In the past, I have often seen or tried to stop discussions over what I call vs battles. Military fans universally love to debate whether one aircraft is better than another one. There are many good reasons for that obviously. For PLAAF, if w can determine that J-10 is stronger in air combat than flankers and are up to part or close to up to part with the teens and eurocanards, then China can deal with all of the surrounding threats. More contemporarily, the argument of J-20 vs F-35 vs F-22 vs PAK-FA is popular in establishing China’s future options against US and its allies.
In general, I have not enjoyed to get involved with such discussions, because I don’t think they yield good discussions or give good indications of how real world combat scenarios will turn out. Recently, there were some discussions regarding the results of PLAAF’s exercises with Thailand. It was mentioned on Chinese forums that PLAAF sent flankers. The flankers apparently won dogfights but lost on BVR engagements. This led to numerous people asking about which type of flankers were sent. If earlier versions of flankers like Su-27 or J-11 were sent, then it would be okay if they did not win the BVR exchanges. I immediately thought about the exercise they had several years ago with Turkey. In that exercise, China sent some earlier flankers and Turkey used F-4s (or at least that’s what we presume since F-16s were not involved). I presume China sends earlier flankers because flight characteristics and avionics of these fighter jets are well known, whereas J-10 and even J-11B numbers are very well guarded state secrets. At the time of exercise, it was rumoured on Chinese forums that the flankers were crushed in the exercise and that the DACT were designed in a way that put Chinese jets in very disadvantageous positions. While none of the rumoured results can be confirmed, I think there are a lot of good reasons why PLAAF would take this approach. Back in 2005, there were a lot of excitements amongst Indian defense followers because IAF fighter jets had done well against F-15Cs in DACT with USAF. Even though it was reported that USAF fighter jets were operating under very challenging conditions on what they could or could not do, many IAF fans were excited to report that Su-30K and Mig-21 Bisons had beaten the F-15Cs.
With that in mind, I think we should consider why PLAAF participates in these exercises and what it has to gain by setting certain DACT scenarios. For the former, I think that PLAAF recognizes it does not do enough training with other air forces, so these exercises are valuable in learning about flying styles and tactics of other air forces. In the exercises with Turkey, I think PLAAF purposefully set challenging conditions so it can see how NATO air forces operate with numerical advantages, EW advantages and BVR advantages. So even if Turkey does not showcase F-16s, PLAAF had a lot to gain by participating in them. I’m not saying that Su-27s are significantly better than later F-4s or that PLAAF pilots are at the same level of NATO pilots. Those are things I simply don’t have enough data on. Compared to NATO, PLAAF is still at a very early stage in DACT exercises. PLAAF Su-27s and early J-11As have probably participated in most number of DACT engagements in China’s own version of Red/Blue flag exercises. Early on, they were consistently defeated by J-7s even though they are much superior aircraft. Flankers won later when PLAAF developed better tactics for them. So when PLAAF encounters a more experienced air force like Turkey, it would have a lot of learning to do. PLAAF recognizes that in many realistic war scenarios, its fighters could be facing massive disadvantages in the operational environment. From that, it would be logical to do various DACT under disadvantageous conditions even if PLAAF pilots have to suffer some humble pie. I can’t speak for the results of Pakistan or Thailand, but I think without knowing PLAAF’s intentions and the DACT scenarios, results of these exercises are not too meaningful even if we know the aircraft types. I do read from the big shrimps on Chinese bbs that PAF pilots are better than PLAAF pilots. If that is still the case, then it makes even more sense for PLAAF to train more regularly with PAF.
J-10A and J-11 have made a good pairing for PLAAF for the past 10 years and would hold up against current front line fighter jet in surrounding countries like Su-27/30, F-15J, F-16C/D and Mig-29s. J-10B/C and J-16 will be comparable or a little inferior to the latest eurocanards, Su-35s, F-15K/SG and F-18E/F. On paper, they have the latest avionics (including AESA radar), a full range of multirole capability and improved range compare to their base models. Even with higher thrust engines, will they still be capable of having the same flight performance as earlier models when we considered the increased weight from all these changes? As for J-20, I think it has many advantages over PAK-FA, but less so against F-22/35, especially in the environment that they are likely to operate in. J-31 seems like a good second project, but we are still waiting to see what the second prototype looks like. It could turn out to be a genuine lower cost 5th generation fighter jet or one that’s significantly more stealthy than eurocanards and F-18E/F, but also lacking the full aspect stealth, flight performance and networking centric capability of a true 5th generation aircraft. Until J-20 gets mature and installed with WS15, it will have similar concerns. That’s how I would rate them.