In a potential India, China aerial clash over the complex terrain of the Himalayan mountains, experts examine how China could deploy its J-20 stealth jets to counter Indian Rafales and Su-30 MKIs.
China’s J-20 stealth fighter jet has reportedly undergone multiple tests in the Tibetan mountains, where the country’s Daocheng Yading Airport (DCY), the highest-altitude airport in the world, is located.
The fighter jet has been spotted at this airport multiple times, which ensconced in the lap of the highest mountain peaks in the world, would be a perfect place for the aircraft to undergo high-altitude testing.
Challenges For China’s J-20
As a new fifth-generation stealth fighter jet, the J-20 needs to prove its worthiness while operating from plateaus and mountains. The complex terrain of the plateaus and the unpredictable weather at such heights pose unimaginable challenges to any aircraft, and not all of them can sustain such an environment.
The air at higher altitudes is very thin and the fighter aircraft needs air for combustion to take place in the engines to allow the aircraft to fly smoothly.
According to defense expert Ian D’Costa – “Fighters without engines that can function within the envelope of their thrust potential in thinner air above 20,000 to 30,000 feet are already at a severe disadvantage, especially compared to other fighters that can.”
Operations from high-altitude air bases on the Tibetan plateau would mean the J-20 fighters will have lesser room to carry more weapons or fuel, resulting in a constrained combat range.
That’s bad news for China since the PLAAF airbases are situated at longer distances from the contested LAC, which would mean the Chinese fighters will have very little time to target or engage the Indian aircraft.
Moreover, the experts contend that the Chinese stealth fighter has no combat experience and has not taken part in any war. There’s limited public information available about its capabilities, with some of them reportedly exaggerated by the Chinese media.
China’s J-20 Vs India’s Rafale & Su-30MKI
On the contrary, the Indian Rafales have extensive experience in combat roles, and with a service ceiling of 50,000 feet, they can perform exceptionally well at higher altitudes.
In the event of a confrontation with the Indian Air Force, China will likely also employ its Russian Su-35 Multi-role strike fighter, Su-30MKK, domestically developed J-16, J-11, and J-10C fighter jets.
The other jets in the PLAAF inventory – J-7, J-8, and JH-7 – will not be deployed to the frontlines because of range limitations along the LAC.
Former IAF pilot Vijainder K Thakur says that J-20 is a stealthy fighter bomber. And, “Being LO, it will not need to engage with IAF Su-30s or Rafales. It will be able to carry out its missions largely undetected.
J-20 missions will include attacks on IAF radars, AD missiles, locating mobile targets within Indian territory, and relaying their coordinates for stand-off attacks by PLAAF bombers and fighter bombers using cruise missiles.”
He says that in the scenario of visual air-to-air combat, the Chinese J-20 will get clobbered by IAF Su-30s and Rafales, which is precisely the reason why J-20s will never engage the Indian fighter jets.
Instead, they will use their stealth to penetrate Indian airspace and attack targets on Indian territory without fear of interception, he adds.
India-China Aerial Clash
Thakur says that China is likely to deploy its J-20 jets for limited and specialized roles. “For example, shooting down high-value IAF assets such as AWACS and aerial tankers. Considering the limited number of aerial tankers and AEW&CS/AWACS assets in its inventory, the IAF would be greatly disadvantaged by any losses.”
“The PLAAF could also use its J-20 as a penetrating sensor, leveraging its ability to penetrate Indian airspace undetected. As a penetrating sensor, the J-20 would obtain target coordinates for cruise or ballistic missile attacks by other PLA assets.
In case of an uncontrolled escalation, the J-20 could be used to obtain coordinates of mobile strategic missile launchers detected through surveillance satellites.”
He believes the stealth advantage of the J-20 would give it a ‘first see, first shoot’ advantage in BVR combat over all Indian fighters except the Rafale and the Su-30MKI.
However, against the Rafale, which is equipped with low RCS, Spectra self-protection suite with RF cloaking, and Meteor 150-km BVR missile, J-20 will find it hard to defeat the fighter.
The Su-30MKI, too, he writes, “would stand a survival chance against the J-20 jets with its powerful BARS that could alert its pilot to the presence of a J-20, if not provide a weapon-grade track.”
The Su-30MKI, with its super-maneuverability, could outmaneuver a J-20 launched JL-15 air-to-air missile during its end game maneuvering, he adds.
China Uncertain With J-20s?
Rafales possess superior maneuverability than an F-35 in a close-range dogfight and have the ability to fly at supersonic speeds with less fuel usage, making them far more superior than China’s J-10, J-11, and Su-27 fighter jets.
The presence of the ramjet-powered, radar-guided BVR Meteor missile gives Rafale fighters an edge over most of the Chinese fighters. The air-to-air Meteor missile has an estimated range of 120-160 km.
Air Chief Marshal B. S Dhanoa recently said the Chinese Air Force was using the Russian Su-30 and Su-35 fighters while facing the US threat in the South China Sea and not their indigenous fighters.
“The fact is that the Chinese fighters are no match for the American equipment. The majority of Chinese equipment is reverse engineering of Russian equipment and fighters have designs of either Su-27 or Su-30 platforms. They are even powered by Russian AL 31 F (Su-30) and RD 33 (MiG-29) engines,” he added.
When it comes to air combat over the mighty Himalayan terrains, the indigenous Chinese fighter fleets pale in comparison to the Indian fighter arsenal. China has boasted of its indigenous airpower for years now; however, the world is yet to see any of its assets performing in an aerial skirmish anywhere.
On the contrary, India has fought multiple wars, involving frequent dogfights with adversary countries. It has tried and tested its air assets and, consequently, is more aware of its own fighter capabilities, the experts say.
Although China might have more air assets in place, the natural environment across the LAC and the location of airbases and military installations favor the Indian side. China, therefore would be unlikely to get into an aerial skirmish with the Indian Air force and would prefer a traditional border clash.