The contested airspace of South Asia: How good are the newcomers?

Air Power Asia, Rishav, South Asia, Aircraft, Air Power,

The war clouds forming over India and Pakistan are always a hot topic of discussion on various forums at the global level. Since the very inception of the two nations in the year 1947, the phenomenon of an arms race in South Asia always remained centric to these two states. Back in the phase of the Cold War, the top-notch types of equipment that were produced on both sides of the Iron Curtain always managed to find their place in this part of the globe as well. This is most true in the field of Air Force which was filled with renowned solutions of air combat. It is noteworthy to realize that during the same period, the subcontinent arena saw two major conflicts, and Soviet aircraft designed by French, British, American, Chinese, and Soviets respectively were fielded on the frontlines and battle-tested up to their limits.

While in the past, it was generally each nation had its favourable partner, India with the Soviet Union and Pakistan with the United States, the modern-day weapon acquisitions by both nations are now promoted at a grand level, with manufacturers from both West and East entering the competition to secure an order for their products, some of them generally advertised as their “flagship”. We are going to take a look at similar procurements of three jets which are backed by similar large-scale promotion and often asserted as “gamechanger” due to their ability to “turn the table” or the status quo established in terms of airpower strength and deterrence. We are going to analyze how well these newcomers, JF-17 Block III, J-10CE, and Rafale F3R offer their owners the lot and versatility that they seek.

Rafale F3R(I): the French Falcon that dominates

The flagship of Dassault Aviation, Rafale came out on top after competing with some of the most excellent and battle-proven fighters produced by renowned aerospace giants on earth. The 36 fighters were distributed among two squadrons of the Indian Air Force, which are No.17 “Golden Arrows” and No.101 “Falcons”, are no less than an attraction for not just spotters but analysts around the world as well. The twin-engine canard delta-wing aircraft, in one line, is an “Omni-role” fighter, that can be summarised in the form of capability that allows the Air Force to deploy the aircraft for multiple mission profiles in the same sortie. This is not often advisable considering it requires compatibility of the mission computer onboard the aircraft to be optimized as per the flexible mission demands, that is from switching to between roles of air-to-air, air-to-ground, anti-ship, or more. Though not referenced much often on mainstream, this capability is best defined with the term “swing-role”.

Rafale Picture Credit: Vincent Vannier/Phoenix Aviation

The composite airframe that is coated with a sufficient amount of Radar Absorbent Material, packs within itself a state-of-the-art avionics suite. The aircraft carries Thales RBE-2AA Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar. As per Deagel, the system can detect airborne targets with 1-meter square Radar Cross Section (RCS) at 130 km. Standard fighter aircraft of the fourth generation or lower with standard weapons stores always exceed 3-meter square RCS making them vulnerable to RBE-2AA, as they are likely to be tracked within a 160 km envelope. When radar is best used when cued with MBDA Meteor. The air-to-air missile is powered by a Solid Fuel Ducted Ramjet Engine (SFDR) engine that is known for utilizing some of the most lethal tactics to hit its respective target. Ramjet is different from conventional rocket motors in the tactics where it utilizes controlled thrust that can be triggered mid-flight as well as in terminal phase (when missile’s own seeker turns active or locks on the target), that gives enough speed to prohibit the hostile to take evasive actions, especially when it under the envelope of No-Escape Zone of Meteor, that is where it has max inertia and speed to catch its target.

To ensure that aircraft must not rely on the primary radar for combat, the Front Sector Optronics (FSO) integrated just ahead the canopy offers a great solution to target detection and identification in the IR spectrum, which makes it invulnerable to radar jamming. The pilot can keep track of the targets with high-resolution imagery on one of its Multi-Functional Display (MFD), and also engage the target with CCM. The close combat capability of the fighter deserves recognition as well. The short-to-medium range MICA EM (Active Radar Homing) and MICA IR (Imaging InfraRed homing) missiles, when coupled with pilots’ Display And Sight Helmet (DASH) offer great angles-of-attack in slow-speed dogfights, and matches with the great maneuverability, supported by canard delta wing design and high thrust-to-Weight ratio (T/W).

It would be unfair if we miss Rafale’s most lucrative highlight, its full-package Countermeasures suite SPECTRA. Standing for Self-Protection Equipment Countering Threats to Rafale Aircraft, the system is designed to greatly enhance the aircraft’s survivability in all-weather combat scenarios. The framework includes 14 systems placed internally and externally on the airframe and offers the primary elements of the suite includes a Radar Warning Receiver (RWR), Missile Approach Warning System (MAWS), Flares, and Chaff dispenser, and Laser Warning Receiver (LWR). All these systems, when working in co-operations situational awareness to the operator against threats. An additional system, that is provisional, is the X-Guard towed decoy system, produced by Israeli firm Rafael. When installed on a pylon underwing, the system, when retracted, lures incoming radar homing missiles toward itself, protecting the aircraft.

The air-to-ground offensive package is yet another “lucrative” feature. A wide variety of weapons are offered in a Rafale package and each specializes in its job with great efficiency. Starting with AASM “Hammer”, which is the primary Precision Guided Munition (PGM) and utilizes guidance methods like GPS/INS, IIR, or laser (varies as per the variant) to reach targets at ranges within 50 kilometers. Then there’s SCALP EG or “Storm Shadow”, a subsonic Air Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM) with terrain hugging capacity to precisely hit fortifications, radar systems, or similar strategic sites at 250 kilometers.

Please note all these systems are embedded in the Indian Air Force’s Rafale package and all this is what makes the adversaries think of an effective solution to prevent the tilt of dominance on India.

JF-17 Block III and J-10C: An attempt to restore the balance?

The news of J-10C procurement by the Pakistan Air Force was indeed all of a sudden, though not a very big surprise a lot of rumors and speculations were already revolving on various forums about the process of evaluations. Pakistan was in fact in the first line of potential customers for J-10 back when it was involved in the evolution of J-10A aircraft. However, the several shortcomings in the fighter, both in terms of performance parameters and combat potential didn’t offer much scope for its export and it was never seriously pitched in the global market. As the platform matured with enhanced airframe and combat specs, it turned out to be an ideal choice to be called a capable lightweight fighter aircraft, in the category where American F-16 “Fighting Falcon” and French Mirage 2000 also stands. But now with Pakistan as its first export customer, China is surely looking to attain its rank as one of the leading exporters of military aircraft, something that it had at the time when jets like A/Q-5 ‘Fantan”, F/J-6, F/J-7 or similar were sold in bulk to various Asian and African states.

J-10 Picture Credit: China Military

Produced by one of the leading aerospace giants based in China, Chengdu FC-20CE or J-10CE, is an export-oriented variant. The aircraft is multi-role in nature and offers significant solutions for multiple missions against aerial and ground threats. It is fitted with an AESA radar that offers high scanning ranges that are estimated at around 170-180 km for 5m2 RCS airborne targets. The aircraft will boast PL-15E as its primary BVRAAM solution. With a max operational range of up to 145 kilometers, the missile can neutralize fighter size targets at ranges of 100-120 kilometers. Another clear factor to speculate its precision is the integrated AESA seeker that offers high Electronic Counter-Counter Measures (ECCM) capability mid-flight. The aircraft has an InfraRed Search and Track (IRST) as well, which when with its PL-10 IIR missile with High Off BoreSight (HOBS) engagement ability, makes it a dangerous machine in close combat.

JF-17. Picture Credit: Rabbit

JF-17 and its latest Block III iteration come with big enhancements over the previous variants. The old pulse doppler radar is now replaced with NRIET’s KLJ-7A(v)2 AESA radar, which, as per the estimates mentioned in the official brochure, can offer 170 kilometers of detection range against 5m2 RCS aircraft. It will utilize the same PL-15E and find itself with great capability to intercept hostiles at medium ranges.

Both the jets are likely to use Chinese KG-600/700 Self-Protection jammers, which specialize in protecting the aircraft from threats like hostile radars and missiles, operating in X-band and Ku-band frequency respectively.

In air-to-ground offense, the jet utilizes all the standard-issue Precision Guided Munitions, including the smart bombs already in service with PAF. However, RAAD Air Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM) is stated to be tested soon with the platform, offering another great solution for standoff strikes. CM-400AKG Anti-Ship missile is the highlight of JF-17’s excellent anti-ship capability offering targeting against hostile ships within 180-250 kilometres by utilising a quasi-ballistic flight trajectory, in which when launched, the missile initially gains altitude and then hits the target with a high-speed dive.

Overall, both the jets offer similar capabilities in terms of air-to-air combat, and one is not the replacement of the other but in fact, both are going to complement each other in future PAF missions. The acquisition of J-10CE also indicates that PAF wants to reduce its dependency on US-origin F-16AM/BM/C/D/ADF which suffer major operational limitations, like the incapability to link with Airborne Early Warning & Control (AEW&C) aircraft or other systems in service with Pakistan Air Force as they use Link-17 as their standard datalink while F-16 operates with NATO standard Link-16. The Chinese counterpart offers slightly better capabilities than the American “Fighting Falcon”.

Excellent, but not Invincible

While there is already enough available document evidence on performance specifications and assumed ratio of success of the particular system, it is still equally important to look at some limitations of the “gamechanger” systems as well. The Meteor missile, for instance, can attain great kill probability at long ranges, it may be ineffective in short-range combat as compared to conventional rocket motor-equipped radar-guided missiles. The intakes placed on the port and starboard side of the fuselage increase the drag in flight and do not provide enough maneuverability in high angles of attack. This is the reason why during sorties, the aircraft also carries MICA EM, which is a rocket motor-equipped radar-guided missile and most advisable to be deployed in short to medium range engagements.

PL-15, in another case, though has better fuel capacity, still uses dual pulse rocket motors that are triggered in the boost phase to provide the missile a great speed. It has generally larger No Escape Zone (NEZ) than single pulsed motors, it is still not as big as Meteor’s, which has officially the largest NEZ in the league of air-to-air missiles.

Then comes the range factor. Is the figure rigid and performance remain the same in every situation? The answer is No. The missile also needs desired firing parameters before launch to achieve the desired objective of the kill. When fired on a highly maneuverable target beyond its max effective range, it may not assure the kill due to the fact that it may lose all its speed and inertia in mid-course. Also, when fired from a low altitude to a high altitude, the effect of air drag may cause a great loss of energy that gives a low ability to maneuver and gain the solution to target the foe.

Then we come to radars and that of J-10CE. There is no clear information on the actual specs of the system, along with the name. And that is where the actual strength or weakness of Chinese weapons exists. However, the worse problems will be with JF-17 which is fitted with KLJ-7A. Though carrying 1000+ Transmitter Receiver Modules (TRMs, the number of which is directly performance to the output of radar), it may not achieve the peak performance or even if it does somehow, may not able to continue it for the long term due to the use of an air-cooled system and that too powered by only a single-engine RD-93 turbofan engine, that is generally designed for the low-cost fighter accommodating standard level of avionics suite instead of high-power components. However, even with optimal performance, the aircraft can track multiple airborne hostiles at an estimated range of 130-140 kilometers. Then the RCS factor, most of the radar ranges are advertised by taking 5m2 RCS targets as standard. Rafale’s RCS is speculated ≤1m2. So though 170 detection range turns out real for JF-17, tracking Rafale may not be possible beyond 100-110 km, offering Rafale the opportunity of “First Shoot First Kill”.

Combat experience matters as well to gain the confidence of the user as well judge the reliability of the machine. Rafale has participated in combat missions over Libya, Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq. All these conflict-ridden regions had contested airspace, as well as threats from ground-based anti-air weaponry, were also eminent. Still, the missions were carried out successfully. J-10CE is yet to see its participation in the fires of war, which means it is yet to be the first shot and experience of battle stress.

The Truth of Air Battle

Even though we come across arguments every day on how one jet has superior capabilities over the other jet, either in the same class or different, it is highly necessary to acknowledge that modern-day air combat is not very likely to happen as 1v1 showdowns. Planning related to any mission that will be carried out by Pakistan Air Force or Indian Air Force will be affected by factors like hostile air defense, target location, and weapons availability. Support assets, like an early warning and cover, do play an important role in deciding the winning factor as well.

One Rafale aircraft will never enter Pakistan’s airspace to commence a strike or fighter sweep but will be complemented by other assets as well. Like a strike mission where air cover will be provided by Su-30MKI or MiG-29UPG, will be networked with Phalcon or Netra AEW&C, and will involve tactics necessary to evade detection by Pakistan’s radar and SAM systems like HQ-9. The same will be the case when J-10C formation comes on a strike, and will receive air support from JF-17, networked with Erieye or ZDK-03 AEW&CS, and will make sure to prevent getting painted by Indian radar and SAM batteries.

Overall, both JF-17 and J-10 reflect the excellence of Chinese aerospace engineering that has come a long way from simple license production to a matured ecosystem involving the successful execution of research and development. They incorporate the technologies that the modern-day fighting force demands and seeks to employ. However, the fact remains that their standalone comparison viz-a-viz highly successful and proven system like Dassault Rafale does not offer them an advantage. However, the quantitative advantage does favor the duo in Pakistan for which the Indian Air Force needs to field a better state of planning in case of full-scale or long-term war that often witnesses confrontations with combat systems fielded in large numbers. Rafale, which is only 36 in number needs to be more strategically utilized than the bulk of JF-17 and J-10CE which will be employed in higher quantities due to their availability in PAF inventory.

Therefore, while Rafale does hold a significant edge over the contemporaries in the west, the actual prediction of aerial battle should not be based on specifications we refer from data sheets but in fact from actual combat, where the aircraft with higher experience controlling the stick and operate with precise situational awareness most likely to come out as the winner!

About the Author: Rishav is a student of Journalism. Twitter ID link: @_devildog_rv_. The views expressed are the author’s own.

The Header Image has been created by the author himself.

Published by Anil Chopra

I am the founder of Air Power Asia and a retired Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force.

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