[Analytics] Chinese J-10C vs US F-16V: Which fighter would prevail in an air war

J-10C '4++ generation' fighter jet pilot. Photo: Military Watch Magazine. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

Entering service in 2017 and 2018 respectively, the American F-16V and Chinese J-10C represent two of the most capable lightweight fighter jets in production today and considerable improvements over older baseline fourth generation designs. With each weighing approximately 13,000kg, deploying similarly sized radars, similar single engine configurations and similar weapons payloads, the aircraft are in many ways highly comparable. Both are being marketed for export today. Military Watch has observed both models.

The large majority of fighter jet classes in production today are configured with twin engines, from heavyweights such as the J-20 and F-15EX to medium designs such as the MiG-35 and Eurofighter, and even lightweight platforms such as the Kowsar and upcoming Taiwanese Brave Eagle. This places the J-10 and F-16 in a class of their own among modern fighter designs.

While other less prominent single engine designs are in production today, notably the Gripen, JF-17 and Tejas, these are all lighter and less capable than the American and Chinese platforms. The American F-35A is the only other prominent contemporary single engine fighter, although it is still very far from ready for high intensity combat and is unlikely to be until near the end of the decade. While the fifth generation design has considerable potential, it is much heavier, requires much more maintenance and is considerably more expensive to operate than the F-16 and J-10 which limits the possibility of making direct comparisons. Comparing the J-10C and the F-16V, however, can offer valuable insight into the state of Chinese and American military aviation – and which will prevail both in a potential conflict and on export markets.

The first F-16s entered service in 1978, meaning the airframe is now approaching 45 years old with no orders for the type from the U.S. Military for several years. The F-16V’s alterations to the original design are relatively conservative. There are no reductions to the radar cross section or applications of stealth coatings and no improvements to the F110 engine’s thrust have been made. Upgrades are restricted to avionics, with new cockpit displays, electronic warfare systems and an AESA radar all integrated. The fighter deploys the same AIM-120C missile as regular F-16 variants, although some reports indicate it could integrate AIM-120D missiles with a longer 180km range in future. The F-16V overall represents a cheaper idea for an ‘enhanced F-16’ to the F-16E – developed for the United Arab Emirates, the F-2 developed for Japan, and the F-21 concept currently being marketed to India – all of which have seen far more ambitious enhancements from high composite airframes and new more powerful engines.

The first J-10 fighters entered service in 2006, with the design benefitting from new technologies developed since the 1970s to provide a leading single engine platform. The fighter was slightly lighter than the F-16 but had a superior flight performance, with a more powerful AL-31 engine exceeding the capabilities of the American F110, a higher speed and operational altitude and superior manoeuvrability. Although its engine was more powerful, the airframe was slightly lighter which further increases its manoeuvrability advantage. There was not a single field in which the F-16 could boast superior capabilities over the J-10. Not only is the J-10 design more advanced, but the J-10C has seen more comprehensive improvements compared to the original design than the F-16V has relative to the original Fighting Falcon. These have included a reduced radar cross section, applications of stealth coatings, a greater use of composite materials a new more powerful AESA radar and integration of PL-15 air to air missiles. The PL-15 has an estimated range of 250-300km, comfortably outperforming any existing American design. The J-10C also benefits from integration of new WS-10B engines, which further increases the discrepancy between its own thrust and that of the F-16 with the new engine boasting considerably greater power than the AL-31. The WS-10B also benefits from three dimensional thrusts vectoring systems – the only non-Russian fighter to do so – providing a massive advantage in manoeuvrability. The F-16 has not integrated any kind of thrust vectoring engines.

Ultimately the superiority of the J-10C is overwhelming. The two jets may be well matched in terms of electronic warfare systems and situational awareness – although export variants of the F-16V will have a disadvantage due to downgraded avionics – the J-10C’s advantages in weaponry and flight performance are overwhelming. As stealth fighters continue to proliferate, the J-10 also has the advantage of integrating an infra red search and tracking system (IRST) allowing it to more effectively lock onto stealth fighters at medium ands short ranges. An IRST also allows the fighter to maintain high situational awareness without a radar signature if needed – something the F-16 cannot do. The discrepancy in the capabilities of the American and Chinese single engine fighters is reflected in the fact that the former much older design has not seen interest from the U.S. Air Force – while the J-10C continues to be mass produced and fielded by elite Chinese units.

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