Five Dassault Rafales – three single seat and two twin-seat – have touched down today at the Air Force Station Ambala. With the faceoff with China at Ladakh, according to the reports, the jet has already achieved the status of a national asset which will take on the mighty People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). The Rafales, now the most advanced aircraft in the IAF’s inventory after the Russian Sukhoi-30 MKI, will join the 17 Squadron (‘Golden Arrows’), are being instantly being compared to the J-20 ‘Mighty Dragon’, China’s first home-grown stealth fighter.
Experts have primarily dispelled the myth about the Rafales being directly thrown into the fray if hostilities break out between India and China since it will entail bypassing the exhaustive training and study a weapon platform is put through before being operationalized. An unnamed IAF officer was quoted in a TOI report: “No new weapon system, especially complex ones like fighters can be deployed just like that. First, the fighters have to be extensively flown in Indian conditions to develop tactics and other procedures.” Air Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur (Retd) too said that the Rafale’s arrival was being “over-hyped”. “Just five Rafales are not a panacea for our equipment and war fighting needs,” he added.
Yes, the Rafale is Superior, Overall
A wide consensus exists on the Rafale’s clear and demonstrated superiority over the J-20 – which interestingly even the Chinese agree, but still aren’t worried. Why so, will be explained further along. The Rafale ticks all the boxes: it is smaller at 15.27 meters; can operate from an aircraft carrier; is super-cruise capable with two M-88 engines; can carry a higher payload and; has been combat tested in Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, Mali and the Central African Republic. (‘Super cruise’ is the engine’s ability to deliver sustained supersonic flight without the use of afterburners, that drain fuel, besides making the extra exhaust detectable in infra-red searching systems). These attributes put in the 4.5 generation category.
Even the range of weapons the Rafale carries is varied, ranging from the Beyond Visual Range (BVR) air-to-air Meteor missile which can reach of ranges up to 150 km; the Mica medium range air-to-air missile and; the SCALP, 200 km capable long range cruise missile and; a last minute addition of the air-to-ground Hammer missiles. The Rafale also has an Electronic Warfare (EW) suite, in the form of the SPECTRA system, which allows the pilot jam and confuse enemy radar and communication systems. Basically a classic multi-role air dominance fighter that can perform everything air interdiction, to bombing, ground attack/strike and aerial surveillance and reconnaissance.
The J-20 falls behind in the engine and the payload, with the former putting it in the “3.5 generation category” according to Air Marshal R. Nambiar (Retd) in India Today. The J-20 is admittedly underpowered with the original WS-10 engines not delivering the required thrust and the WS-15 (Emei) afterburning turbofan engines still under development. The plane is therefore powered with the Russian AL-31 turbofan engines. Developed as China’s first stealth aircraft that took the first flight in November 2011, experts pointed out that it is more heavily based on the F-35, whose technology Chinese is accused of hacking through a well-planned cyber-attack programme.
Being a designated stealth aircraft that is supposed to have minimal protruding surfaces for radar waves to reflect from, the J-20 carries ordnance only on the inside in lateral and under-fuselage bays that are covered with retractable doors. It carries a mix of the ultra-long range PL-15 (200 km), and the short and the medium range PL-10 and PL-15 missiles. Even the stealth itself was called into question when former IAF chief, Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa (Retd) said in May 2018 that the IAF’s “Su-30 MKI’s radars could pick up the J-20 from many kilometers away”.
Another belief amongst analysts is about the J-20, being larger, is incapable of performing gut-wrenching manoeuvres to prevail over enemy fighters in close combat ‘dog fights’. This was based on the plane’s appearances at the 2016 and 2018 Zhuhai air shows. Moreover, an often stated disadvantage of the PLAAF – by default extending to the J-20 – is its bases located at heights of over 4,000 meters. The rarefied less dense air disallows an aircraft from carrying full weapons load and fuel. The only similarity and parity they share is that both are delta-winged with swept back front canards and have Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radars.
Why Shouldn’t it Still be Underestimated?
One of China’s technological thrust areas has been computing-oriented hardware like micro processing and semi-conductor technologies, to take away dependence on a Qualcomm, Intel or a Texas Instruments over the next decade. This reflects its rising dominance in consumer electronics and computer hardware. Another area is its staggering rise as a space power, in both launch vehicle and satellite technologies.
Now consider the visible sensor and electro-optical arrays installed on the nose’s top, port and starboard sides; rear topside and; the aft and forward undersides. The Chinese jet seems to carry an active electronically scanned array, a chin mounted Electro-Optical Tracking System (EOTS) a passive infrared/electro-optical DAS 360-degree spherical camera system and passive antennas for an advanced electronic support measure suite similar to the F-35’s AN/ASQ-239 system. All these will certainly be connected to a data link that can receive information from China’s satellites too, besides other ground and air assets. With a country with such achievements in computing technology, one can expect the J-20 to carry a very capable internal EW and ECCM suite too.
Rick Joe said in an article in The Diplomat, “Its kinematic performance even with interim engines must be considered with its aerodynamic design, and its overall combat role must consider its stealth, sensor fusion, data-linking, and weapons.” “With such configuration, one can conclude that the Chinese might combine the J-20’s stealth, jamming and sensor fusion capability to slip past fighter screens and take out vulnerable assets like Airborne Early Warning aircraft or refuelling tankers, in a hit-and-run role,” said a former Air Commodore-rank IAF fighter pilot.
China’s perception of the future war being information and data intensive itself is reflected in a recent paper written by the J-20’s designer Yang Wei in Acta Aeronautica Astronautica Sinica, a monthly Chinese journal on aviation technology. Yang calls the concept of manoeuvrability to be “outdated” with the advent of advanced medium and BVR range air-to-air missile. According to Yang, the key lies in the pilot using information with these advanced devices, Artificial Intelligence (AI) with “extensive knowledge, sharp analysis, and sound decision-making”. AI’s role will be seen in each step of the original observe-orient-decide-act (OODA) loop in the air combat decision-making, with “intelligence becoming the deciding factor” in an “OODA 3.0”. This also naturally extends to inhibiting the opponent’s ability to gain information using stealth and ECM.
Another indication of China’s heavy reliance on electronic technology to gain advantage in the skies is when an explanation of the Indian successful tracking of the J-20 in May 2018, mentioned above, is provided by Justin Bronk, an air combat expert at the Royal United Service Institute. “The J-20 is possibly using radar reflecting Luneburg Lens, seen on the rear underside, to enlarge and conceal its true radar cross section during peacetime operations,” Bronk was quoted in an article in Business Insider in May 29, 2018. Besides, an aircraft’s radar detectability also depends on what side it is being scanned from i.e. whether from the front or side. Aviation experts believe the J-20 to be the stealthiest from the front-end, which means the Indian Su-30 might have scanned it from the side. Bronk, therefore, concludes that the track by the Su-30s Zhuk Phazotron AESA radar to be “fairly intermittent”.
The above information on the J-20 confirms a belief amongst a section of analysts that China “will fight its own war with its own rules”, not what Indian and US militaries have been preparing for. AVM Bahadur, without directly referring to the comparison between the two jets, too talks about the importance to analyse the “military thinking” of a country. “Wars do not happen between aircraft. Wars happen between systems, operational doctrines and war fighting philosophies. Aircraft may have their strengths and weaknesses, but it all comes down how a military uses them and how it looks at the battlefield,” Bahadur said.