What China's Deployment Of J-20 Fighter Jets Close To LAC In Tibet Means For Indian Air Force

Ujjwal Shrotryia

May 31, 2024, 07:09 PM | Updated 07:09 PM IST

China's J-20 Fighter Jet (Pic Via Nikkei Asia)
China's J-20 Fighter Jet (Pic Via Nikkei Asia)

China has deployed its fifth-generation stealth fighter jet, J-20, at Shigatse airport in Tibet.

The jets, six of which are deployed at Shigatse according to satellite imagery, are very close to India, just 150 kilometres away from the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

Additionally, another eight to ten J-10 single-seat fighter jets and a KJ-500 airborne early warning aircraft can be observed from the satellite imagery at the 12,408-foot-high airbase.

Satellite imagery of the J-20 jets deployed at Shigatse. (NDTV)
Satellite imagery of the J-20 jets deployed at Shigatse. (NDTV)

J-20 is China's most advanced fighter jet, which the Chinese claim to be a stealth fighter. It is a dual-engine heavy air-superiority jet that can carry China's most advanced PL-15 long-range air-to-air missiles and bombs.

This deployment of a fifth-generation stealth fighter so close to India's border has raised eyebrows in India's defence circles, especially since India does not have a stealth fighter of its own. This deployment is just 290 kilometres away from Hashimara Air Force Base (AFB) in West Bengal, where India has deployed the newly acquired French Rafale jets, its most advanced jets.

The IAF also operates Sukhoi Su-30MKI fighter jets from both Chabua and Tezpur AFB in Assam.

However, neither the Rafale nor the Su-30 MKI are fifth-generation stealth fighter jets. India's own fifth-generation fighter, the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), is under development and will take another 10-15 years to be operationally deployed with the IAF.

Fifth-generation stealth fighter jets are designed in a way that makes them hard to detect by radars, apart from having next-generation sensors, electronics, radars, and very high maneuverability.

China, after the US and Russia, is only the third nation to deploy fifth-generation fighters in large numbers.

The US operates two fifth-generation fighters, the F-22 and F-35, and Russia operates the Sukhoi Su-57 jet. Various reports that cannot be independently verified say that J-20, which took its first flight in 2011, is under mass production and more than 250 jets have been manufactured so far.

These J-20 jets are primarily deployed in the country's eastern part, opposite Taiwan, to support any amphibious landing operation and prevent the interference of the US in support of Taiwan beyond the second-island chain.

This is not the first time China has deployed these jets in Tibet. According to NDTV, the jets have been observed in Xinjiang and China's Hotan prefecture between 2020 and 2023 as well.

In the event of war between India and China, the J-20 will surely complicate the air situation over Tibet, tilting the balance in China's favor.

Many believe that with this, procuring a fifth-generation jet has become an absolute necessity for India.

However, deploying a fifth-generation jet is not the only sure-shot way to counter an enemy's fifth-generation jet.

These advanced jets often can't detect each other, meaning they might never engage directly in combat. However, having a fifth-generation jet provides significant deterrent value. It signals to the enemy that their strategic targets are vulnerable, making them less likely to attack.

Therefore, to counter them, the nation needs to have a network of early warning systems, like very high frequency (VHF) over-the-horizon (OTH) radars coupled with X-band fire-control radars (FCR) to detect and generate a weapon-quality track of the jet.

Higher frequency VHF and L-band radars can detect the approaching stealth fighters from a long distance, but they cannot guide air defence missiles to the approaching stealth jets.

Low-frequency radars like X, C, S, or Ku-band, on the other hand, can guide missiles but cannot detect stealth jets.

A networked system with a combination of high-frequency and low-frequency radars is the only solution to counter these jets. For this, the IAF has acquired the S-400 air defence system from Russia.

The S-400's Nebo-M radar system is said to be a counter-stealth system.

It works by integrating data from multiple arrays, Nebo-SVU (VHF-band) and Protivnik G (L-band), and from low-frequency radars (S and X-band) to effectively track and guide missiles against the stealth jet.

The elevation of the airfields in Tibet also serves as a disadvantage for these jets. Due to the rarefied atmosphere at those high altitudes, jets cannot fly with their maximum payload. Either they have to compromise on their weapons payload or on the fuel, making them short-legged.

Moreover, the stealthiness of the J-20 is also circumspect.

There were reports that Sukhoi's Bars radar was able to detect these J-20 jets from significantly long ranges when China deployed them earlier in Tibet, casting doubt on the J-20's stealthy nature.

The deployment of the J-20 is a major challenge to the IAF and will change the air equation over the Tibetan skies, but the J-20 will not be a silver bullet for China.

Staff Writer at Swarajya. Writes on Indian Military and Defence.

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