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J-20 of PLAAF and JF-17 of PAF Analysed

As the excitement following the induction of Rafale jets into the IAF wanes, it is time to have a fresh look at China’s J-20 which is being operationalised

Issue: 11-2020By Air Marshal Anil Chopra (Retd)Photo(s): By wikipedia, ASDS Media
(Left to Right) J-20 OF PLAAF and JF-17 OF PAF

The Sino-Indian face-off in Ladakh continues towards the harsh forthcoming winter. As the excitement following the induction of Rafale jets into the Indian Air Force (IAF) wanes, it is time to have a fresh look at China’s J-20 which is being operationalised in large numbers. It is also time to look at the Pakistan Air Force’s (PAF) JF-17, 120 of which are already flying and the most potent Block III variant has just entered service. Interestingly, PAF claims the aircraft is battle-tested after the operation “Swift Retort” of February 27, 2019. Both aircraft are reportedly now armed with long range Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missiles.


The J-20 “Mighty Dragon” is a single-seat, twinjet, all-weather, stealth, fifth-generation fighter developed by China’s Chengdu Aerospace Corporation for the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). Designed as an air superiority fighter with precision strike capability, it undertook its maiden flight in January 2011, entered service in March 2017 and commenced its combat training phase in September 2017. The first J-20 combat unit was formed in February 2018. The J-20 is the world’s fourth fifth-generation stealth fighter after the American F-22, F-35, and Russian Su-57. It will effectively supersede Su-27SK, Su-30MKK and Su-30MK2 in the PLAAF inventory. Chinese state media reported in October 2017 that aircraft is ready for mass production. In January 2019, a twin-seat variant of the J-20 was rumoured to be in development for use in tactical bombing, electronic warfare and carrier strike roles.


The J-20 has low observable intakes, all-moving canard surfaces, the Chinese Type 1475 (KLJ-5) active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, an electro-optical/infra-red targeting system and an advanced communications suite with data links. The aircraft features a glass cockpit, with a 24x9 inch primary LCD screen. The main internal weapon bay is capable of housing both short and long-range air-to-air missiles (AAM) (PL-9, PL-12C/D & PL-15 – PL-21) while the two smaller lateral weapon bays behind the air inlets are intended for short-range AAMs (PL-10). All weapons are carried internally, but the wings have four hard-points for drop tanks. The aircraft is currently powered by the Russian Salyut AL-31FM2 engine, with maximum thrust of 145kN. It is planned to be replaced by Chinese Xian WS-15 engine which produces 180kN of thrust. J-20’s nose and canopy appear to use a similar stealth design as the F-22 and perhaps yielding similar signature from the front. However the aircraft’s side and axi-symmetric engine nozzles may expose the aircraft to radar. Use of canards also would compromise stealth.


The J-20 officially entered combat units in February 2018. At least 12 J-20s were in active service initially. The 9th Air Brigade based at Wuhu Air Base, Anhui province was the first to replace Su-30MKK fighters. Chinese state media mentions up to 50 aircraft by early 2020, figures seem inflated. It is likely that the J-20 would be commissioned upon the Type 002 aircraft carrier under construction, however, the length of the J-20 has to be shortened to be considered operable on an aircraft carrier. Meanwhile, J-20 has been conducting operational exercises with J-16 and J-10C.


The Rafale is a 4.5 generation aircraft with partial stealth features, but has no internal weapons bays. As the aircraft first flew in 1986, its basic design features are relatively old. The Rafale is much smaller than the J-20, literally half the weight and volume. J-20 uses an older Russian engine with no supercruise ability which Rafale has. The planned Chinese engine WS-15 is still well behind schedule. The Rafale engine is more reliable, has higher longevity and maintainability. Experts also question the electronic warfare suite of J-20, whereas the Rafale has a comprehensive package covering the entire spectrum of threats. J-20 is still under induction, while the Rafale has been combat-proven for 20 years in Iraq, Afghanistan, Mali, Libya and Syria. China’s PL-15 missile looks like the MBDA Meteor and claims of 200 km range appear farfetched.

Specifications of JF-17 and J-20


Physical Parameters

Length 49 ft
Height15.5 ft
Wingspan31 ft
Empty Weight 14,520 lb

Performance Parameters

Maximum Take Off Weight 27,300 lb
Max Mach No1.6
Maximum Speed700 Knots IAS
Service Ceiling55,500 ft
Thrust to Weight Ratio 0.95
Maximum Engine Thrust19,000 lbs
G Limit+8/-3
Ferry Range1,880 NM


No of Stations07
Total Load Capacity 3400 lbs



General characteristics

Crew one (pilot)
Length20.4 m (66.8 ft)
Wingspan13.5 m (44.2 ft)
Wing area78 m2 (840 sq ft)
Empty weight19,391 kg (42,750 lb)
Gross weight32,092 kg (70,750 lb)
Max takeoff weight37,013 kg (81,600 lb)
Fuel capacity11,340 kg (25,000 lb) internally
Powerplant2 × WS-10B or AL-31FM2 afterburning turbofan, 140 or 145 kN (31,000 or 33,000 lbf) with afterburner
Powerplant2 × Shenyang WS-15 (in development) afterburning turbofan, 180 kN (40,000 lbf) with afterburner


Maximum speedMach 2
Range6,000 km (3,700 mi, 3,200 nmi)
Combat range2,000 km (1,200 mi, 1,100 nmi)
Service ceiling20,000 m (66,000 ft)
g limits+9/-3
Rate of climb304 m/s (59,800 ft/min)
Wing loading340 kg/m2 (69 lb/sq ft)
Thrust/weight0.92 (1.12 with loaded weight and 50% fuel) with AL-31FM2 (estimated)


Internal weapon bays 
• PL-10 short range AAM  
• PL-12 Medium Range AAM 
• PL-15 BVR long range AAM  
• PL-21 Long Range AAM 
• LS-6 Precision-guided bomb 
External hardpoints4× under-wing pylon capable of carrying drop tanks.


• Type 1475 (KLJ-5) active electronically scanned array
• EOTS-86 electro-optical targeting system (EOTS)
• EORD-31 infrared search and track
• Distributed aperture system

Source: (as on September 20, 2020)


The latest Block III variant of Chinese ‘designed for Pakistan’ multirole fighter aircraft JF-17 ‘Thunder’ reportedly undertook its maiden flight on December 15, 2019. The JF-17 whose development began much later than India’s Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) ‘Tejas’, was inducted into the PAF in 2010 and is the ‘crown jewel’ of Sino-Pak aviation connection. The near 120 plus aircraft fleet has accumulated around 25,000 hours of operational flying. The PAF has also used them to bomb militant positions in North Waziristan, delivering both unguided and precision guided munitions (PGM). The Block III brings in advancements in avionics, and an active electronically-scanned array (AESA) radar paired with an infrared search and track (IRST) system, among others. The PAF describes it as a ‘fourth generation plus’ fighter. Induction of Block III is expected to start later in 2020.


The JF-17 Thunder is a light-weight single-engine, multirole combat aircraft employed for aerial reconnaissance, ground attack and air interception. This fly-by-wire, 1.8 Mach fighter is powered by Russian Klimov RD-93 turbofan engine. The aircraft could later be powered by the Chinese Guizhou WS-13 engine. The JF-17 has wide-angle Head-Up-Display, aerial refueling, data-link, and KLJ-7 Doppler radar. The aircraft has an electronic warfare suite. It can carry 3,100 kg external load on seven hard-points. Weapons are mostly Chinese and include the PL-5 short-range, air-to-air missile, LS-6 ‘Thunderstone’ GPS-guided glide bombs and YJ-12 supersonic and YJ-83 subsonic anti-shipping missiles. The PAF maintains one squadron for maritime strike. The PAF has ordered 600 Chinese PL-12 (SD-10A) radar-guided beyond-visual range (BVR) missiles with a range of around 80 km.


Aircraft costs have been kept low by borrowing technologies developed for Chinese J-10 fighter. In 2015, Pakistan produced 16 JF-17s and currently has capacity to produce 25 per year. 58 per cent of the airframe is Pakistani and 42 per cent Chinese. As of 2019, Pakistan operates nearly 120 JF-17s in five operational squadrons, plus a testing and training unit. Nearly 70 jets are of Block-1 Type, and remaining are Block-II. The aerial refueling got introduced in Block II.

The J-20’s networkcentric operations, combination of forward stealth and long range air-to-air missiles, could be of concern to India’s high value airborne assets such as AWACS and aerial tankers


A Block-III variant of the JF-17 has the Chinese KLJ-7A AESA radar, digital fly-by-wire flight control system, a new helmetmounted display, network-centric warfare capability, a holographic Head Up Display, an infrared search and track system, new electronic warfare systems and weapons upgrade. The aircraft is initially armed with two PL-5EII short-range AAMs of which the PAF has ordered 900. Later, PAF may get longer range and more sophisticated PL-15 AAM (150 km). The JF-17 constitutes the ‘backbone’ of the PAF that plans to operationally deploy the latest variant in 2020. PAF has initially ordered 50 Block-III to be delivered by 2024. Older JF-17s may also be upgraded to the Block-III standard later. The 26 two-seat JF-17B ordered will be used for training and as an effective electronic warfare platform with second seat having a weapons systems officer (WSO). PAF expects to receive a further 14 JF-Bs in 2020 and four more in 2021. Three JF-17’s were sold to Nigerian Air Force in 2018. At least six out of an order of eighteen JF-17Ms delivered to Myanmar. China and Pakistan are aggressively trying to find possible export customers. Targeted countries are Algeria, Argentina, Bangladesh, Egypt, Iran, Myanmar, Malaysia, Morocco, Nigeria, Sudan, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe.


Comparisons are being drawn between the JF-17 and India’s LCA Tejas that uses several new technologies including composite materials, advanced avionics and a unique aerodynamic configuration. The JF-17 Block-II costs close to $25 million vis-a-vis the LCA Mk-1 around $ 28 million. The LCA has been manufactured by a single country. Second LCA squadron has just been formed. Only 20 odd aircraft are in service still. Aircraft production that is eight a year, is planned to be enhanced to 16. The more comparable LCA Mk-1A will have its first flight only in 2021 with service entry by 2023. There are already two foreign customers flying the JF-17. JF-17 has been in service for last ten years and serves in six squadrons at full operational capability, whereas the Tejas has only two squadrons. JF-17’s Russian engine has maintenance and serviceability issues vis-a-vis the LCA’s much more reliable General Electric F404 engine.


The J-20’s network-centric operations, combination of forward stealth and long range air-to-air missiles, could be of concern to India’s high value airborne assets such as AWACS and aerial tankers. On the other side, a lot of what Chinese state backed media projects in terms of capability, is highly overstated. Nevertheless, it is best to assume the worst case scenario and India must build its own matching technology platforms. Despite mounting economic pressure and low GDP growth rate, Pakistan’s defence modernisation continues. Close ties between the PLAAF and the PAF will compel the IAF to prepare for a two-front war and to acquire advanced fighters, sophisticated support platforms and smart long-range weapons. The IAF is at an all time low of 30 fighter squadrons vis-a-vis authorised 42. The IAF is acquiring 21 MiG-29s and 12 Su-30 MKI. The long awaited RFP for the 114 medium multi-role combat planes is yet to be issued. Going by past record, even if the RFP was to be issued today, the induction can begin not earlier than 2025. By then, even the five MiG-21 Bison squadrons would be phased out. One can see further depletions in IAF combat strength. The IAF needs both quality and quantity. LCA production annually has to be increased to 16 with immediate effect from current around eight aircraft. The LCA Mk1A contract for 83 aircraft has already been cleared. Its development must be speeded up. Also, the development of LCA Mk 2, medium weight fighter (MWF) must be speeded up. India must choose a reliable partner for hand holding on the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) project. Days ahead are tough, only the tough can get going. It is time to stop pretending and face the reality head on.