IAF IN A TWO-FRONT WAR
Geopolitics|October 2020
IAF IN A TWO-FRONT WAR
Though the Indian Air Force now has credible “strategic reach” from the Persian Gulf to the Straits of Malacca, it needs more fighter planes, more air defence systems and more missiles to manage a possible joint threat from China and Pakistan, argues Air Marshal ANIL CHOPRA
ANIL CHOPRA

War clouds continue to hover over Ladakh. Despite many rounds of meetings at Corps Commander and Brigade Commander level, there is no change in ground position. Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) troops have taken positions at a few places on the Indian side of Line of Actual Control (LAC). On the other hand, Indian Army (IA) has heavily reinforced its positions with troops and weapon systems. IA currently occupies some important high ground that puts the PLA on the defensive at many points.

Meanwhile, there has been a meeting at the Defence Minister's level at Moscow where they have shared each others position and shown desire to de-escalate. More important was the meeting between the two Foreign Ministers, again at Moscow, on the sidelines of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meeting, where a five-point plan has been evolved to act as guidance to maintain peace and tranquillity in the border areas and avoid any action that could escalate matters. The Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China border affairs (WMCC), should also continue its meetings. As per plan, further military-level talks are being scheduled.

On the other hand, there have been high-level visits to Ladakh by the Indian Prime Minister, Defence Minister, and the Army and Air Force Chiefs. The Indian Air Force (IAF) Chief has also visited some the Eastern Air Command airbases to take stock of operational preparedness. Indian Army and IAF have not only moved operational assets into Ladakh region, but also strengthened forces all along the northern border. Indian Navy is on heightened alert in the Indian Ocean. IAF has greatly supported move of IA assets including tanks and other mechanised vehicles and equipment by air. IAF Su-30 MKI, Jaguars, MiG 29s and even LCA have moved to some forward locations.

Multiple fronts by China

Expansionist China has all of a sudden opened up multiple fronts. The COVID-19 pandemic is reeling high across the world; the Hong Kong security law has antagonised the locals and galvanised the world, especially Europe; China is acting strong against both Taiwan and Japan; the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is running into serious debt issues; and there is a wave of uprising in Xinjiang. Among all this China has decided military posturing in Ladakh. After the firing incident in Galwan, the PLA had been put on the second-highest alert state, implying preparation for war. After what the Chinese did in South China Sea (SCS), there is a level of general distrust for Chinese strong man Xi Jinping. USA, Japan, Australia and India are becoming closer and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) is perhaps heading towards a more serious security alliance. World's past experience is that the countries who stood up to Chinese military or diplomatic pressure force them to back off. India has seen this in Doklam and earlier in Sikkim. The same happened with Vietnam.

Defence proportionality- China

End of the Cold war and rise of China realigned the world power equations. The geo-strategic ‘Centre of Gravity’ has shifted from trans-Atlantic to Indo-Pacific. Rising China is of great concern to USA who sees a challenger to its global dominance. United States would want a uni-polar world and a bi-polar Asia, but China is working towards a bi-polar world with uni-polar Asia. India has to fit in this aspiration matrix. Both of India’s neighbours not only have deployed nuclear weapons, but Pakistan has a clearly enunciated ‘first-use’ nuclear policy against India. China continues to rapidly modernise and make its military more capable through significant defence spending. At the same time the Indian military preparedness continues to slide due low capital budgets and delayed acquisitions, rapidly shifting the force numbers and capability in China's favour. India’s economy is roughly five times smaller than China’s. The Chinese defence budget is around 3.5 times bigger than India's. Therefore India must use international diplomacy to make sure that such a collusive war does not take place. Meanwhile Indian military must urgently make qualitative and quantitative improvements.

Aerospace dominance- key to all operations

China has taken the leaf from the American strategic thought and is also convinced that 'who controls the aerospace, controls the planet'. It can thus be seen that they are concentrating the power build-up in aerospace technologies. They are making huge investments in technologies and capabilities related to space, hypersonic flight, stealth jets, strategic bombers and airlifters, long-range missiles, aircraft carriers, unmanned systems, Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities among others. China is also investing heavily in gamechanger technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI), robotics, advanced materials, cyber, and information warfare. they are spending in excess of $25 billion a year in Defence Research and Development (R&D). India has to factor all this in its assessment. For the surface forces to win the war, it is imperative that IAF dominates the air war.

Peoples Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF)

PLAAF is the second largest air force in the world with 330,000 personnel and nearly 2,800 mainstream aircraft including 1,900 combat planes, 700 of which are fourth-generation plus. In the last two decades it has made the great strides in developing airpower capability, albeit, it remains work still-in-progress. The introduction of fourth-generation fighters, bombers, large transporters, unmanned aircraft, long-range air-to-air missiles (AAM) and advanced cruise missiles has transformed it from a defensive force to one that can project Chinese power throughout Asia and its eastern Pacific seaboard. Its current modern combat aircraft holdings include 24 SU 35, 76 SU-30 MKK, 130 J-16, 350 J-11, and 500 J-10 fighters. As per Chinese media, PLAAF has inducted nearly 50 fifth-generation J-20 stealth aircraft.

They operate 120 H-6 bombers, and 23 Ilyushin IL-76, 69 Shaanxi Y-8/Y-9 transport aircraft among many others. China developed the KJ2000 AEW&C with radar and avionics mounted on IL-76 aircraft. China has also developed the KJ-200 by installing a simplified system onboard the Shaanxi Y-8. Plans are to modify a Boeing 737-800 to host the radar. KJ-3000, a newer variant with next-generation radar is already under development. On April 6, 2015, a new Chinese KJ-500 AEW&C based on Y-9 turboprop airframe (An-12 copy) entered service and will eventually replace the eleven KJ-200s in service. There are also four export models of the same (DK-03) in Pakistan. Shaanxi Y-9/Y-8 based 20 Electronic warfare aircraft and 4 Tupolev Tu-154 ELINT aircraft are for support roles. Around seven Y-20 strategic airlift aircraft have been inducted. Another 40 have already been ordered. China is reportedly working on a stealth bomber designated as H-18. 10 Xian H-6 are the main flight refueling aircraft (FRA) along with a few IL-78. PLAAF has nearly 150 helicopters include Z-9, Z-18, Mi-8/Mi-17, and Eurocopter AS332 Super Puma.

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October 2020