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Home Opinion & analysis Chengdu J-20: PLA's fifth-generation puzzle

Chengdu J-20: PLA’s fifth-generation puzzle

China has never been shy of flaunting its military prowess. Special military drills and airshows have been a regular feature for the PLA. China often showcases its flagship, all-weather, fifth-generation stealth aircraft; Chengdu J-20. Inducted in the PLA in March 2017, J-20 is the world’s third fifth-generation operational aircraft after F-22 and F-35.

India, on the other hand, has always trusted its Sukhoi-30 MKi fighter aircraft. Heavy, all-weather, and capable of engaging targets over long distances, Su-30MKi has been a great defender of our sovereign borders. Inducted in the Indian Airforce in 2004, Su-30 MKi has gone through various upgrades to make it a formidable force when it comes to air superiority. Its main feature is a capability for autonomous employment, i.e. the execution of interception or ground attack missions, including deep penetration strike missions without targeting information from ground-based control systems.

At first glance, India seems to be fallen behind when it comes to superior stealth capabilities as Chinese J-20 is a fifth-generation aircraft capable of going longer distances without getting detected by enemy radars. Not being detected during an air conflict is a significant advantage for any air force in the world, especially when the two countries share a long border. But is Chinese J-20 really a force to be reckoned with?

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According to the reports which emerged during 2018, India has repeatedly detected Chinese J-20 flying near the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand. Chinese claims of J-20 being stealth aircraft with the latest avionics received a significant setback when its flagship combat aircraft was detected by a previous generation fighter radar. According to former Indian Air Force Chief ACM Birender Singh Dhanoa,” Su-30 radars are good enough to detect J-20 from many kilometres away”. India recently also confirmed that its Su-30 Mki radars are going to be replaced with that of Su-35. NIIP N035 Irbis E (Snow Leopard), a 20 KW class steerable hybrid ESA radar is going to replace the previous radar systems in Su-30 capable of detecting F-35 from a distance of 59 Km. In track mode, the distance drops to 29 Kms.  Harsh Vardhan Thakur, an experimental test pilot said: “When defining pick up and rack ranges for the F-35, the low-observability may have been exaggerated. I think F-35 can be picked up at larger ranges, just as a J-20 can.”

Being detected by a previous generation radar surely put some detent on the reputation of J-20. Many US officials have also blamed China for stealing the data regarding F-35 and reverse-engineering the same for Chinese J-20. One must also consider that China has never used J-20 in a battle scenario as Chinese Airforce has never witnessed as a war-like situation making it harder to understand and analyze the capabilities of J-20 in a conflict. 

India, on the other hand, has upgraded its avionics and radars continuously to keep its fighter planes at par with world standard and enemy’s arsenal. The Su-30 Mki is equipped with Hypersonic missiles such as Brahmos cruise missile and newly inducted spice missiles, making it a fierce competitor for any nemesis. The Indian Airforce has also seen many conflicts and clashes along its international borders, making it a battle-hardened force experienced with territorial anomalies of the region and its technological capabilities, giving it a significant advantage regarding self-awareness. 

With better radar systems capable of tracking down enemies form long distances and equipped with the world’s fastest cruise missile system, Su-30 MKi becomes a deadly package in a conflict giving the Indian Airforce the necessary boost for precision-strike capabilities and vital air superiority over long distances.

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