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Fighter Jets: Light Vs Heavy

Fighter jets are an essential part of any Air Force in the world. These jets help a country in maintaining their security, sovereignty and creates deterrence in their enemy. In today’s time, the most advanced military are those who have the most advanced fighter jets.

Most of the times the three main categories in which the fighter jets are classified in:-

  • Lightweight category
  • Medium weight category
  • Heavyweight category

Today in this article we will focus on discussing the difference in size, range, weapon ability to perform in different aerial combat situations, etc., of light and heavyweight fighters….. let’s start…….

What Is Meant By A Light Fighter Jet?

There is not any exact or certain definitions of defining a lightweight fighter jet but broadly a lightweight fighter jet is defined by

  • Single engine
  • Low operating cost
  • Lower range
  • Low weapon package

Due to its lower maintenance, operating, and flying cost, most of the countries primarily use lightweight fighters in their fleet. Lightweight fighters provide cost-effective design and performance. They are strategically valuable to a smaller country, which can’t afford to operate a heavy-weight jet. Countries can also operate them in large numbers as they are cost-effective.

What Is Meant By A Heavy Weight Fighter Jet?

Countries which have bigger Air force primarily uses heavyweight fighter jets. These jets are powered by a double engine, can operate at longer ranges, can carry more weapons of longer ranges, etc,. They can carry huge payload and also carries much fuel which makes them effective to penetrate deep inside enemy territory, inflicting heavy damages.

Let’s now discuss about roles, features, specifications etc., of both types of fighters in detail………….

Roles

Lighter aircraft are primarily used for small roles like patrolling in border areas, reconnaissance missions, surveillance, etc.

These type of jets are mostly operated by smaller countries which do not have to perform more diverse roles.

While heavy fighters are used in all types of missions like it can be used to perform heavy bombing in the enemies defence establishment, can conduct all types of surveillance, patrolling, and reconnaissance missions. It is primarily used by larger Airforce like of US, Russia, China, India, and France.

Operating cost

Lightweight fighters are single-engine, so it requires low operating and maintenance cost (F-35 despite being a single-engine aircraft has high operating and maintenance cost because of its much-advanced avionics, radars, powerful engine, cutting edge technology, advanced optical sensors, etc). Whereas a heavyweight fighter is powered by a double engine and requires high maintenance and has a higher operating cost.

The estimated per hour operating cost of heavy jets like Sukhoi is around 10,000 USD per hour. Whereas smaller jets like Tejas and MiG have around 4,000 and 3,000 USD respectively.

Also read: Per Hour Operating Cost of Fighter Jets

Payload

As lightweight fighters are of single-engine so it has limitations in carrying huge payload whereas a heavyweight fighter which is powered by a double engine, can carry the maximum amount of payload. It can also carry bombs, rockets, and missiles of larger warheads unlike smaller jets.

The estimated maximum takeoff weight of Sukhoi Jet is 38,800 kg whereas the maximum takeoff weight of Tejas fighter is only 13,500 kg.

Range

As a heavyweight fighter can carry a maximum payload, so it can also carry a higher amount of fuel and thus, has a higher operating range as compared to a lightweight fighter.

The operating range of Sukhoi Jet is around 3,000 km whereas the Tejas Jet has around 1850 km.

Weapon Package

Sukhoi Su-30MKI

A heavy weight fighter carry bombs and missiles of larger warheads as compared to a lightweight fighter due to its high payload carrying capacity.

Sukhoi has 12 hardpoints, which makes it capable to carry heavier missiles like MICA, BrahMos. Whereas smaller jets like LCA Tejas features only 8 hardpoints and carries smaller missiles like Python.

Stealth Feature

Fighter jets
LCA Tejas and Sukhoi Su-30MKI

A lightweight fighter is of smaller size as compared to its heavy-weight fighter. Thus, it possesses a low radar and visual signature.

After discussing all these factors we can’t conclude that a heavy fighter will completely outperform a lightweight fighter in all combat situations. Because a single missile is enough to shoot down any aircraft. And with the increasing technology of BVR missiles and advanced avionics even at many times, lightweight fighter jets have an edge.

Also read: Top 10 Features of LCA Tejas

Advantages Of Light Weight Fighter Jet

The modern lightweight fighters are aimed to be equipped with capable weapons intended to satisfy the main criteria of air-to-air combat effectiveness by lowering their maintenance and operating costs. The following are the advantages that lightweight jets can have:-

Superiority In Element Of Surprise

Due to the small size of a lightweight fighter, it has low visual and Radar signature i.e. it has low RCS (Radar Cross Section). It is difficult for radar to detect them. Smaller targets take longer to visually acquire even if they are visible. These factors give the light fighter pilot much better statistical odds of seeing the heavy fighter first and setting up a decisive first shot.

Smaller fighters typically have about two-thirds of the radar range against the same target as heavy fighters. In actual aerial combat it can reach closer to enemies’ jets, can give them a surprise and lock a target with more precision, and shot it down.

The modern trend to stealth aircraft is an attempt to maximize surprise in an era when Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missiles are becoming more effective than the quite low effectiveness BVR has had in the past.

Numerical Superiority In Air

The lightweight jets have low operating, maintenance, and flying costs. Unlike heavy jets, countries can operate them in large numbers.

In an actual combat scenario, countries can operate two lightweight jets, which can give almost equal competition to a single heavy jet. Thus, in war, its optimal use can be crucial.

Additionally, as pilot capability is actually the top consideration in maximizing the total effectiveness of the pilot-aircraft system, the lower purchase and operational cost of light fighters permits more training, thus delivering more effective pilots.

Disadvantages Of Light Weight Jets

Weapon Package

This is the area where heavy fighter jets have an edge. The single-engine lightweight fighter can carry a small amount of payload, warhead, and missiles.

But the dual engine heavy fighter can carry missiles of higher payload, warhead, and missiles. Heavy jets can inflict heavy bombing and can completely devastate enemies’ formation. Due to its high payload carrying capacity, it can carry more fuel and can go deep inside in enemy territory, and can damage their establishment. Like the BrahMos missiles can be fired from Sukhoi Su-30MKI but due to their larger size and weight, they cannot be integrated into light jets like LCA Tejas.

Heavy fighters have superior radar range and longer range BVR missiles that can take advantage of their range. They can perform complex manuaverability and during aerial combat can dodge missiles. Most heavy jets have the all-weather capability, precise electronic navigation, electronic counter-measures, data-linking for improved information awareness, and automation to lighten the pilot workload and keep the pilot focused on tasks essential to combat.

Conclusion

With the increase in technology, smaller missiles can also cause heavy damages. Countries are working to reduce the weight of missiles by increasing their ability. This kind of missiles can be integrated into lightweight jets. India is working on developing BrahMos NG, a smaller version of BrahMos cruise missiles with the same ability, which can be integrated into light jets like LCA Tejas.

Also, combat experience shows that weapons systems’ “effectiveness” has not been dominated by the amount of weaponry or “loadout”, but by the ability to achieve split-second kills when in a position to do so. And even lighter jets can deliver precision shots.

Engine performance improvements have improved load carry capability. With more powerful engines, the lightweight fighter can also carry equally effective weapons including BVR missiles, which have a similar combat range. The modern lightweight fighter achieves these competitive features while still maintaining the classic advantages of better surprise, numbers, and maneuverability. Thus, the lightweight fighter’s natural advantages have remained in force despite the addition of more technology to air combat.

Due to their lower costs, modern light fighters equip the air forces of many smaller nations. However, as budgets have limits for all nations, the optimum selection of fighter aircraft weight, complexity, and the cost is an important strategic issue even for wealthy nations.

Now many smaller countries are interested in developing light weight jets like Sweden has developed Gripen, South Korea is developing TA-50/KA-50 fighter jets, which belongs to light weight category. Light weight jets have also good export prospects, as many countries now want to operate fighter jets which are cost effective for their requirements.

More countries are also working more on developing a medium category jet as a substitute for both heavy and lightweight jets.

Thank you

Aniket Kumar

A defence aspirant, desiring to gain as much knowledge as possible by writing blogs because knowledge increases by sharing.

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