The PAF had acquired the F-16 Fighting Falcons a couple of years before. This time around, with the induction of the Rafale, does the IAF need more than a catchy tag line to keep the PLAAF at bay?
By Wing Commander Amit Ranjan Giri
“The balance rests on us”–this was the catchphrase of the IAF when the first MiG 29 thundered down and took to the skies in Pune, in the mid-eighties, heralding the parity in new generation fighter jets between the PAF and IAF. The PAF had acquired the F-16 Fighting Falcons a couple of years before. This time around, with the induction of the Rafale, does the IAF need more than a catchy tag line to keep the PLAAF at bay?
As Group Captain Harkirat and his boys land the latest fighting machines at Ambala, five in all, two twins seaters (RB series) and three single-seaters (BS series), they propel the IAF to another level of air fighting capability, one which would enhance itself with the acquisition of all 36 Rafales and associated weaponry in the near future. An interesting trivia about IAF fighters is that, Russian fighters generally come in huge crates and are assembled in India whereas most ‘western’ fighters are flown in, from the OEM country. This, by no means, indicates that the incoming Rafales would be able to take on the enemy immediately, it would take the IAF a little time before these jets are operationalised with a plethora of weaponry, the earlier the better.
How does the Rafale fare against the Chinese fighters?
The Rafales’ main contender in the PLAAF would be the Chengdu J-20 and if produced and operationalised the Shenyang J-31, both are highly rated by the Chinese media and pitched as fifth-generation stealth fighters against the Rafales’ 4.5 generation lineage. That having been said, the Chinese fighters’ capabilities are only on paper, much of them are yet to be demonstrated or proven. True, the Rafale lacks stealth but is built around the low RCS philosophy whereas, though the J-20 proclaims itself as a proponent of stealth the ‘canards’ in front and additional external hardpoints for extra fuel tanks would shatter much of its claims in this department. Just to clear the air around stealth – absolute all aspect stealth is a myth, at least as of now. Aeroplanes claiming stealth are actually low observables depending on their aspect – the way they look to the enemy sensors- never invisible from all direction. The IAF has been known to pick up Chinese J-20s on their Su 30 radars earlier.
Engine, weapons and avionics: who gets the better score?
With limited internal capacity of weapons and no ‘supercruise’ capability as yet, the Chinese contenders do have a lot to live up to. The Rafale, in this aspect, delivers what it promises – low RCS, excellent weapon carriage capability – albeit external and supercruise – the ability to go supersonic without afterburners. When it comes to avionics, all three aircraft would pitch ‘neck to neck’. All boast of one of the most advanced radars – the Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) and all three have equivalent avionics suites onboard. However, it is yet to be seen if the Chinese have been able to integrate these technologies to match, compute and present the desired data – a capability which leapfrogs an aircraft to the next level. The Rafale’s SPECTRA defensive aids system is a classic example of this – processing and amalgamating information from various sensors to safeguard the aircraft.
The SCALP and Meteor are some of the goodies in the Rafale package for the IAF. Whilst the former is a ground attack precision weapon, the latter, is one of the best BeyondVisualRange (BVR) air to air missiles available at present. The J-20 in comparison carries the PL series of missiles with the PL 15 matching up with the Meteor in terms of range. As per the last reports, the PL 21 with enhanced range was yet to be operationalised.
Pedigree versus Pariah, who wins?
The Rafale comes from an ancestry of well-known fighters which Dassault has produced and earned their place in the annals of history. If western intelligence reports are to be believed the Chinese fighters have been an attempted copy of the F 22 Raptor and the F 35 Lightning, curtsy hackers who had managed to steal substantial amount of data from the US servers.
Apart from the privileged pedigree the Rafale is also combat-proven – Libya, Iraq and Syria were all contemporary conflicts wherein the French fighter has been able to earn a name for itself. The Chinese fighters, in contrast, are yet to be proven in battle, as far as the J-31 goes there are doubts if the machine has gone beyond the prototype stage as yet. The J-20, on the other hand, does enjoy an edge over its single-engined cousin, it has entered the production stage and rumours of about one squadron of this type with PLAAF has surfaced in the intelligence circle.
All the above being said it needs to be appreciated that no comparison of fighting machines can be justified with data on paper – a lot goes in exploiting platforms during the war and a major portion of the winning effort comes from other non-tangible factors – the side which exploits the entire spectrum generally lands up on the victorious side.
(The author is Indian Air Force Veteran. Views expressed are personal.)