It is said that during a recent exercise, the J-10CE achieved a remarkable 9:0 record, “shutting out” Qatar Air Force’s “Typhoon” fighter jets. While this result is yet to be officially confirmed, Pakistani military enthusiasts have widely circulated the news. If true, it would be a significant surprise for the J-10C. However, a comprehensive and objective analysis of both fighter jets and the exercise is needed to fully understand the situation.
In 2022, when the Pakistan Air Force imported the J-10CE, questions arose about the combat capabilities of this fourth-and-a-half-generation fighter. Fortunately, answers didn’t take long to arrive. In mid-January, the Pakistan Air Force’s J-10CE participated in the “Ghazal-II” exercise with the Qatar Air Force, providing an opportunity for the J-10CE and the “Typhoon,” both featuring a fourth-and-a-half-generation canard layout, to engage in simulated air-to-air combat.
Firstly, regarding the “Ghazal-II” exercise, it can be confirmed that there were nine simulated air-to-air engagements, consisting of four beyond-visual-range (BVR) and five close-range dogfights. Neither country has officially announced or confirmed a 9:0 or similarly lopsided outcome. The Pakistan Air Force only claimed to have “earned the respect of the opponent,” and it may take some time before the details of the simulated air combat and the actual results are gradually revealed. Similar to the recent “Indus Shield” exercise, where the JF-17 and J-10CE faced F-15SA and F-16, there might be tactical advantages, but complete dominance is a stretch, given the absence of significant technological disparities between the two sides and the difficulty in bridging the gap between medium and heavy fighters.
In equal conditions, the decisive factor in modern air combat is undoubtedly the onboard radar. Qatar’s “Typhoon” received new aircraft in 2022, equipped with the “Captor-E” active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, but it is from the earliest MK 0 batch, with certain functional deficiencies. The UK and Germany’s “Typhoon” started upgrading to the MK 2 batch of “Captor-E” radar from this year, suggesting that Qatar’s radar upgrade may take some time.
In comparison, the J-10C’s gallium nitride AESA radar has been in service for nearly eight years, with numerous iterations and improvements. Moreover, visually, the J-10CE’s radar housing has a larger diameter, and its infrared search and track (IRST) antenna is also larger, indicating superior situational awareness and survivability. This difference suggests signs of European radar and avionics technology falling behind China’s.
Although both aircraft have a canard layout with ventral air intakes, there are significant aerodynamic differences. Simply put, the Typhoon’s wing-body blending is not as pronounced as the J-10’s. This is not due to design gaps but rather the Typhoon’s primary funding coming from the UK, which prioritizes intercepting Russian bombers over the North Sea, demanding substantial high-altitude, high-speed interception capabilities. Aircraft like the F-15 and MiG-31, with no notable wing-body blending, excel in interception missions.
Therefore, the Typhoon has an advantage at high altitudes. A French Rafale pilot once mentioned that it is challenging to outperform the Typhoon above 12,000 meters, and below 3,000 meters, it is challenging to beat an F-16. Thus, if the J-10CE’s alleged victory over the Typhoon is true, it might have occurred in an altitude below 10,000 meters.
Regarding drag reduction and lift, one of the J-10’s disadvantages is the use of a radar housing with a nearly heavy fighter-sized diameter in the nose, allowing for a larger radar but causing a significant increase in drag. The J-10C is a single-engine design, and while the WS-10B engine provides substantial thrust, it falls short by over 4 tons compared to the twin-engine Typhoon. In high-speed flight and energy maneuverability, the J-10C is noticeably at a disadvantage.
In terms of lift, both aircraft use canards, but the J-10’s canards play a more significant role in overall aerodynamics, while the Typhoon’s canards function differently. During high-speed flight, the coupling lift effect generated by the canard vortex and the main wing vortex on the J-10 provides considerable lift for the entire aircraft, especially in subsonic and transonic conditions. The Typhoon’s canards, on the other hand, essentially operate independently from the main wing and have a smaller area, offering minimal lift. Their primary purpose is supersonic trimming, relying on the dual engines’ power during subsonic and transonic phases. This once again proves that the Typhoon’s design emphasis is on high-altitude, high-speed performance.
Thanks to its aerodynamic layout, the J-10 achieved an impressive angle of attack, reaching up to 27.6 degrees during test flights, with a normal capability of 26 degrees, compared to the Typhoon’s 24 degrees. This means that, being canard-configured fighters, the J-10, under equivalent altitude and wind conditions, can generate stronger coupled lift. Pakistani pilots might have used their experience to lure Qatari pilots into low to mid-altitude engagements, relying on the J-10CE’s superior instantaneous nose-pointing capability to secure a one-sided outcome.
Although it was a simulated air-to-air combat, the differences in armament cannot be ignored. From publicly available information, the Pakistani J-10CE is equipped with an AESA radar and PL-15E medium-range missiles, providing some advantages against AIM-120 series missiles. However, the Typhoon’s Meteor beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile is also formidable, with a range exceeding 140 kilometers and a two-way data link ensuring secondary attack capability. If Qatari pilots faced disadvantages in medium-range air combat, it might be due to the less mature “Captor-E” radar.
In close-quarters dogfights, the J-10CE has a joint helmet-mounted display and PL-10E close-combat missile, while the Typhoon is equipped with the “Striker” head-up display and AIM-132 dogfight missile, essentially making them evenly matched. If there was any discrepancy in this process, it would be attributed to the key factor to be discussed next – human capability.
Looking at the timeline, the Qatar Air Force received the Typhoon a bit earlier than the Pakistan Air Force received the J-10CE, and their training duration is also likely shorter. Moreover, the Pakistan Air Force, as a heavily invested military branch, frequently engages with the Indian Air Force, equipped with heavy fighters, providing them with more combat experience. The quality of both air and ground crews is incomparable, and after entering close-quarters dogfights, the pressure on pilots increases dramatically, making the gap in operational capabilities even more apparent.
What’s intriguing is that the 12th squadron participating from the Qatar Air Force is, in fact, a joint UK-Qatar force, with some pilots being British. In other words, the Pakistani pilots and the J-10CE faced a combination of pure NATO tactics, NATO aircraft, and NATO pilots, which could be a crucial factor for us in terms of experience. (Wang Yanan)