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China Commissions Advanced New Fighter Jet; Can the PLA’s J-10C Contend with America’s F-35?

April 27th - 2018

Twelve years after the commissioning of the original J-10A, China’s first fully indigenous fourth generation fighter, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has commissioned its third and by far most capable variant - the J-10C. The platform’s capabilities compare highly favourably to other single engine fighters such as the Swedish Gripen and U.S. F-16 and F-35, and even outmatch a number of twin engine platforms such as the Russian MiG-29. The fighters are set to enter service in large numbers, and will be able to effectively fulfil a complementary role to new heavy platforms such as the J-11D and J-20. PLA Air Force Spokesperson Shen Jinke said that the military was set to advance training and war readiness, and sharpen its striking, defensive, and air delivery capabilities with the induction of the new fighter - a formidable asset fulfilling a key role in the country’s military modernisation program.

The J-10C incorporates a number of significant upgrades over its predecessors, including the ability to deploy the PLA’s latest air to air missiles such as the PL-15 and all new electronic warfare systems, radars and avionics. A radar cross section reducing profile, use of stealth coatings and integration of a next generation AESA radar have all been applied to reduce detectability and thereby increase the fighter’s survivability in beyond visual range combat, with the J-10C boasting a lighter and stealthier diverterless supersonic air inlet which include sawtooth edges on the exhaust nozzles to improve both frontal and rear aspect stealth characteristics. These stealth technologies were largely derived from the J-20 stealth fighter which entered service in 2017. Alongside stealth technologies, the addition of thrust vectoring systems similar to those installed on the U.S. F-22 Raptor improve the J-10’s already formidable manoeuvrability. Whether the fighter will in future use a three dimensional system for 'supermanoeuvrability' similar to that of the Russia Su-35 and MiG-35, remains to be seen. Due to the fighter’s capabilities, it has been classified as a ‘4++ generation’ fighter by a number of analysts internationally - comparable to the U.S. F-18E Block 3 and Russian Su-35 and MiG-35 in its sophistication.

With China’s tensions with the United States continuing to rise, and with the U.S. military relying heavily on its F-35 single engine light fighter in the Pacific and deploying these platforms to the region in ever greater numbers, a comparison of the J-10C’s capabilities with the U.S. fighter gives a valuable indication as to the balance of power in the Pacific. While older fourth generation light fighters such as the F-2, F-16C and Ching Kuo deployed by a number of the United States' East Asian allies bear little comparison to China’s new platform, the F-35 was designed to become the world’s prime light fighter, under a program estimated to cost $1.6 trillion dollars, and is far better positioned to contend with the J-10C.

Th J-10 retains one of the highest thrust/weight ratios in the world as a result of its extremely light weight and powerful engine - standing at 1.15 for the J-10A and likely even higher for the C variant due to its greater use of composite materials. No U.S. fighters currently in service, including twin engine platforms such as the F-18 and F-22, are capable of matching this. The F-35 by contrast, though deploying an extremely powerful F135 engine, is extremely bulky which gives it a high wing loading and a thrust/weight ratio of just 0.87. The F-35’s lack of thrust vectoring systems further exacerbate its disadvantage, leaving the fighter less capable of evading enemy long range missile attacks and far more vulnerable in visual range engagements. The J-10C retains an advantage over all other singe engine fighters in its ability to choose when and where to engage its adversaries, able to fly far higher and faster than any rival platforms. The Chinese fighters’ engines allow it to reach speeds of Mach 2.2, a speed matched only by elite twin engine platforms such as the F-15 and F-22, and the platform can reach high altitudes of 18km. Where the J-10C is the fastest fighter of its kind, the F-35 is by contrast by far the slowest, restricted to speeds of just Mach 1.6. Its maximum altitude is similarly unimpressive, standing at under 15.5km. These all give the U.S. platform a significant disadvantage in combat with the Chinese fighter - both in visual and beyond visual range engagements.

As well as its vast capability advantages, the J-10C also has the advantage of deploying far more sophisticated air to air missiles, an advantage set to grow as new ramjet powered platforms such as the PL-12D and PL-21 enter service. The Chinese fighter’s missiles are not only more sophisticated, but it cal deploy up to six of them where the F-35 is restricted to just four. The J-10C is also far less complex, less vulnerable to electronic attacks, and easier to maintain than the notoriously high maintenance F-35 - which spends well over 90% of the time grounded as a result. Low maintenance and a high sortie rate are highly critical assets for combat aircraft during a war, where flying for more hours can serve as a decisive force multiplier and spare parts for service can be scarce due to disrupted supply lines. Indeed, it appears the F-35 retains only one meaningful advantage over the J-10C, its stealth profile and lower radar cross section which make it more difficult to detect in beyond visual range engagements. Though the J-10C does make use of advanced stealth technologies, those of the F-35 are superior.

The F-35’s greater radar evading capabilities are, according to a number of experts, hardly a sufficient asset to compensate for the overwhelming shortcomings in its speed, manoeuvrability and operational altitude which make the J-10C far more survivable. Several experts have concluded that the F-35's ability to evade radar systems is a marginal advantage at best. A senior Israeli Air Force official stated that the F-35’s stealth capabilities were set to be negated by rapidly advancing counter stealth technologies by 2022, stating “We think the stealth protection will be good for 5-10 years, but the aircraft will be in service for 30-40 years.” Moshe Arens, formerly three time Israeli Defence Minister, Foreign Minister, ambassador to the United States and aeronautical engineer, stated regarding the American fighter’s shortcomings: “The F-35 development program has been plagued by frequent delays and mounting cost overruns. The design compromises that have to be made to accommodate its goal of serving as a joint strike fighter that will be acquired by the U.S. Air Force, Navy and the Marines have limited its performance capabilities. In the meantime, anti stealth technology is being developed and may yet neutralise what is being advertised as the aircraft's major advantage before delivery or within its operational lifetime.” With stealth aircraft having already been successfully targeted on a number of occasions during their limited combat deployments, and with the F-35’s stealth capabilities paling in comparison to those of more advanced stealth platforms such as the B-2, F-22 and RQ-170, the platform’s heavy reliance on this niche capability has failed entirely to compensate for its shortcomings.

With recent reports indicating that China’s J-20 fifth generation heavy air superiority fighter is set to soon surpass the capabilities the F-22 Raptor, its American analogue, the fact that the PLA’s J-10C light platform retains an overwhelming advantage over the F-35, America's prime light fighter, gives China's PLA Air Force a near absolute technological advantage in the air. With Chinese fighters produced at lower costs, their technologies advancing and defence expenditure growing at a far greater pace, and the fighters being deployed in far larger numbers, the superiority of the PLA’s combat aircraft is set to have significant implications for Beijing’s position in the Pacific and make the sustainment of an American dominated balance of power in the region unsustainable. While the J-10C is just a single light fighter, arguably of less relevance than China's latest elite heavy platforms such as the J-16 and J-20, what it symbolises is far more significant than its combat role - a fundamental shift in the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific based on Beijing’s fast advancing military industrial capabilities.

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