Indian Rafale v/s Chinese J-20 Chengdu : Musings on a Mouth-watering Face-off

  1. ‘Shatranj Ke Khiladi’ (Chess Players) is a classic satire directed by Satyajit Ray on how lazybones of Awadh were given to life of dance and debauchery, Chess and other idleries when English Empire was gaining traction around them. In a telltale scene, when a visiting Munshi tells Mirja Sajad Ali (Sanjeev Kumar) that Lord Dalhousie’s army has reached up to Kanpur, the wastrel from Lucknow asks Mir Sahib to rise from game of Chess, their perpetual occupation and show him his ancestral sword: “Have you seen this?” Will a totemic sword be able to avert the impending takeover of Awadh by English ?

And it poses an analogical wringer in the present times: How far will 36 Rafales go to keep Chinese down to a dull roar?

The Dragon has just inducted its 5th generation fighter, J-20 Chengdu, in Peoples’ Republic Army Air Force (PLAAF) to send across an emphatic message that emerging Indo-US alliance cannot forestall its rise in the world arena. While we may humour ourselves as lot of country bumpkins are doing on social media that J-20 has sluggish engines and its stealth is no stealth, Chinese at least have a decent platform at hand. They can round up the edges and streamline it progressively to come up with a premier fighter in the world. And given that China is historically no aerospace giant, swift realisation of a technological tall order, that a challenging fifth Gen aircraft surely promises, is no mean accomplishment.

India on its part has reposed its faith in Dassault Aviation’s half-a-generation behind, Rafale, with certain India-specific enhancements. That shouldn’t make you hurry to a conclusion that Rafale is a push-over.

Hold your horses !

⏩ Both Answer Different War Strategy :

Capabilities of Rafale are well-documented and richly extolled by foreign observers, while Chinese like other Fifth Gen operators are largely secretive on J-20. Americans have shyed away from plying F-22 near Russian borders or in the Middle East where NATO is operating. They are vary that Russians and French might decode their technology and correspondingly update the digital libraries of their own machines. So in that case, lot of comparisons between Rafale and Chengdu have to be based on reputation of French Dassault Aviation and Chinese Chengdu Aerospace Corporation.

Secondly, there is a debate under way that Chengdu and Rafale answer different war strategy so a comparison is pointless. It looks to me Chengdu at the outset is meant to pierce through the defences for a deep strike role. But as it matures in the course of next decade, with thrust vectoring added, it might shape up as an air superiority fighter like F-22.

Rafale we all know, is an omni role fighter that can do both the jobs decently well. Furthermore, it can double up as a recce fighter and very effectively play Combat Air Support (CAS) role due to its abilities at low heights.

However, considering that India and China are accustomed to sparring every few years, whatever their end goals, a real face-off between two cannot be entirely ruled out.

⏩ Chengdu and Rafale : Beyond Visual Range

When Chengdu and Rafale meet at long ranges, if the claims of Chinese regarding stealth are taken at face value, Chengdu definitely holds an advantage. But there are few ifs.

The J-20 has a long and wide fuselage and larger surface area is likely to reflect the radar signals at greater intensity. Moreover, its engine nozzles may expose the aircraft to radar. But Chinese have attempted zagged-edge nozzles and tiles on one prototype to allay the fears. Thirdly, the use of canards is cited as a low stealth design but again it is not a given as even Americans have attempted stealthy canard-wing designs. Moreover RCS can be reduced by controlling canard deflection through flight control software. The same is done on Eurofighter Typhoon. How far Chinese have succeeded, then, is a matter of conjecture.

Fourthly, and most conspicuously, at Zuhai Air Show, Chengdu was seen carrying PL-10 Infrared homing missiles outside its lateral weapons’ bays. Now that is a sure give away. Probably at this stage of development, other things are more important to Chengdu than just keeping itself hidden from the prying radars.

Fifthly, one of the hallmarks of a fifth generation fighter is that it has the ability to super-cruise without the use of fuel-guzzling afterburners. Thus, super-cruise not only extends range of the aircraft despite speeds of the order of Mach 2.0, but since the aircraft will have lesser infrared footprint, it can reach theatre of combat largely unbeknown to the adversary. To Chengdu’s disbenefit, it so far doesn’t have the ability to supercruise.

Rafale, on the other hand, although not a full-apect stealth design, but has many features introduced for reduced cross-section and uses the so called active cancellation technique to remain undetected by enemy radars. This technique is a special type of “stealthy” electronic counter-measure based on the principle of wave superposition. According to an article published by Bill Sweetman, in Popular Mechanics, Rafale has two antennas separated by the length of the aircraft. The antennas emit electromagnetic waves half a wavelength out of phase with the reflected radar signal, thus effectively reducing its intensity, making the aircraft virtually disappear from the radar’s screen.

And well, Rafale at lesser fuel and limited payload, can super-cruise.

⏩ Instruments Employed for Beyond Visual Range Engagement :

Two instruments that will be surely employed at long ranges are radars and radar-homing medium-to-long range missiles.

There is little official information available about the radar type of J-20. But some analysts believe J-20 uses Type 1475 (KLJ-5) AESA radar with 1856 teansmit/receive modules. Others point out that based on J-20’s nose cross-section it has space for radar that fits 2000-2200 TRMs. T/R module is so liberally referred to in aviation literature that one makes the mistake of giving it sole consideration to determine the detection range of a radar. But capacity of a radar depends on host of other factors like module output power, module duty cycle, module transmit losses, module receive losses, receiver sensitivity and radar level of digitisation to name a few prominent ones.

Since they are early into AESA technology as compared to Europeans and Americans, I suspect, resourceful Chinese have packed their radar with huge number of T/R modules to make for other imperfections of their radars.

Rafale contrarily has RBE2 radar on its petite nose which consists of 1100-1150 TRMs but widely reputed to be one of the world’s most sophisticated radars.

Once a weapons grade track is acquired by either radar, rest of the job will be done by beyond visual range passive-to-active radar homing missiles. To J-20’s indigenous PL-15, Rafale wields MBDA’s Meteor. Unlike what some might be tempted to believe, Chinese missile in fact has quite a daunting reputation. There was a lot of speculation not till long that it is fitted with throttleable ramjet, but what J-20 displayed at recent Zuhai Air Show makes it seem rather a dual-pulse motor and AESA equipped missile. Still I am inclined to give equal credits to PL-15 and Meteor.

Some China backers might point out that J-20 has better situational awareness due to the presence of EODAS (Electro-optical Distributive Aperture System). Six electro-optical sensors positioned across the frame of aircraft (for panoramic coverage) are fused with Infrared image to present the pilot a more assured view of surroundings. To further elaborate its utility, EODAS of F-35, from where Chinese have borrowed the feature, can detect a ballistic missile launch at 1300km. So, EODAS is like an enhanced Missile Approach Warning System (MAWS) which is present on many aircrafts.

But to that I will point out that Rafale has a matching sensor called DDM-NG (in French) located on the tailfin. It certainly does not give 360 degree coverage but otherwise does the job of an EODAS decently well.

⏩Thoughts on Long Range Engagement :

Finally, with all things considered, even if you give J-20 the first shot at long ranges, radar homing missiles are never a sure kill. Previous longest kill by a BVR was in Serbia by a Netherlands F-16 at 34km. One though has to make an allowance that missiles having undergone sea change, past cases cannot be considered a benchmark for present series of missiles armed with hyper sensitive seekers.

In that case, Rafale’s Spectra war suite will come into play with its various measures of detection, jamming and decoying and a reputation to top that of being the best ECM (Electronic Counter Measures) suite in the world. It has been updated in the course of actual war over Libya whereas Chinese have had no such real-time experience that we know of to update their ECMs.

Still to me the moot point here is not whether Rafale will be able to ward off the first couple of shots, but why India has been risking the lack of a fifth-generation fighter. Just the fact that 5th Gen fighters may have an early take on you much before you have the chance to bring into play all the virtuosities you could have added on to your fourth generation machines, this is precisely the reason why all the fuss is being made about fifth gen fighters.

I honestly expect Rafale F4 standard with serrated nozzle system, retractable fuel probe, Talios targetting pod and Ereos reconnaissance pod, stealth coatings, and most importantly redesigned empennage with twin canted tailfins to be much better proposition against a fully developed J-20 Chengdu at long ranges. The status Chengdu is currently at, even F3R might give it a stiff competition.

⏩ Rafale and Chengdu : Within Visual Range

Once Rafale survives the initial onslaught, if J-20 actually manages to make one, from here on I expect Rafale to lead the show. It is in the public domain that Chinese have been having problems with Chengdu’s engines. They have tried AL-31F of Su-27 fame and WS-10 on earlier prototypes but thrust was a problem area for heavy Chengdu. Finally they have settled on WS-15. But the manner in which it has been hurriedly declared that all the problems of WS-15 have been resolved and remaining minor ones would be sorted out soon, makes me smell the rat.

Rafale on the other hand has a phenomenal thrust to weight ratio of 0.988 which together with its design should certainly give it good supersonic performance as well as excellent supersonic and transonic turn performance. Further Rafale’s flight control system is unmatched in its responsiveness and precision. Talios and Ereos pods of Rafale are meanwhile already generating good vibes.

Then Chinese, furthermore, haven’t been able to develop lock-on after launch for their PL-10 dog-fight missiles. So as a solution they are carrying the missiles outside the side- bays of Chengdu. Nor are Chinese likely to develop a thrust vectoring engine anytime soon. On the other hand, French are already at an advanced stage of developing a thrust-vectoring variant of Rafale’s engine called Snecma M-88-3.

So you will see, as a fifth gen fighter, J-20 Chengdu has no real advantage over Rafale at short ranges. Lastly, I expect Rafale’s high off-bore sight missiles – both MICA and ASRAAM-to give better performance in dog-fights. A big lacuna that Rafale had – lack of a Helmet Mounted Display for cueing short range missiles, has been ingeniously resolved by integrating Israeli HMDs with it. So once it comes in vision, J-20 Chengdu probably will have little escape from Rafale.

⏩Conclusion :

Finally a lot will depend between the two fighters on strategy, tactics, training and logistics. The best of fifth gen fighter manned by a rookie pilot will always be at a disadvantage than a 4.5 gen fighter flown by a seasoned pilot. But I genuinely believe India is in the dire need of a fifth gen fighter. Sadly after the demise of PAKFA project with Russia, no measurable progress has been made to acquire American F-35. Ideally this is the fighter India should have gone for.

Providence has placed us at a very risky geographical location with two wily neighbours always having an eye on our territories. In such a scenario, to not even have sufficient number of squadrons, forget about stealth fighters, is always asking for an uninvited trouble. Our history is replete with instances when our complacence gave the invaders a chance to push us into a corner time and again. Probably Mir Sahib rightly retorts in ‘Shatranj Ke Khiladi’ : “Jin se beewian nahin sambhli woh takht kiya sambhalenge (Who could not rein in their wives how would they manage the affairs of the state)”. It is high time, men who matter pay heed.

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