China Warns India’s Rafale Fighters ‘Have No Chance’ Against Chinese Stealth Jets

 In China, India, P5

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.           

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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.

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