The first batch of five French Rafale fighter jets, out of the total 36 purchased by India in a multi-billion dollar deal, will land in Ambala on Wednesday afternoon after covering a distance of 7,000 km to join the Indian Air Force fleet. The timing of their arrival couldn’t be more critical given that India is locked in a tense standoff with China in several areas along the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
Added to the Chinese threat is a very real possibility of Pakistan simultaneously opening another front against India, thereby pulling India into a two-front war.
Military aviation experts say Rafale’s addition to India’s fighter fleet would significantly enhance the Air Force’s overall operational capability to counter the Chinese threat, and it would also provide effective deterrence against Pakistani aggression.
Rafale’s induction will change the technological imbalance India had in air vis-à-vis Pakistan’s US-supplied F16 aircrafts with superior radar and missile system as well as China-supplied Chengdu JF-17, which is at the centre of Pakistani Air Force’s fleet modernisation plans.
So how does Dassault-made Rafale fare against the China-made JF-17 fighter jets used by the Pakistan’s Air Force? And what would be the outcome of any encounter between Rafale and ‘stealth’ Chengdu J-20s that is used by the People's Liberation Army Air Force.
The comparison becomes all the more important because IAF fighters are most likely to encounter these machines in the sky in case there is a full-blown confrontation.
Let us begin by comparing the basics first. Both Chinese JF-17 currently used by PAF and Chengdu J-20 used by China are multi-role combat fighter aircraft (MRCA) meaning aircraft intended to perform various day/night roles during combat. China claims JF-17 Thunder is a fourth-generation aircraft and the J-20 is a fifth-generation machine.
The task assigned to these aircraft could be multiple, including air-to-air attack, air-to-surface attack, aerial reconnaissance, interception, suppression of enemy air defence, anti-ship strikes and nuclear deterrence.
Dassault’s Rafale, due to its state-of-the-art technology, has been classified as a 4.5 generation aircraft. It is claimed to be an "omnirole" fighter, a tag that points to the aircraft’s abilities to “go beyond the needs of each type of mission’.
According to the company, “When the Rafale programme was launched, the French Air Force and French Navy published a joint requirement for an omnirole aircraft that would have to replace the seven types of combat aircraft then in operation”.
While Rafale and JF-17 is available in both single-seat and double seat configurations, the Chengdu J-20 only has a single-seat arrangement. According to the deal, India will get 28 single-seat aircraft and eight twin-seaters for training purpose.
Of the three, Chinese J-20 is the heaviest with empty weight of over 19,000 kg and maximum take-off weight of 37,013 kg, according to open source information. The empty weight of Rafale ranges from 9900 kg to 10600 kg depending on the variant and a maximum take-off weight of 24500 kg. JF-17 on the other hand is much lighter, weighing around 6,411kg with maximum take-off weight of 12,474 kg. This means both Rafale and J-20 are capable of carrying more fuel and weapons per flight compared to JF-17.
The 15.30 metre nose-to-tail long Rafale with a wing span of 10.9 metres each and a height of 5.3 meters is sleekest of the three. Compared to it, Chengdu J-20 is quite bulky with 20.3-20.5 metres of length and wingspan of 12.88-13.50 metres. The JF-17 is 14.93 metre long with a wingspan of 9.48 metre and a height of 4.77 meters.
According to Dassault, the maker of Rafale, the aircraft also possesses “close-coupled canards / delta wing configuration”. The wing design, according to the company, makes it far superior and is a key to its combat performance even at “high angle-of-attack”.
While Rafale can attain a maximum speed of Mach 1.8/750 kt (2,222.6 km per hour), the J-20‘s top speed is estimated to be around Mach 2.0 or 2,400 km per hour. JF-17 Thunder can hit a top speed of 1.6 Mach or 1975.68 km/ hour. The service ceiling, important during dogfights and for dodging the surface-to-air defence, of both Rafale and JF-17 fighters are in close range as Rafale can climb up to 50,000 ft, while JF-17 Thunder is enabled with a service ceiling of little over 54,000 ft. The J-20 has a definitive edge here, as it could climb as high as 65,620 feet, according to data published by GlobalSecurity.org.
When it comes to operational range (max distance the aircraft can travel from the operating base) Rafale is far superior to both J-20 and JF-17 Thunder. The French aircraft can fly up to a spectacular range of 3,700 km, which could be further increased by refuelling it mid-air. The other two, according to GlobalSecurity.org, have a maximum ferry range of 2,000 km and 2,037 km respectively. Accordingly, Rafale could cover more of enemy’s area during a pitched contest. Also, despite claims of J-20s being ‘stealth’, radars mounted on Indian SU-30 MKIs have reportedly spotted their movement in the past.
However, being a smart flying machine doesn’t matter much if it isn’t backed by equally smart weaponry and radar system. As per military experts, the Rafale can carry some of the most advanced weapons available on the planet, including MICA air-to-air “Beyond Visual Range” (BVR) interception, combat and self-defense missiles. The METEOR very long-range air-to-air missile on board would be a game changer of sort in the South-Asian skies. These missiles would not let enemy aircraft come near the machine or cross its path.
Another addition is the SCALP long-range air-to-land missile, which is a deadly deep strike weapon. Beside these, Rafale could integrate the AM39 EXOCET anti-ship missile, non-guided as well as laser-guided bombs with different warheads from 500lbs to 2,000 lbs.
Dassault also claims that Rafale has best of its class “Active Electronically Scanned Array” radar system. It further says that the “Rafale is the first operational – and so far, the only – European combat aircraft to use an electronic scanning radar”. Compared to mechanical scanning radars with conventional antennas, electronic radars are more effective in detection and could track multiple targets simultaneously.
Also, with more than 30,000 flight hours in operations, Rafale has proven its worth in combat in Afghanistan, Libya, Mali, Iraq and Syria. On the other hand, both JF-17 and Chengdu J-20 are yet to be tested in battles or war-like situations.
The Rate of Climb is another critical factor in testing aircraft’s agility during dogfight. While Rafale, according to reports, could climb around 60,000 feet per minute, the Chendu J-20 can climb at the rate of 304m/s or 59842.52 feet per minute, as per airforce-technology.com. The JF-17 Thunder is slightly behind the both with a climb rate of 59,000 feet per minute.