Pakistan’s J-10C vs. India’s Su-30MKI: Which Has the Most Capable Top Fighter?

Confirmation that Pakistan has become the first client for the Chinese J-10C ‘4++ generation’ single engine fighter has raised multiple questions regarding the future of the Pakistani Air Force and how the balance of power in South Asia will be affected. The acquisition was confirmed by Pakistan’s Interior Minister Sheikh Rasheed, who stated in late December that the Air Force would field a full J-10C squadron in time to participate in the country’s March 23rd Parade. There is little doubt that the fighter will be by far the most capable in Pakistani service, complementing the lighter and cheaper JF-17 Block III which first flew in 2019 and has comparable avionics and armaments but an inferior flight performance. It remains uncertain, however, the extent to which the J-10C will be able to challenge the primacy of the most capable fighters in the region, which are the Indian Air Force’ fleet of Su-30MKI ‘4+ generation’ heavyweight fighters. The Indian Air Force has fielded Su-30s since the late 1990s, and began to deploy the advanced MKI variant from 2002 which now makes up the backbone of the country’s combat fleet. Over approximately 270 are in service with more expected to be delivered in 2022. Should the Indian Air Force go up against the J-10C in air to air combat, the Su-30MKI is the most likely fighter to do so due to both how widely it is used and its elite status. 

As a heavyweight fighter the Su-30MKI has a number of considerable advantages over the J-10C. The aircraft’s endurance is significantly higher, meaning it can carry considerably more ordinance over much longer distances which is valuable for offensive operations or long range patrols. Its second seat accommodates a weapons systems officer, which is valuable particularly under the strain of pulling extreme manoeuvres or when engaging both ground based and aerial targets simultaneously. Indeed, twin seats were the primary feature which Chinese fighter pilots stated gave the J-16 heavyweight fighter an advantage over the J-10C in mock engagements. The Su-30’s greater speed and altitude allow it to launch missiles with considerably more energy than rival fighters. This includes not only the J-10C, but moreso the Rafale lightweight fighters which India recently acquired from France which are even slower and lower flying than the J-10. While the J-10 is a lighter design it does have a number of significant advantages of its own. Entering service from 2018, 16 years after the Su-30MKI, the aircraft benefits from China’s much larger technological base and scale of research and development, and boasts superiority in avionics in particular in its sensors and electronics. 

The J-10C deploys an AESA radar which, although smaller than the Bars PESA radar of the Su-30MKI, is considerably harder to jam, more efficient and opens up more possibilities for electronic warfare. The fighter deploys the PL-15 long range air to air missile which comfortably outperforms the Russian R-77 and French MICA deployed by the Su-30. This applies not only in range, where by many estimates it can shoot over twice as far (250-300km vs. 110km for R-77 and 80km for MICA), but also in sensors as the only operational air to air missile outside Japan confirmed to use an AESA radar for guidance. This not only makes the PL-15 less vulnerable to jamming, but also much more reliable and better able to form locks against stealth targets. For standoff air to ground and anti shipping missions both fighters deploy Mach 3 capable missiles, the YJ-93 for the J-10C based on the Russian Kh-31, and the BrahMos for the Su-30MKI. The BrahMos is a much heavier but overall more capable missile, and benefits from the Su-30’s high endurance. Unlike the J-10C which can rearm with the YJ-93 at base, however, Su-30MKI units require modifications to use the BrahMos with special units assigned to carry the missiles, limiting the versatility of Su-30 units. For air to air combat at shorter ranges the J-10C’s PL-10 missile with high off boresight targeting capabilities is expected to provide an advantage, albeit a less overwhelming one, against those used by Indian fighters. The J-10C is perhaps the only non-Russian fighter in the world which can match the Su-30MKI in manoeuvrability, with both using thrust vectoring engines, although the lighter Chinese jet has a higher thrust/weight ratio with its airframe making much more extensive use of light composite materials. The J-10's altitude ceiling is the highest in the world for an operational single engine fighter, although still slightly lower than the Su-30MKI. 

The J-10C’s primary advantage over the Su-30MKI, aside from its much lower operational costs and maintenance needs, is its use of superior electronics and data links allowing units to better and more reliably network with other assets such as drones and air defence systems to tackle an adversary. This is thought to have been the primary factor which allowed J-10Cs to reportedly outmatch Russian built Su-35 heavyweight fighters in mock air battles 2020. The J-10C in Pakistani hands will pose a challenge to the Indian Air Force the likes of which it has not seen since the Cold War, with Indian superiority having long been guaranteed by the Su-30MKI and before than from the mid-1980s by MiG-29s armed with R-27 missiles. Despite this, however, the Su-30MKI is relatively old compared to more modern Russian fighter designs and has the potential to bridge existing performance gaps, if not comfortably surpass the J-10C, if modernised with next generation technologies. These include R-37M missiles with 400km engagement ranges, Iribis-E PESA radars or derivatives of the N036 AESA radar, and AL-41 engines, as well as new avionics and electronic warfare systems. While the Su-30MKI is a higher end fighter from the same weight range as the Chinese J-16, and upon entering service in 2002 was widely considered the most capable fighter in the world by a considerable margin, 20 years later many of its technologies are far from cutting edge which allows lighter but more sophisticated aircraft such as the J-10C to challenge its formerly unquestioned superiority in the region. Nevertheless Pakistan's J-10C acquisitions not expected to reach even a fraction of India's current Su-30MKI fleet size, however, with only a single squadron currently confirmed, meaning the Indian Air Force will retain an overwhelming numerical advantage despite its top fighters being much heavier and more costly.

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