By Michael Peck | Forbes
ON THE WEB, 2 August 2020
In the wake of border clashes between India and China, the Indian Air Force has received powerful reinforcements.
Five French-made Rafale fighters have arrived in India, the first of 36 jets that will boost Indian airpower should minor border clashes with China escalate into more serious hostilities.
Not surprisingly, the first Rafales will be deployed at the Ambala airbase in northern India. Ambala is about 300 miles from the Indian territory of Ladakh, where dozens of Indian and Chinese soldiers died in June after clashes over a border zone claimed by both nations. The Rafales will be a welcome addition to the less advanced Indian Navy MiG-29Ks that already have been deployed to the region.
The Dassault Rafale is a delta-wing, single-seat, twin-engine fighter already used by the French Navy and Air Force, as well as Egypt and Qatar. The 10-ton Rafale is considered a 4.5-generation fighter that is somewhat stealthy, though less so than the fifth-generation US F-35. On the other hand, it is far more maneuverable in a close-range dogfight than an F-35.
The Rafale can also shoot down Chinese aircraft at long range using the deadly Meteor, a ramjet-powered, radar-guided, beyond visual range (BVR) air-to-air missile with an estimated range of more than 50 miles. The Rafale’s formidable arsenal also includes also carries the Scalp standoff air-to-ground missile, plus an advanced Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar and a Spectra jamming system. The Rafale can also “supercruise,” meaning it can fly at supersonic speed without devouring huge amounts of fuel.
How do India’s Rafales compare to potential Chinese adversaries? The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) has deployed 24 J-11 or J-16 fighters at Hotan airbase in China’s Xinjiang region, near Ladakh. The 16-ton J-11 is a Chinese copy of Russia’s Cold War Su-27 Flanker fighter, while the J-16 is a 20-ton version of the Su-30MKK. Both are larger, heavier and longer-ranged than the Rafale, and really more comparable in performance – and appearance – to the American F-15 Eagle and F-15E Strike Eagle (the Rafale somewhat resembles the nimble US F-16).
In addition, there is always the possibility that China will deploy the new J-20, a stealth fighter that China’s answer to the American F-35 and Russia’s Su-57. Despite the hype over its stealth features, exactly what the J-20 is capable of remains to be seen. Indian media claims the Rafale is superior to any Chinese fighter, pointing to issues such as unreliable Chinese aircraft engines.
“Rafale is far superior to the J-20, the Chengdu fighter of China,” a former Indian Air Force commander told Indian media. “Even though it’s marketed as a fifth-generation jet, it [the J-20] is probably at best a 3.5- generation aircraft. It’s got a third-generation engine as we have in the Sukhoi [India’s Russian-made Su-30MKI].”
So which fighter is technically best? The answer is that it probably doesn’t matter. Both sides are fielding very capable aircraft with advanced sensors and missiles. Given that China and India are both nuclear-armed nations, any clash between rival aircraft would likely be small and carefully controlled to avoid escalation. In that kind of situation, which fighter emerges victorious in air combat may depend less on maneuverability and stealth, and more on factors such as pilot quality, the presence of ground-based air defence radars, anti-aircraft missiles, command and control networks, and the availability of aerial refueling aircraft.
Either way, deploying just five Rafales to Ladakh is more symbolic than substantive. It will send a message to China, Arzan Tarapore, a non-resident fellow at the US-based National Institute of Asian Research thinktank, tells me. “In addition to sending a signal of resolve, India is keen to build up an operational Rafale force over the course of this lengthy crisis. This gives it options. Should the crisis take a turn for the worse several months from now, say next summer, India will have spent the intervening time wisely to build up its capabilities.”