he first batch of five French Rafale fighter jets, out of the total 36 purchased by India in a multi-billion dollar deal, is set to land in Ambala on Wednesday. The timing of their arrival couldn’t be more critical given that India is locked in a tense standoff with China in several areas along the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
Added to the Chinese threat is a very real possibility of Pakistan simultaneously opening another front against India, thereby pulling India into a two-front war.
Military aviation experts say Rafale’s addition to India’s fighter fleet would significantly enhance the Air Force’s overall operational capability to counter the Chinese threat, and it would also provide effective deterrence against Pakistani aggression.
Rafale’s induction will change the technological imbalance India had in air vis-à-vis Pakistan’s US-supplied F16 aircrafts with superior radar and missile system as well as China-supplied Chengdu JF-17, which is at the centre of Pakistani Air Force’s fleet modernisation plans.
So how does Dassault-made Rafale fare against the China-made JF-17 fighter jets used by the Pakistan’s Air Force? And what would be the outcome of any encounter between Rafale and ‘stealth’ Chengdu J-20s that is used by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force.
The comparison becomes all the more important because IAF fighters are most likely to encounter these machines in the sky in case there is a full-blown confrontation.
Let us begin by comparing the basics first. Both Chinese JF-17 currently used by PAF and Chengdu J-20 used by China are multi-role combat fighter aircraft (MRCA) meaning aircraft intended to perform various day/night roles during combat. China claims JF-17 Thunder is a fourth-generation aircraft and the J-20 is a fifth-generation machine.
The task assigned to these aircraft could be multiple, including air-to-air attack, air-to-surface attack, aerial reconnaissance, interception, suppression of enemy air defence, anti-ship strikes and nuclear deterrence.
Dassault’s Rafale, due to its state-of-the-art technology, has been classified as a 4.5 generation aircraft. It is claimed to be an “omnirole” fighter, a tag that points to the aircraft’s abilities to “go beyond the needs of each type of mission’.
According to the company, “When the Rafale programme was launched, the French Air Force and French Navy published a joint requirement for an omnirole aircraft that would have to replace the seven types of combat aircraft then in operation”.
While Rafale and JF-17 is available in both single-seat and double seat configurations, the Chengdu J-20 only has a single-seat arrangement. According to the deal, India will get 28 single-seat aircraft and eight twin-seaters for training purpose.
Of the three, Chinese J-20 is the heaviest with empty weight of over 19,000 kg and maximum take-off weight of 37,013 kg, according to open source information. The empty weight of Rafale ranges from 9900 kg to 10600 kg depending on the variant and a maximum take-off weight of 24500 kg. JF-17 on the other hand is much lighter, weighing around 6,411kg with maximum take-off weight of 12,474 kg. This means both Rafale and J-20 are capable of carrying more fuel and weapons per flight compared to JF-17.