype/technology demonstrator took the skies in year 2001, 8 years after the full-fledged development initiated.
Let’s compare it with the Chinese J-10, which started its full-fledged development in 1986 and the first flight happened only 12 years later, in 1998. And also looking at Eurofighter Typhoon, that started its full-fledged development in 1983 and took the skies from first time in 1994, 11 whole years. Therefore, when it comes development period, the HAL LCA managed to take the flag earlier than other similar projects.
However, the original issue is the time taken for formal induction into the service and actual deployement on operations. After completion of all the trials using technology development units and limited series production unit, the Indian Air Force introduced first squadron of LCA in 2016, albeit in Initial Operational Clearance (IOC) configuration that was awarded in 2011. With 10,000+ flying hours in the inventory, and integrating minor additions like an In-flight refuelling (IFR) probe and a 23mm internal cannon, the Tejas received a go-ahead for Final Operational Clearance in 2019. As every weapon system enters an IOC phase, the transition from IOC to FOC always take time extending from 5 or more years in order to check the durability, resilience, performance and endurance of a variety of components integrated.
While this was all about the time period, now lets come to its capabilities. It is worth noting that the Tejas Mk1 and its combat capability is still based on what was proposed in the early 2000s. Effective Beyond Visual Range (BVR) capability to achieve the interceptor class. With Elta EL/M-2032 radar, the Tejas Mk.1 can track 5m2 RCS fighter-sized targets up to 120kms and engage them with its I-Derby medium-range air-to-air missile, either in Lock On After Launch (LOAL) or Lock On Before Launch (LOBL) mode. On a standard intercept, it can carry up to 2-4 BVR-AAMs and 2 CCMs. With the provision of Elbit DASH IV (Display and Sight Helmet), the platform operator can actively deploy necessary weapon to engage the adversary. These capabilities are indeed what is necessary to replace another interceptor like MiG-21, which is decent and lethal firepower to face hostiles under quick response. Reportedly, the actual deployment to replace a MiG-21 squadron will soon take place between 2021-22, allowing it to undertake combat missions. In 2020, amid a military crisis with China, the platform was temporarily deployed in the western sector.
However, Tejas Mk1 is still not satisfactory for the Indian Air Force to attain the edge that it is looking for.
The Tejas Mk1A was proposed back in 2015 and finally received clearance in 2021. This particular standard’s effectiveness is what the Tejas was expected to provide earlier. Further enhancing the engagement capabilities, the Tejas Mk1A will offer true multirole capabilities with the integration of new Precision Guided Munitions (PGM) and Anti-Ship Missiles, as well as an indigenous Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar ‘Uttam,’ researched and developed by state owned Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO) and in final phase of tests.
While the Tejas Mk1 is indeed late when it comes to the period from first flight to actual operational sorties. The programme had to face various political hurdles and financial backing as well, creating further problems for the Indian Air Force. However, with progress fast-tracked with new orders and finances given, the Tejas will soon see itself as a trustworthy asset in the South Asian region.
5. China’s negligence on JF-17
It is well known fact that JF-17 is developed by Chinese Chengdu Aerospace Corporation and development was assisted by Pakistan Aeronautical Complex. It is a light jet fighter capable of carrying out multi-role operations. It is specially customised for Pakistan Air Force. Right now, there are 2 active variants: JF-17 Block I and JF-17 Block II. Twin seater JF-17B is in the testing phase and Block III under development. The Block I JF-17s were developed by China and then parts were imported by Pakistan, where they assembled it. Block II is more indigenous than Block I as few internal components and airframe structure are developed in Pakistan, and China’s share in manufacturing declined. Production of both Block I and Block II variants are now stopped in order to focus on development of Block III. 50 JF-17A Block I, 62 JF-17A Block II and 26 twin-seat JF-17B Block II aircraft are produced to date and overhauling of Block I aircraft to Block II standards is under progress.
The underperforming attribute of Sino-Pak JF-17 is what makes China to reject it for its own Air Force
There is a wide misconception in the minds of people regarding the question: why China, even after being the main contributor in the project, doesn’t operate any unit of this aircraft in it’s air force. Trolls are always available to blame the aircraft’s “poor” performance and capability. But in reality, this is where they are wrong.
In order to understand the concept, a variety of factors are required to be explained. Let’s start with operational environment and doctrine of both the nations. Pakistan is a country having a water body in the south and surrounded by neighbour countries in other areas. It has barely 882,000 square kilometres of land available. Talking about China, it has 9,600,000 square kilometres of land available.
China has a much bigger area to control. And to protect it, they need aircraft suitable to operate in their surroundings. China which is heading towards the status of the next superpower, need equipment to “project power”. As a rival of the US, China needs something comparable to their weapons. JF-17 is a low budget fighter with limited BVR capability (2 BVRAAMs at a time but can be increased to 4 with dual racks), low range radar and a light payload. It is only to patrol the borders but not to show some power to the adversary. To show power, aircraft like J-11, Su 27, J-10, J-20, etc., are required which feature high-end avionics and wide operational capabilities.
Second is project’s expectation. Pakistan approached China for a low budget fighter, specially after the Super 7 project was scrapped due to sanctions placed by United States.
Therefore, the aim was to develop a low cost aircraft with average avionics. With average level avionics, JF-17 wasn’t intended to feature state-of-the-art and high quality avionics in order to perform heavy combat operations. Pakistan’s main rival is India, while Afghanistan doesn’t possess a strong air force. In simpler terms, Pak-Iran relations are very good and China is their ally.
On the other hand, China already operates fighters like J-11 for air dominance role, JH-7 for strike role, F-7 for interception role and their most trustworthy aircraft J-10 for light-medium multirole. J-10 fulfills the same role as JF-17. Therefore, it is not possible for China to dump their indigenous fighter and choose another aircraft that was not suitable for their operational requirements.
Third is interest. Pakistan is not a major economic power. It has experience of operating single-engine fighters for a long time (they also operated twin-engine Shenyang J-6 aircraft). Single-engine fighters are easy to maintain and less expensive than twin-engine fighters. So Pakistan is more interested in single-engine fighters as it comes in their budget comfortably. When we take a look at China, we see how they started leaning towards twin-engine fighter familes. J-16, J-20 and J-31 are some fine examples to prove my point.
With all this detailed explanation, it can be understood why JF-17 was never intended to be used by the Chinese Air Force and they are happier with their own arsenal. Succesful purchases by Myanmar and Nigeria also talk about the trust on platform (while cost also played an important role), and assures that the aircraft is best suited under its destined role as a lightweight, cheap multirole combat aircraft.
Therefore, these are, while not all, but some of the most famous military aviation myths that we encounter on regular basis. The information provided is available on open source and backed by some trustworthy sources including the developers themselves.
While there is no end to fake news to offer a fair analysis and comparison, it is always necessary to be a responsible actor and finding the actual case behind any news on social media. Not just on the defence but in any field of subject, a critical inspection should be the first priority before turning a claim into fact.
Second part of this series will be followed soon.
(Author’s views are personal and might not specifically reflect views of the website as a whole).