China Warns India’s Rafale Fighters ‘Have No Chance’ Against Chinese Stealth Jets
Chinese and Indian fighters are engaging in vicious dogfights.
Not in the air, but over the airwaves, where both nations are claiming that their newest jets are superior to those of their rival.
Last week, former Indian Air Force chief B.S. Dhanoa claimed that China’s new J‑20 stealth fighter “doesn’t come close” to India’s new French-made Rafale fighters. Dhanoa boasted the Rafale’s “top-of-the-line electronic warfare suite, Meteor beyond-visual-range [air-to-air] missile and Scalp air-to-ground weapon with its terrain following capability outguns any threat that the Chinese Air Force produces,” according to the Hindustan Times.
It’s China’s surface-to-air missiles – not its jet fighters — that are the biggest threat, Dhanoa said. He also suggested that Chinese military technology is so poor that even Beijing’s ally Pakistan, which operates Chinese warplanes and tanks, has little faith in it. Dhanoa claimed that during air clashes with India in 2019, the Pakistani Air Force relied on American-made F‑16s and French-made Mirages, while its JF-17 fighters – a joint China-Pakistan design – only played a minor role. “Why does Pakistan use Swedish early air warning platforms up north [near the disputed border with India] and keep its Chinese AWACS in the south? Why is Pakistan mounting a European radar and Turkish targeting pod on the Chinese JF-17? The answer is quite evident.”
Dhanoa extolled the Rafale as a “game changer.” India has deployed the first five Rafales, which arrived last week, to the Ladakh area of the Himalayas, where China and India fought border clashes in June. India is slated to receive 36 Rafales, which are flown by the French Air Force and Navy, as well as Egypt and Qatar.
Considering how much prestige China has invested in its newest high-tech jets and warships, there was no chance that Beijing was going to let those jibes pass without a response.
“Chinese experts said that the Rafale is only a third-plus generation fighter jet, and does not stand much of a chance against a stealth, fourth-generation one like the J‑20,” replied China’s state-owned Global Times.
Chinese military experts claim the Rafale is only marginally better than India’s existing Russian-designed Su-30 MKI fighters. “In some combat performance areas, the Rafale is superior to the Su-30 MKI fighter jets, which are in service in the Indian air force in large batches, but it is only about one-fourth of a generation more advanced and does not yield a significant qualitative change,” Global Times said.
“Thanks to its AESA radar, advanced weapons and limited stealth technologies, the Rafale is comparable to other third-plus generation fighter jets used by other countries, but it will find it very difficult to confront a stealth-capable fourth generation fighter jet,” said Global Times.
Actually, the 10-ton Rafale is generally considered a 4.5‑generation fighter, with some moderate stealth capability to avoid radar and infrared detection, though less than fifth-generation aircraft like the U.S. F‑35. On the other hand, it is far more maneuverable in a close-range dogfight than an F‑35. The twin-engine Rafale can also use “supercruise” to fly at supersonic speed without gulping fuel as older jets do.
Against Chinese fighters, the Rafale’s most deadly weapon is the Meteor, a ramjet-powered, radar-guided, beyond visual range (BVR) air-to-air missile with an estimated range of more than 50 miles. Using its AESA radar and Meteor missiles, it might be able to pick off Chinese jets at long range.
Much less is known about the J‑20, of which China has around 50. Weighing in at 21 tons, it is bigger and heavier than the Rafale. While the Rafale looks a bit like the nimble U.S. F‑16, the J‑20 resembles larger aircraft like the U.S. F‑22 and Russian Su-57 stealth fighters. There has been some debate in Western circles as to whether the J‑20 is a heavy interceptor designed to engage targets at long range, or whether it’s also a capable dogfighter. The latest J‑20B version reportedly will be equipped with thrust vector control, while allow engine nozzles to be tilted for better maneuverability.
The J‑20’s primary weapon is the PL-15, a radar-guided, very-long-range air-to-air missile which may be able to hit aircraft up to 200 kilometers [124 miles] away, outranging weapons like the Meteor U.S. AIM-120 missile. If the PL-15 indeed has the capability to pick off Indian aircraft at that distance – and that’s a big if – then it would give the J‑20 an edge should China and India fight for air superiority over Ladakh.
But super-missiles or not, like Russia from whom it licensed or copied so many aircraft, the weak point of Chinese fighters has been their jet engines, which are less powerful and reliable than Western designs. J‑20 production has stalled as China equipped the fighter with Russian AL-31 engines while attempting to develop the more powerful, domestically-produced WS-15 engine for the J‑20B. But the J‑20B has entered mass production amid expectations that the WS-15 will be ready in a year or two, the South China Morning Post reported in July 2020.
So is the Rafale or the J‑20 the better fighter? First, neither aircraft has really been tested in battle. The J‑20 has yet to see action, so its capabilities – such as whether it’s really stealthy enough to avoid radar detection – remains to be seen. The Rafale has seen some combat, but only bombing poorly defended targets in Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq and Syria. Neither plane has been pitted against opponents with advanced fighters and anti-aircraft missiles, so their strengths and weaknesses have yet to be revealed.
More important, as I’ve said before, is that any conflict between nuclear-armed nations like China and India would be small and carefully controlled to avoid escalation. Any battle between Rafales and J‑20s would depend less on factors like aircraft maneuverability, and more on factors like pilot quality, and the presence of ground radar, anti-aircraft missiles, well-integrated command networks, aerial tankers to replenish fuel-hungry fighters, and how far each side’s airbases are from the battlefield.
For example, Chinese airbases in Ladakh have limited capacity, while larger airfields in Xinjiang and Tibet are up to 600 miles away. India’s Ambala’s airbase, where the Rafales will be based, is just 300 miles from the disputed area.
Barring some unrevealed technical breakthrough in stealth, sensors or missiles – or some hidden flaw in aircraft design – it seems unlikely that the capabilities of the J‑20 or Rafale alone will decide who rules Himalayan skies.