India’s Rafale Vs China’s J-20: Which is the Better Fighter Plane?

The Indian Air Force inducted the Rafale fighter planes on 10 September.

6 min read

(This story has been republished from The Quint’s archives as the Rafale jets get inducted into the Indian Air Force on 10 September. This story was first published on 29 July 2020)

Video Editor: Rahul Sanpui and Vishal Kumar

The Indian Air Force inducted its first batch of Dassault Rafale fighter planes on 10 September. Following their induction into the 17th squadron, the Rafale will be one of the IAF's most advanced aircraft in its fighter fleet.

In the context of the recent troop and fighter plane deployment along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), here is a comparison of the Rafale with its equivalent in the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF).

PLAAF operates a range of fighter planes, including Sukhoi SU-27, SU-30MKK and SU-35S, Chengdu J-7 and Chengdu J-10. But since Rafale is one of the most technologically advanced aircraft of the IAF, it is only fair to compare it with the Chengdu J-20, China's most advanced fighter aircraft.

The Indian Air Force inducted the Rafale fighter planes on 10 September.
Chengdu J-20
(Photo: Wikipedia)

Rafale Vs J-20 - The Specs Sheet

The Dassault Rafale is a French twin-engine, canard delta wing, multi-role fighter aircraft and considered to be in the 4.5 generation category. The J-20 is a single-seat, twin-jet, all-weather, stealth, 5th generation fighter aircraft developed by China’s Chengdu Aerospace Corporation.

Here is a look at the specifications of the two fighter planes.

The Indian Air Force inducted the Rafale fighter planes on 10 September.
The Indian Air Force inducted the Rafale fighter planes on 10 September.

Rafale Vs J-20 - Radar & Avionics

Radar systems are used to detect enemy aircraft or any other targets. China has not provided any official information on the radar used in the J-20. However, according to reports, this fighter plane uses an Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA). The same radar system is used by the Rafale as well. AESA is considered one of the most advanced radar technologies in the world.

The Indian Air Force inducted the Rafale fighter planes on 10 September.
Defense Minister Rajnath Singh put some flowers as a ritual gesture on a Rafale jet fighter during an handover cermony at the Dassault Aviation plant in Merignac, near Bordeaux, southwestern France, on 8 October.
(Photo: PTI)

Does that mean that they have equal capabilities? Not really. How the radar system is optimised using different avionics and technologies makes all the difference.

One of the key technological features on the Rafale is its electronic warfare suite – SPECTRA.

SPECTRA protects the aircraft against airborne and ground threats. Various methods of detection, jamming, decoying and a highly re-programmable system capable of analysing threats better, makes it extremely difficult to detect and shoot down a Rafale.

Reportedly, the Rafale’s radar and SPECTRA system make up around 30 percent of the plane’s cost. 

On the other hand, the J-20’s AESA radar comes with a chin-mounted infrared/electro-optic search and track sensor. The Chinese also claim that a passive electro-optical detection system in the J-20 gives its pilot 360-degree coverage of the battlefield. We're told that the plane is also capable of accessing real-time data from Chinese military satellites.


Rafale Vs J-20: Firepower

Since both aircraft are air superiority, multi-role fighters, they are capable of undertaking air-to-air combat, ground support, in-depth strike, anti-ship strike and nuclear deterrence missions. And they come with an array of weapons to help them perform each of these tasks.

The SCALP and Meteor are the two major weapons systems the IAF will be acquiring along with the Rafale.

SCALP is a ground attack precision weapon, while Meteor is a Beyond Visual Range (BVR) air-to-air missile.

The Indian Air Force inducted the Rafale fighter planes on 10 September.
Meteor, Beyond Visual Range (BVR) air to air missile.
(Photo Courtesy: MBDA Missle Systems)

The Chinese J-20's equivalent of the Rafale's Meteor is the PL-15 missile, which according to a report published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in early 2018 ‘would be the most capable air-to-air missile in the PLAAF inventory.’

In case of aerial combat, both aircraft likely to use their BVR missiles. Here is a comparison of the missiles. 
The Indian Air Force inducted the Rafale fighter planes on 10 September.

However, there is a key difference between these two missiles. The PL-15 missile was developed to shoot large aircraft like mid-air refuelers or Airborne Warning And Control System (AWACS). But Meteor is capable of targeting even smaller targets like Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAVs) or cruise missiles.


J-20's Stealth Tech - 5th Gen Edge?

The J-20 is claimed to be a fifth-generation aircraft by the Chinese, which means it has stealth capability. Unlike the common perception that stealth technology makes aircrafts invisible on the radar, in reality, it reduces the radar cross-section on the plane on enemy radar, making it less ‘observable’ to the enemy.

The US had claimed that their F-22 raptor fighter aircraft had the edge over others due to stealth technology. However, during a mock drill in UAE, in 2009, a Rafale had successfully tracked and targeted an F-22 raptor.

The J-20 is allegedly modelled on the F-22 raptor, and the Indian Air Force has claimed that its SU-30MKI fighters have been able to pick up the J-20 on its radar. So, there seem to be some reasonable doubts about the effectiveness of the J-20’s ‘stealth’ tech.

At the same time, the Rafale doesn’t have stealth technology. But it was designed for a reduced radar cross-section and infrared signature. So, when clubbed with its SPECTRA technology, the J-20 is unlikely to have an advantage over the IAF's latest new fighting weapon.


Rafale Vs J-20: Combat Experience

The Indian Air Force inducted the Rafale fighter planes on 10 September.

Here the Rafale has a distinct edge.

The J-20’s capabilities are currently only on paper since this Chinese fighter has not yet seen any combat. But the Rafale, on the other hand, has been deployed in Afganistan, Libya, Mali, Central African Republic, Iraq and Syria, with an incredible track record.

However, when it comes down to an unfortunate event where these aircraft have to meet in combat, it won’t be just these technical parameters that will decide the outcome. The training of the pilots, their level of tactical planning on how to engage with the opposing aircraft, and their immediate and actual response in the stress of actual combat - all these factors will play an equally crucial role in determining the result of the engagement.

Expert’s Take

Air Marshal (Retd) Dhiraj Kukreja, a fighter pilot and former Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Training Command said that whatever capabilities the Chinese claim about the J-20 have to be taken with a pinch of salt. “First of all, it is not super stealth as the Chinese claim it to be since Indian radars have been able to pick them up. Then, they tried to develop an engine, but they could not. They had to go for Russian engines, so the thrust-to-weight ratio is not favourable,” he said.

According to him, one of the biggest advantages India has is the location of its air bases. “The Chinese aircraft will have to take off from bases in Tibet, which are located at a height of 4,000 meters and above. Since the air there is less dense, they can’t carry full fuel and full weapon load. Whereas our fighters can get airborne from airfields located at lower altitudes and they will be able to take off with a full load of weapon, compared to their Chinese counterparts,” he said.

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