From the F16 Viper to the JF-17 Thunder, do light fighters still have a role to play?

While Defense news today gives pride of place to heavy or medium combat aircraft, such as the F35, Rafale or Su35, lighter fighters continue to represent a significant portion of fighter fleets around the world. Economical both in purchase and use, these devices allow countries without major means to acquire air capacity and the largest nations to expand their fleets to be able to respond to all demands and operational scenarios.

In this article, we will study some of the light fighters in current or future endowment in the air forces, to know their main characteristics, strengths and differentiating points, but also to determine what roles these devices play in the military operational panoply. today and in the years to come.

China: Chengdu J-10C

Entered into service in 2003, the Chengdu J-10 was, in many ways, the first modern Chinese-made fighter, and started the rise of the country's aviation industry. 16,9 m long for a wingspan of 9,8 meters, the J-10 has an estimated empty weight of around 9 tonnes, and a maximum take-off weight nearly 6 tonnes higher. The Chinese “Vigorous Dragons” were previously powered by a Klimov AL-31FN engine, a licensed version of the Russian turbojet AL-31F. But several pictures published this year show that the new devices are now winning the locally produced WS-10B engine, more powerful and more modern according to the Chinese authorities.

J-10 C of the People's Liberation Army carrying air-to-air missiles PL-10 (exterior pylons) and PL-15 (interior pylons)

The most advanced version, the J-10C, entered service in 2004, and benefits from numerous improvements, in particular an AESA active antenna radar as well as an IRST frontal infrared detector, avionics and a modernized self-protection system. In addition, the aircraft can implement the short-range air-to-air missile PL-10 and especially the new long-range air-to-air missile PL-15, given to have a range of 250 km. The J-10C can also implement a variety of air-to-ground weapons, ranging from the YJ-9 anti-tank missile and the LT-2 laser-guided bomb, to anti-radiation and anti-ship missiles, as well as different pods.

Long presented as the result of an unofficial Israeli technology transfer due to its resemblance to the Lavi program, the J-10 is in fact derived from the J-9 program, from which it takes the delta canard configuration, much earlier than the Lavi. Produced to date over 450 units, including nearly 150 in C version, the J-10 is the most endowed modern aircraft in the Chinese air force. On the other hand, he has for the moment never been exported, despite a public unit price given around $ 30 million. However, with this device, Beijing has acquired an effective challenger against the American F-16 and French Mirage 2000, identified as its main potential opponents in Taiwan or India. Considering the rate of serial production of the Chinese aircraft industry, it is likely thata new light fighter is already under development, and should see the light of day around 2030.

South Korea / Indonesia: KAI FA-50 Golden Eagle

The first combat aircraft produced by the South Korean aviation industry, the FA-50 Golden Eagle is a light supersonic fighter derived from a training and attack model, the T-50, the design of which began in the early 90s jointly with Indonesia. Due to this particular ancestry, the "golden dragon" is the smallest and lightest of the aircrafts in this panel, with a length of only 13 meters and a wingspan of 9,4 meters, for an empty mass of 6,4 tonnes and a maximum take-off weight of 12,3 tonnes.

The FA-50 offers high performance for a device derived from a training aircraft

However, the FA-50 is far from being a fighter devoid of capabilities. Thanks to its F-404 engine, which equips the F / A 18 Hornet in particular, the aircraft reached a speed of Mach 1,5 and an altitude of 14.500 meters. It is equipped with the Israeli EL / M2032 pulse Doppler radar and modern avionics, giving it the ability to deploy advanced weaponry such as the American AIM-120 AMRAMM medium-range air-to-air missile or the Taurus cruise missile. KEPD-350K2 of German origin, as well as numerous air-to-ground munitions, such as the GBU-12 laser guided bomb and the American JDAM munition.

Because of its performance, and its excessively attractive price of $ 30 million for a Western device, the FA-50 arouses great interest on the international scene. In addition to South Korean orders (60 aircrafts), the jet has already been ordered in 12 units by the Philippines, and several other countries have started negotiations with KAI to acquire or lease it. This is particularly the case of the United States, which is interested in the FA-50 to fulfill the role of aggressors in the advanced training of its pilots, but also of Bulgaria which considers the jet to replace its Mig-21 still in service.

United States: Lockheed-Martin F-16 Block 70+ Viper

Often presented as "the best fighter in the world", the F-16 Fighting Falconof General Dynamics (bought by Lockheed-Martin in 1993) is undoubtedly a huge success, both in terms of performance and the number of aircraft built, now exceeding 4.600 units. Its latest version, the F-16 Block 70/72, designated Viper by Lockheed, continues to garner orders around the world, 46 years after the first flight of the YF-16 prototype. During these years, the aircraft has changed considerably, and if its length of 15 meters and its wingspan of 9,5 meters have changed little, its empty weight has raised from 7,4 tons to nearly 10 tons, while its maximum takeoff weight jumped from 17 to almost 21 tons.

The F-16 was chosen by a large number of air forces, especially within NATO (here the Belgian air forces)

The overall performance of the jet has hardly changed over the years. The F16 remains a fighter capable of reaching (painfully) Mach 2, and a ceiling of 15,200 meters. But the operational capabilities of the Viper hardly have any more to do with those of the F-16A of the 80s. Thus, the aircraft was equipped with the turbojet GE-F110-GE / 132 nearly 40% more powerful than the original F100, and above all an AN / APG-83 radar equipped with an active electronic AESA antenna with a range and target tracking capabilities unrivaled with the early AN / APG-66 .

In fact, the F16 Block 70+ is an extraordinarily versatile jet, capable of carrying out all the missions assigned to an air force, ranging from the Sky Police to nuclear strikes. It can carry the largest array of air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons in existence, which is why there is still the reference fighter for the air force from 27 countries around the world.

The F-16 Block70 Viper offer operational capabilities far superior to those of the first models of the aircraft

The price of the jet has, unfortunately, also changed considerably. The F16 was originally a light, efficient and inexpensive fighter, which is why it has established itself as the benchmark fighter for NATO countries. But where the F16A did not exceed $ 20m, the Viper now exceeds $ 65m in Fly Away conditions, putting it at a price close to that of medium fighters like the Rafale or the F / A 18 Super Hornet. . On the other hand, its wide distribution and its reasonable cost of ownership continue to give it, with obviously the unconditional support of the American State Department, a major international success, in particular thanks to the assistance program for the replacement of equipments of Soviet origin set up by the United States vis-à-vis the NATO countries.

India: HAL Tejas Mk1A

Few of the programs have had a course as chaotic as that of the Indian light hunter Tejas, which has its origins in a request from the Indian authorities in 1969 for a light fighter intended to equip the Indian Air Force in the mid-80s. Between political procrastination and international quarrels, the prototype of the Tejas had to wait until 2001 to make its first flight. The first production units officially entered service 14 years later, in 2015, and was quickly rebutted by the Indian staff as the performance of the aircraft was insufficient for operational use. It was not until 2020 that the first Tejas delivered are finally declared operational.

The Tejas Mk1 had a particularly long and complicated birth, and the aircraft performed below those of other aircraft in this category.

However, and while the Indian air forces continued to equip themselves with fighter jets of Soviet / Russian origin like the Su-30MKI, or European like the SEPECAT Jaguar and the Dassault Mirage 2000, the Tejas program became an issue. of national pride, forcing the authorities to continue this obviously ill-conceived program. And it will be necessary to wait until 2019 for New Delhi to agree with the HAL industry on an improved version of the Tejas Mk1, the Tejas Mk1A, and to order 83 units.

The Indian aircraft is almost as compact as the South Korean FA-50, with a length of 13,2 meters and a wingspan of 8,2 meters, for an empty mass of 6,5 tons, and a maximum weight at take-off of 13,5 tons. It is powered by an American GE F404 turbojet engine allowing it to reach a speed of Mach 1,6 and a ceiling of 16.500 m. The aircraft is also equipped with an AESA radar and modernized avionics, allowing the Indian Air Force to consider its use for medium intensity missions. According to Indian plans, the aircraft will be able to carry a vast array of air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons, including Astra air-to-air missiles or the Brahmos NG supersonic cruise / anti-ship missile.

The Tejas Mk2 will be very different from the Mk1, with a duck plan and a twin-engine configuration

Still, the exact performance and operational capabilities of the Tejas Mk1A still remain an enigma, while the jet is only supposed to be an interim version pending the development of the Tejas Mk2, a medium fighter supposed to replace the Jaguars, the Mig-29 and Mirage 2000 of the IAF. With a unit price of over $ 40 million in the national version, the chances of seeing the Tejas Mk1A position itself on the export market are virtually non-existent, especially in the face of other more successful and more economical devices, such as the FA-50, the JF-17 or the Mig-35.

France: Dassault Mirage 2000 - 5/9

Le Mirage 2000 has long been the only aircraft capable of opposing the F16, both in the air and in international competitions. The French light fighter, which formed the backbone of the French Air Force for more than 25 years, and which continues to fly alongside the Rafale, is indeed a success just as spectacular as that of the F16, and the rivalry between the two aircrafts has sometimes rubbed off on units from the same country using them both, like in Greece or in Egypt.

The UAE Mirage 2000-9 is the most advanced Mirage 2000 in service

14,6 meters long with a wingspan of 9,1 meters, the "XNUMX" has an empty weight of 7,8 tonnes and a maximum takeoff weight of over 17 tonnes. In its version -9, in service in the United Arab Emirates, it is equipped with the RDY-XNUMX radar offering it advanced Air-Air and Air-Ground / Surface capabilities, allowing it to use MICA medium-range missiles, SCALP cruise missiles as well as AM-39 Exocet anti-ship missiles, giving the aircraft initially designed for interception and air combat, remarkable versatility.

In addition, it is exceptionally efficient, with a maximum speed of Mach 2,2 at high altitude, and Mach 1,2 at low altitude, a characteristic used in particular in nuclear penetration missions by the Mirage 2000N of the French Air Force for many years. Its ceiling is also very high, at 18.000 meters, and its excellent maneuverability, a heritage of its birth Air-Air tropism. The aircraft remains very manoeuvrable even when loaded, thanks to its Delta wing, giving it a reduced wing load.

The Mirage 2000 must gradually give way to the Rafale in the French Air Force by the end of the 2020s

Despite its qualities, and the 600 or so units sold around the world in 8 countries and France, its production ceased in 2007, and the assembly line was dismantled a few years later. It must be said that the market in the late 2000s and early 2010s was particularly tight. But it was above all the fear of seeing the French authorities abandoning the Rafale program in favor of a modernized version of the mirage, which prompted Dassault Aviation to put an end to the adventure of the “2000s”, while the Minister of Defense at the time, Hervé Morin kept repeating as soon as a microphone was handed to him that the Rafale was too powerful and too expensive for France's needs. History will obviously have proved him wrong in the years that followed.

Pakistan / China: PAK JF-17 Block3 Thunder

It sometimes happens that combat aircraft surprise, by its performances, both aeronautical experts and the manufacturers themselves. This is undoubtedly the case with Sino-Pakistani program JF-17 Thunder jointly designed by Islamabad and Beijing with the aim of designing a light and economical fighter to replace the Mirage III and V, the Nanchang AXNUMX and the Chengdu F-XNUMX in service with the Pakistani Air Force. Developed by the Chinese chief engineer Yang Wei, in particular at the origin of the J-20 program, the prototype made its first flight in 2003, and the series production started only 4 years later, in 2007.

The JF-17 offers remarkable performance for a particularly attractive price

Since then, the JF17 Thunder has been produced in some 150 units, has already been chosen by two export customers, Nigeria and Myanmar, and has impressed more than one observer during its demonstration flights during the 2019 Paris Air Show. It must be said that the aircraft of 15 meters long for 9,5 meters wingspan for 6,5 tonnes empty, and 13,5 tonnes maximum at takeoff, has no shortage of assets to highlight. If its maneuverability is important, the general performance of the aircraft is more than satisfactory, with a maximum speed of Mach 1,6 and a ceiling of 17.000 meters.

On the other hand, the JF17, notably in its Block3 standard, is very well equipped, with an AESA radar and very modern avionics, allowing it to use a vast array of weapons, both Western and Chinese. Thus, the Thunder can carry short-range AIM-9M Sidewinder air-to-air missiles as well as long-range PL-15 missiles, American Harpoon or French Exocet as well as Chinese C-802s anti-ship missiles, US GBU and JDAM as LS2 guided bombs. In addition, the block 3, thanks to a more powerful engine, sees its performance increased, reaching a speed of the order of Mach 2.

The Burmese JF-17s have a very successful livery

These high operational capacities, but also a particularly attractive price given to evolve between 25 and 35 million $, explains the interest the JF-17 receives from many world air forces, who sees this as a way to replace part of their fleet made up of light fighters like the Mig-21 or the Mirage F1. To date, more than fifteen countries in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and South America have asked Islamabad and Beijing about the Thunder, even if so far only two of them have actually ordered.

Russia: Mikoyan Mig-35

Like the Viper for the F16, the MIG 35is the latest version of an aircraft that saw the light of day in the 70s, the Mig 29. But unlike its designated American adversary, the Russian aircraft today is struggling to convince, including in his own country. However, the MIG-35 has no shortage of assets to highlight, both from the point of view of its performance and its price, more than accessible for a jet of this size. Because with a length of 17,3 meters, and a wingspan of 12 meters, it is indeed the most imposing of the aircraft of this panel, and its empty mass of 11 tons, and 24,5 tons maximum at takeoff, could classify it further in the category of medium fighters, like the French Rafale, with which it shares the twin-engine configuration. But it's its price which makes it possible to classify the Mig 35 in the category of light fighters, the jet being offered for export at a unit price in flight condition of around $ 50 million, i.e. the price of a Swedish Gripen, and much cheaper than an F16 Block 70.

The Mig-35 is the most powerful device of this panel still in production. However, his future is more than uncertain.

From a performance point of view, the Mig-35 rubs shoulders with the Mirage 2000 and therefore outperforms the other aircrafts, with a maximum speed of Mach 2,2 and a ceiling of 17.000 meters. In addition, it enjoys excellent maneuverability, like the majority of aircrafts of Russian origin for which this characteristic remains essential. Regarding its equipment, it is not left out, with a passive electronic antenna radar Zh-Uk RP35 targeting the performance of Western AESA radars, a very powerful IRST, and perfectly modern avionics.

Despite its strengths, the Mig 35 is certainly on the brink of early death, for two reasons. The first is the lack of interest shown in it by the Russian armies, which today give priority to heavier fighters with a large radius adapted to Russian immensities but also to the strategy implemented, particularly in the face of the NATO. According to the Russian General Staff, the Mig-29s currently in service in their forces will be replaced not by another light fighter, like the Mig-35, but by combat drones, like the S70 Okhotnik B. Secondly, the Russian aircraft suffers from the poor operational image attached to the Mig 29 during engagements that the aircraft experienced, both against Western aircraft in Iraq and Yugoslavia, as against heavier Russian aircraft, such as the Su-27, in South America, even if the objective comparisons between NATO's F16 and Tornados with the East German Mig-29s showed the latter's excellent behavior in combat.

Sweden: Saab JAS 39 E Gripen

The last aircraft in this panel is also, for us Europeans, the most representative. The JAS 39 Gripen fighter, designed by the Swede Saab to replace the J-37 Viggen of the Flygvapnet, a contemporary of the F16 and Mirage 2000, made its first flight in 1988, and entered service in 1996. It was designed to meet precise specification charges, balancing operational performances against the cost of ownership, for a non-aligned country of less than 8 million inhabitants and with limited means bordering the Soviet Union. Obviously, the Swedish bet was successful, the JAS 39 Gripen having since demonstrated indisputable proof of its operational qualities, while respecting the strict budgetary framework entrusted to it.

The JAS 39 Gripen has shown its versatility and efficiency over the years in the Swedish, Czech and Hungarian air forces.

14 meters long for 8,5 meters wingspan, the Gripen A had an empty weight of 6,6 tonnes, and a maximum takeoff weight of 14 tonnes. The aircraft, powered by the ubiquitous F-404, reached a maximum speed of Mach 2, and a cruising speed of Mach 1,1 in super-cruise, as well as a ceiling of 15.000 meters. Very maneuverable thanks to its Delta canard configuration, it carried modern avionics and could use a large number of air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons of European and American origin.

In addition, the aircraft proved to be easily maintainable, and capable of being operated from rough terrain, a crucial feature for the Swedish Air Force. But it is its price, whether it is the acquisition price evolving around $ 50 million, or its possession price with an advertised flight hour of less than $ 6000, which imposed the Gripen in several international competitions. . Thus, the Swedish plane was chosen by the Czech Republic, Hungary, Thailand and South Africa, a remarkable success for Saab which was traditionally limited to the Scandinavian countries in the field of combat planes.

The Gripen E is now the workhorse of the Swedish company Saab for international competitions

In 2010, the Swedish authorities ordered a new version of the fighter, more imposing, designated Gripen E (or F for the two-seater version). The plane is almost 2 meters longer and 400 kg heavier than the Gripen A. But thanks to its new F414 engine, it sees its maximum take-off weight increase by more than 2,5 tonnes, allowing it to carry more fuel and more weapons. On the other hand, unlike the F16 Block 70, the retrofit of a Gripen A or C in Gripen E is impossible. The new aircraft, which made its maiden flight in 2008, is also equipped with a completely new avionics with a glass cockpit like the American F35, and an AESA Raven radar, allowing the aircraft to get closer to the performances of 5th generation fighters. The Gripen E / F, which now reaches $ 60 million per unit, was ordered by Sweden (60 units) and Brazil (36 devices), and is today the golden child of the Swedish firm, competing in several countries, including Canada and especially in Finland.

Conclusion

Although many global air forces have turned to medium and heavy combat aircrafts, light fighters continue to represent a significant portion of the world's combat aircraft fleets. These jets, which certainly have neither the range nor the carrying capacity of larger aircrafts, remain very efficient for air defense missions, or close air support, and meet the needs of many countries that do not have not the budgetary capacity to acquire more expensive fighters, both to purchase and to use. On the old continent, less than half of the countries of the European Union have the capacity to equip themselves with new aircraft from the F35, Rafale or Typhoon range, which explains the successes recorded by the Gripen and especially by the American Viper in recent years in Eastern Europe. This fact will probably be even more marked in the future concerning the SCAF program and possibly the Tempest program, which due to their configurations will probably not consist of particularly affordable devices.

The SCAF program could greatly benefit from the integration of a second complementary device to the NGF while being lighter and more economical

We can therefore wonder, as we have done on several occasions, about the relevance of a program intended to be one of the pillars of European defense construction such as the SCAF, to be integrated, concomitantly with the NGF heavy fighter program, a single-engine light fighter program? By relying on the technological bricks developed, so as to reduce the budgetary impact, it would offer the less rich European countries a solution to modernize or acquire their fighter fleet, and to a country like France, the ability to increase the size of its air force when the mirage 2000s still in service will be withdrawn.

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