China’s J-11B vs. India’s Rafale: Why J-11 wouldn’t pose any serious threat to Indian Airforce
China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force has operated the J-11B fourth generation heavyweight air superiority fighter since the mid 1990s, a platform based on the Soviet Su-27 Flanker but boasting improved avionics, sensors and electronic warfare systems and greater use of modern composite materials for a reduced weight. The fighter currently forms the mainstay of the PLA air fleet with several hundred in service, and has been modernised to deploy new electronic warfare systems and more modern munitions such as the PL-15 air to air missile. While its capabilities have since been eclipsed by more modern heavyweights fighters such as the J-16 and J-20, the J-11B still compares favourably to leading Western and Russian platforms such as the F-15C Eagle and Su-27M Flanker and provides the PLA with a robust backbone for its fleet. The latest and most capable variant of the fighter, the J-11BG, benefits from integration of ‘4+ generation’ systems including a large AESA radar derived from that of the J-16, state of the art electronic warfare systems and cockpit displays and access to the PL-15 as its primary long range air to air missile.
While relations between China and India have remained positive overall, and prospects for the outbreak of open hostilities are slim, India has long predicated its defence acquisitions in the Air Force in particular on its need to balance the power of its northern neighbour. The Indian Air Force has relied heavily on the Su-30MKI since the early 2000s, an advanced ‘4+ generation’ twin seat variant of the Flanker design which compares favourable with other heavyweights such as the F-15 and Su-27. More recently however, India has placed an order for 36 French Rafale ‘4+ generation’ platforms – lighter jets which boast a number of advanced capabilities particularly in the field of electronic warfare. With these aircraft marked for a frontline deployment, and further orders remaining a possibility, the aircraft will be relied on to engage advanced Chinese fighters such as the J-16 in the event of a cross border conflict. While the Rafale’s ability to engage state of the art heavyweight designs such as the Su-30MKI and J-16 remains highly questionable, a comparison of its capabilities to the older Chinese J-11B could yield a far more even match – the Rafale being a more modern jet and the latter a heavier one developed under a more ambitious program.
While the J-11B’s sensors are considerably more sophisticated than those on the original Su-27 fighter, the aircraft’s radar signature and immunity from jamming remain considerably inferior to those of the most modern Rafale variants which are equipped with newer AESA radars. The time needed for the Rafale to scan its surroundings is also considerably shorter relative to the J-11B. Although the Rafale’s radar is more sophisticated however, the J-11B partially compensates for this with the sheer size of its own radar which will give it a comparable range for tracking enemy targets. While precise details remain unknown, both radars are thought to be capable of simultaneously tracking similar numbers of fighters at comparable ranges of around 280km – although the Rafale retains a slight advantage. Against the J-11BG however, which benefits from similar AESA radar technologies but deploys a radar over 50% heavier, the Chinese fighter will retain a massive situational awareness advantage and will be able to detect fighter sized targets over 450km away. The Rafale can partly offset this disadvantage in situational awareness due to its lower radar cross section, although the French jet’s stealth capabilities still remain very limited and are unlikely to compensate for the power of the J-11BG’s sensors.
Assessing the two fighters’ flight performances, the J-11B benefits from a number of significant advantages due to its heavyweight airframe design for air superiority. The fighter’s speed of Mach 2.25, 20km altitude ceiling and high manoeuvrability all compare favourably to the Rafale, which is restricted to speeds of Mach 1.8, a much lower 15km altitude ceiling, and is far less manoeuvrable with considerably weaker engines. The J-11’s engines between them put out approximately 290kN of thrust between them, while those of the Rafale put out only 100kN – giving the J-11 an overwhelming advantage despite its greater weight. High manoeuvrability provides clear advantages in visual range combat, but is also vital to evading attacks from long range air to air missiles. A higher speed and altitude are key assets for beyond visual range engagements as well, allowing the J-11B to provide air to air missiles with considerably more kinetic energy upon launch which increases their range and lethality. The slower and lower flying Rafale will be unable to match this, and will require less energy to target giving missiles a higher chance of scoring a kill.
In terms of endurance the J-11B is again at an advantage, and with a comparable weapons load on each fighter it can exceed the Rafale’s range by over 30% – or carry a much larger weapons load over the same distance. While the Rafale has enough hardpoints to carry a very large missile payload, as a smaller and lighter jet with a lower fuel capacity and much weaker engines these will comprise its range far more than weapons of a similar weight would for the J-11B. This allows the J-11 to penetrate far deeper behind enemy lines and to loiter in a way the Rafale cannot match.
The most significant advantage of the Rafale, indeed its only major advantage, is more modern electronic warfare suite – allowing it to better evade detection at range, jam enemy radars and neutralise attacks from enemy missiles. While the electronic warfare systems of the baseline J-11B were formidable for their time, the original electronic warfare systems are today out of date. This issue does not affect newer and more capable variants of the J-11 such as the J-11BG however, which are thought to benefit from the latest improvements in Chinese electronic warfare technology. Developed to engage far more capable jets than the Rafale, such as the F-35A deployed by the United States and Japan which is well known for its world leading electronic warfare capabilities, electronic warfare systems on modern Chinese fighters such as the J-11BG have reportedly reached a very high standard. With a greater capacity for electronic warfare systems, and with Chinese investments in these technologies dwarfing those of France, the J-11BG is at the very least expected to have parity in electronic warfare with the Rafale – and quite possibly a significant advantage.
Looking at the classes of air to air missile both aircraft have access to, the J-11 is for the time being at an advantage. With a range of just 80km significant performance limitations compared to its latest American, Russian and Chinese counterparts, the French MICA missiles currently relied on by the Rafale fall short of parity with the PL-12 and R-77 missile deployed by older J-11 variants. These missiles represent much newer designs, and have ranges of 100km and 110km respectively. For more advanced J-11 variants, the missile advantage is overwhelming with the fighters retaining access to the PL-15 with a 300km range, very high manoeuvrability and the latest electronic warfare countermeasures.
While most of the Rafale’s disadvantages relative to advanced J-11 variants pertain to its low powered and small airframe, including underpowered engines, limited endurance and manoeuvrability and a much smaller radar capacity, its disadvantage in the field of air to air missiles is set to be circumvented in the near future as the aircraft begins to integrate the Meteor missile. Developed as part of a joint European program, the Meteor has a range of approximately 300km and high manoeuvrability allowing it to match the PL-15’s range. Frontline French Rafale fighters are only just beginning to receive the Meteor however, and Indian aircraft may not receive the missiles form some years – by which time the PL-15 may have been replaced as the most capable air to air missile in the Chinese arsenal. The Russian Air Force currently deploys the R-37M, which is considerably faster and has a longer range than the Meteor, and should China acquire or develop similar technologies they are likely to improve the firepower of advanced J-11 variants in service. The J-11BG’s larger and more powerful sensor suite provides a greater potential to guide missiles at extreme ranges.
Ultimately India’s decision to purchase the Rafale has been widely slammed as a political one, and at 350% the cost of the Russian Su-35 and 150% the cost of the American F-35 the fighter is very far from cost effective – moreso when considering its very limited combat capabilities compared to high end Russian, American and Chinese fighters. While the Rafale retains some advantages over older J-11 variants, as China moves to upgrade more of its heavyweight fighter fleet with ‘4+ generation’ technologies the French design will not only fail to provide India with an advantage in the air – but will leave Indian fighter squadrons at a significant disadvantage with its capabilities outmatched across the spectrum.
Source:- Military Magazine