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Comparing the World's Best Light Multirole Fighters, Part Five: J-10 Firebird

March 30th - 2018

Introduced into service in 2006, 20-30 years after its Russian and U.S. analogues, the Chengdu J-10 became China’s first truly indigenous fourth generation fighter and revolutionised the country’s aerial warfare capabilities. Not only did the J-10 demonstrate for the first time China’s ability to design and produce modern combat aircraft, but the fighter was so advanced that it was able to match and in many ways exceed the capabilities of its U.S. and Russian analogues, the F-16 and MiG-29. The Chinese fighter integrated advanced technologies from across the world, and represented the cumulation of decades of development of technologies for a modern light fighter. Most of the technologies with which China familiarised itself as part of the J-7 modernisation program, which transformed a low end second generation fighter into a platform with fourth generation capabilities over five decades, were later applied to the J-10. These included advanced radars, composite materials, radar cross section reducing profiles, fourth generation air inlets, modern ejection seats, superior oxygen supply systems, advanced decoy launchers, full glass cockpits, ECM capabilities, fire control radars, heads up displays, new engines among a number of other technologies which China learned to develop and apply domestically. 

China gained access to U.S. made F-16C fighters via its partnership with Pakistan, while Israel also transferred sensitive Western technologies to China at the time when the Western bloc had imposed a harsh arms embargo. The small Middle Eastern state also reportedly provided Beijing with key information and technologies related to its Lavi fighter program, an ambitious project to develop an Israeli light fighter superior to the F-16 for which the country had acquired a number of cutting edge U.S. technologies. Upon the Lavi’s cancellation these were reportedly then transferred to Beijing. The J-10 notably retains the Lavi's iconic canard delta wing - though whether this was derived from the Israeli fighter or is merely a coincidence remains unknown. China’s licence production of the Russian Su-27 air superiority fighter, the most advanced combat aircraft of its time, as the J-11 further familiarised Beijing's military aviation industries with cutting edge fourth generation technologies. The J-10 uses the very same WS-10 engine used to power the J-11. Engineers from the Russian Siberian Aeronautical Research Institute were also commissioned to work on the J-10 project as advisors, where their experience in developing and manufacturing fourth generation fighter aircraft were invaluable.

The J-10 is today very likely the most capable single engine fighter in service. The platform uses a far more powerful engine, WS-10A, which combined with the fighter’s low weight due to its extensive use of advanced composite materials gives it one of the highest thrust/weight ratios in the world - standing at 1.15. The J-10’s engines allow it to reach speeds of Mach 2.2, by far the fastest speed of any single engine fighter in the world matched only by the twin engine MiG-29 and elite heavy platforms such as the U.S. F-15 Eagle and Su-35. The fighter can operate at extremely high altitudes of up to 18km where the norm for other light fighters such as the F-16 and F-35 is under 15.5km. These characteristics serve to make the J-10 a lethal combat platform. The fighter is also equipped with an advanced active electronically scanned array (AESA) fire control radar, infra red search and track systems and electronic reconnaissance. Use of an AESA radar allows the J-10 to radiate multiple beams of radio waves at multiple frequencies simultaneously while remaining difficult to detect over background noise - a technology used extensively by fifth generation platforms such as the F-22 Raptor. The fighter's advanced infra red trackers notably give the J-10 an advantage over most other light fighters in short range engagements. The J-10’s highly manoeuvrable PL-12 and PL-15 long range air to air missiles, estimated to have ranges of 100km and over 150km respectively, surpass the missile platforms deployed by any other single engine fighter in the world - with even the fifth generation F-35 relying on a low manoeuvrability variant of the 105km range AIM-120C. These missiles do however fail to match the U.S. AIM-120D and Russian R-27 deployed by the twin engine F-18E Block 3 and MiG-35 respectively. The J-10 is also expected to integrate the next generation PL-12D and PL-21 ramjet powered missiles, which will further enhance the fighter's capabilities and give it an expected air to air strike range of 300-400km even against manoeuvrable targets.

China’s J-10 remains untested in air to air combat, and is likely to remains so for some time given Beijing’s somewhat limited willingness to export its advanced fighter aircraft. The platform’s specifications however come as a result of it integrating elements from some of the most advanced fighter programs of the fourth generation, and while the platform is regarded as less of a threat than heavier and more advanced fighters such as the J-11 and J-20 it fills the role of a light fighter more than adequately. While it would struggle against and is not expected to engage in elite heavy fighters such as the F-22 Raptor, Su-30 Flanker or F-15 Eagle, it is more than capable of engaging rival light fighters such as the MiG-29, F-16 and F-35 - as well as being highly capable in performing anti ship and air to ground strike roles. The J-10's low maintenance and resulting extremely high sortie rate, largely as a result of its single engine, is also a significant asset which no similarly capable light fighters can match.

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