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The J-20 Challenge: Can India Bridge the Fighter Jet Gap With China?

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The J-20 Challenge: Can India Bridge the Fighter Jet Gap With China?

In the face of an increasingly assertive China and a potentially upgraded Pakistani air force, the Indian Air Force’s modernization and expansion are imperatives for national security.

The J-20 Challenge: Can India Bridge the Fighter Jet Gap With China?

A Tejas LCA demonstrating aerial refueling capability, Sep. 11, 2018.

Credit: Indian Ministry of Defense

Recent developments have highlighted a growing strategic concern for India as China has deployed its Chengdu J-20, a fifth-generation twin-engine stealth fighter, in Shigatse, a strategic airbase in Tibet with close proximity to the eastern sector of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) the de facto and highly contested border between China and India. This stealthy air superiority fighter, designed with precision strike capabilities, represents a significant advancement in the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). With the J-20’s increasing presence near the LAC, India faces a new set of challenges that require a comprehensive reassessment of its aerial defense capabilities and strategic planning.

The Rise of the J-20: China’s Stealth Powerhouse

The J-20 program has progressed at an impressive rate since its inception, resulting in the production of approximately 250 aircraft, with over 200 currently in active service. The J-20 series includes three main variants: the initial production model J-20, the thrust-vectoring J-20A, and the twin-seat J-20S. The latter two remain in development, although the J-20A may soon be entering the early production phase.

Production rates have increased from 30 to 100 aircraft per year, and conservative estimates suggest that the PLAAF’s J-20 fleet could surpass 800 aircraft by 2030. This would potentially outnumber the entire fighter jet fleet of the Indian Air Force (IAF), posing a significant strategic challenge.

The implications of such a development are profound. The J-20’s state-of-the-art stealth and air superiority capabilities provide China with a formidable edge in any aerial conflict. By 2030, the J-20 squadrons alone could number between 40 to 44, without accounting for other modern aircraft in the PLAAF, such as the J-16 and the older but numerous J-7 fighters. This rapid expansion of China’s aerial capabilities underscores the urgent need for India to bolster its own air force.

The Two-Front Challenge: Pakistan’s Pursuit of Fifth-Generation Fighters

China’s deployment of the J-20 in Tibet (Shigatse Airbase) and Xinjiang (Hotan Airbase) represents a strategic maneuver to assert dominance in the Himalayas. However, it is crucial to recognize that China is unlikely to station its entire J-20 fleet along the LAC. A significant portion of China’s defense focus remains on Taiwan and countering the United States’ presence in the Pacific and South China Sea. Nevertheless, even a fraction of the J-20 fleet poses a substantial challenge for the IAF, particularly given the two-front scenario involving China and Pakistan.

Indeed, India’s strategic dilemma is compounded by Pakistan’s pursuit of fifth-generation fighter capabilities. Pakistan has shown interest in the Turkish KAAN and the Chinese Shenyang FC-31, similar to the United States’ Lockheed F-35. The possible acquisition of either of these stealth fighters by Pakistan would further complicate India’s security calculus, necessitating a robust and immediate response from the IAF. The two-front challenge, involving potential conflicts with both China and Pakistan, requires India to maintain a highly capable and versatile air force armed enough to deter any misadventure by foes.

The Indian Air Force: Current Capabilities and Challenges

In stark contrast to China’s advancements, the Indian Air Force is struggling to maintain 30 squadrons of fighter jets, far below its sanctioned strength of 42 squadrons (a single squadron typically includes 16 -18 aircraft). The IAF’s fleet comprises a mix of aging third and fourth-generation fighters, including the Mirage-2000 and the MiG-29UPG, which are nearing the end of their operational lives. Moreover, the retirement of vintage MiG-21s further exacerbates this situation, dropping the number of combat aircraft available to the IAF faster than they are being inducted.

India’s indigenous efforts, primarily through the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO), have yielded the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA). While the Tejas is a significant step toward self-reliance, its classification as a light combat aircraft limits its ability to effectively replace medium combat aircraft like the Mirage-2000s and MiG-29s. The need for medium and heavy combat aircraft remains pressing.

To address this, India has planned the Tejas Mark II, which is expected to enter production by 2028-29, and the ambitious Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) project for the joint production of 112 combat aircraft with the cooperation of an international vendor. However, the MMRCA deal has seen little to no progress over the past decade, hampered by bureaucratic delays, successive revisions, and political factors. Some say that India’s snap induction of two squadrons of Dassault’s 4.5 generation Rafale aircraft significantly compromised the need for the MMRCA project. 

India’s immediate defense challenge is the declining number of fighter squadrons in the IAF. This concern has been partially addressed by the Ministry of Defense through successive deals for a total of 220 LCA Tejas Mark I and Mark IA fighters. While these light combat aircraft (LCA) are a positive addition, they are not sufficient to replace the retiring medium combat fighters such as the Mirage 2000 and MiG-29. To effectively bridge this gap, India must accelerate the production and induction of the Tejas Mark II and the Omni-Role Combat Aircraft (ORCA), which is the Air Force’s version of the Navy’s Twin Engine Deck Based Fighter (TEDBF). Additionally, reviving the MMRCA project or exploring alternative fast-track procurement options from global partners is crucial.

Potential Countermeasures: India’s Response Strategy

In the short to medium term, India’s best counter to the J-20 might lie in its S-400 Triumf Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) systems. However, the effectiveness of the S-400 could be compromised by China’s familiarity with the system, given the PLA’s own acquisition of the S-400 from Russia. Alarmingly, the principal purpose of the stealth arm of an air force is to knock out the anti-air assets of the adversary to establish air superiority. Plus, the recent devastation of various S-400 batteries in Russia by the Ukrainian missile offensive shows the limits of even advanced SAM systems like the S-400 Triumf. This underscores the need for India to accelerate its fifth-generation fighter programs and modernize its existing fleet on a war footing.

Hence, the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), a fifth-generation fighter under development with the HAL-DRDO consortium, holds promise for India’s future air defense. If the AMCA can be tested and brought into production by 2030-32, it would provide a much-needed boost to the IAF’s capabilities. However, until then, India faces a considerable period without a stealthy fifth-generation aircraft, during which it must rely on its existing assets and interim measures.

The urgency for modernizing the IAF’s fleet was highlighted following the Balakot airstrike in 2019. In the aftermath of the operation, a MiG-21 was shot down by the Pakistan Air Force in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. This incident underscored the vulnerability of deploying vintage aircraft in high-stakes environments. In response, the Indian government expedited the induction of 36 Rafale jets from France through a government-to-government deal. This procurement, although expensive, provided a significant boost to the IAF’s capabilities.

Challenges with the MMRCA Deal

The Rafale has since been considered a front-runner for the MMRCA deal. However, several factors complicate this potential acquisition. The global demand for Rafale jets and their high cost pose significant challenges. For instance, establishing new production facilities in India would be necessary due to the overcapacity of Dassault Aviation’s principal factories in France. 

Additionally, negotiations for 26 Rafales for the Indian Navy’s Vikrant-class aircraft carrier revealed a staggering cost of approximately $6 billion, translating to about $230 million per jet. This cost is comparable to the American fifth-gen F-22 Raptors, demonstrating the exceedingly high financial burden of procuring Rafales.

Given the obstacles associated with the MMRCA deal, India could be considering a quick intake of stealth aircraft, with the American F-35 and Russian Su-57 being potential candidates. However, each option presents unique challenges. The F-35 is a state-of-the-art fifth-generation stealth fighter with advanced avionics, sensor fusion, and network-centric capabilities. It offers significant improvements in survivability, situational awareness, and lethality. 

One major hurdle is the compatibility issue with India’s S-400 Triumf air defense system. The United States is concerned that operating the S-400 alongside the F-35 could compromise the jet’s stealth features by providing valuable intelligence on its radar signature. Additionally, India is apprehensive about over-reliance on the United States for critical military assets due to the potential for defense reliance to be used as strategic leverage.

The Su-57, on the other hand, is Russia’s answer to the fifth-generation fighter requirements, featuring (although subpar) stealth technology, supercruise, advanced avionics, and the capability to engage both air and ground targets. The primary concerns regarding the Su-57 involve its lower engine reliability and operational availability compared to its Western counterparts. Moreover, the recent geopolitical climate due to the conflict in Ukraine and India’s growing discomfort with Russian equipment, particularly in light of engine and maintenance issues experienced with existing Russian aircraft in the IAF, make this option less attractive.

Strengthening and Diversifying Air Defense Systems: Drones and SAMs

To enhance air defense capabilities, India must also strengthen and diversify its surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems beyond the S-400. Seamlessly integrating systems like the indigenous Akash, SAMAR, QRSAM, Extender Range Air Defense System (ERADS), and advanced versions of the Barak SAM can provide a layered defense network against various aerial threats. Additionally, heavy investment in Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) capabilities is crucial.

In order to minimize the Chinese stealth advantage in border areas, India can consider deploying stealth drones. While stealth drones may not match the capabilities of a heavy air superiority stealth aircraft, their presence in contested aerospace can deter aggressive deployments by the adversary. India’s Ghatak Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV) and other stealth drone projects are in the pipeline. As a quick fix, India could consider procuring Russia’s S-70 Okhotnik drones in limited numbers. Their deployment, alongside Su-30MKI fighters, could prove to be a significant deterrent to the PLAAF.

Conclusion: The 2025-2035 Challenge

The period from 2025 to 2035 is critical for India’s air defense strategy. The increasing deployment of J-20s across the Line of Actual Control, coupled with Pakistan’s pursuit of fifth-generation fighters, presents formidable challenges. India must adopt a multifaceted approach to bolster its air force capabilities, involving rapid induction of indigenous fighters, accelerated development of advanced aircraft, and strategic procurement from international partners.

Political will and streamlined procurement processes are essential to overcoming the current stagnation in defense acquisitions. While the challenges are significant, proactive measures and strategic foresight can help India bolster its air force to meet evolving threats and maintain a credible deterrent against its adversaries.

In the face of an increasingly assertive China and a potentially upgraded Pakistani air force, the IAF’s modernization and expansion are not just priorities but imperatives for national security. The urgency of action cannot be overstated; the decisions made today will shape India’s aerial defense capabilities for decades to come.