Thursday 26 November 2020, 08:40 PM
IS THERE A CHALLENGE FROM THE PLAAF?
By Air Marshal Dhiraj Kukreja (Retd.) | Bharat Defence Kavach | Publish Date: 7/24/2020 12:20:47 PM
IS THERE A CHALLENGE FROM THE PLAAF?
Indian Air Force Pilots

Recent events of the last few months, on the border with China, both in the Eastern and Western sectors, have seen China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) deploy troops in border positions near Galwan and Pangong Tso in the Western Sector in Ladakh, and in the Naku La area of Sikkim in the East, representing a significant escalation in the ongoing regional competition between the two Asian powers. One admits, standoffs and limited clashes in disputed territory are not unprecedented, but these are different. These are the first major PLA incursions into territory that both sides’ maps recognise as being on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) – the de facto border between the two countries. It is too premature to infer precisely what caused this latest escalation, and considering the massive concentration of troops and hardware of both armies in Ladakh, even as this piece is being written, whether the talks to de-escalate would be successful; nevertheless, one can possibly make an attempt to identify the various geostrategic factors which may have contributed to China’s decision to mount this incursion.

Chinese Airforce pilots.

 

The decision to escalate tensions on the Indian border by China, even as it adopts a more conciliatory stance with some of its other neighbours, fits with what some scholars view as China’s approach to counter-containment – the strategy of selectively and sequentially targeting individual members, of what it views as a nascent encircling alliance, in order to prevent such a tie-up.  The incursions could also represent a form of coercive issue linkage, whereby it applies pressure on disputed territories to secure concessions with regards to another contentious issue. In the current case, China could be holding out an offer to withdraw from encroached Indian territory, as well as minimise the threat of further escalations, as a lever with which to shape Indian policies, which it considers as inimical to its interests.

It may interest the readers to learn that the entire border/LAC with India is under the jurisdiction of China’s Western Theatre Command (WTC), which includes the erstwhile Tibet and Xinjiang military districts. On paper, PLA forces in the WTC operate at a significant advantage to their Indian counterparts; PLA fields 230,000 troops compared to the 225,000 troops which can be mobilised from India’s Northern, Central and Eastern commands. However, the ground infrastructure with road and rail links on the Chinese side of the border, vastly outstrips Indian efforts, which translates in to a easy and rapid transfer forces to the region. In contrast, many of the roads on which the Indian Army relies upon, terminate some distance from the front lines of a likely conflict area; railheads are negligible! While India has made significant progress in developing its border area infrastructure, most of it is in the Eastern sector; that India has a lot of catching up to do, is undisputed.

China continues to invest heavily in logistics and infrastructure development in Tibet to facilitate rapid deployment in Tibet. As per one estimate, there are 14 major airbases and 20 small airstrips (cannot really support fighter operations) in Tibet from which PLA Air Force (PLAAF) can conduct its operations against India; the concentration of these airfields, however, is in the East, opposite Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim, a few in the central Tibet region, while only three can be used against the IAF in Ladakh.


Ngari Gunsa, a new civil/military airfield in Lhasa, in SW Tibet, is at about 50 kms from the Uttarakhand border, but more than 200 kms from Leh; Khasgar and Hotan are in the Xinjiang region of the WTC, but at a distance of 570 kms and 330 kms, respectively, from Leh, although closer to the current area of dispute. A disadvantageous characteristic of operating from these airbases is their high elevation; almost all are at 4000m amsl, necessitating long runway lengths for takeoff and imposing severe limitations in the carriage of fuel and payload; aerial refuelling, hence, would become a critical essential to carry a reasonable payload against targets in Ladakh. Another unfavourable feature of operating from these airbases is the unpredictable weather due to the mountainous region, thus once again, imposing restrictions on operations. Nonetheless, these airbases can be utilised to launch operations against India, provided PLAAF uses the requisite aircraft! 

These disadvantages are not so applicable for the IAF, which, apart from Leh, has all its launch-pads at a comfortable altitude, thus permitting full payload and fuel. As many as 31 Indian airfields, nine in the Western and 22 in the Eastern sector – are located close to the LAC. In addition, India has multiple advance landing grounds (ALG) in both sectors of which Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO), Fukche, and Nyoma, are in Ladakh, the area of current concern. IAF heavy-lift aircraft have landed on all three ALGs, thus facilitating quick response for the airlift of troops and other armament.

The number of aircraft that the PLAAF can field in the Tibet region, towards Aksai Chin, is another point for capability assessment. Recent movement of aircraft and assessments made there indicate an availability of about 150-200 aircraft of various types. Reportedly, variants of J-7, J-10, Su-27 and J-11 fighter aircraft are likely to be used against India in the current scenario; of these, fighters with a superior performance (Su-27, J-10/11) can be expected to be effective from the high-elevation airfields mentioned above, while operations with the J-7 would be severely constrained.

J-20, Chinese Fighter

 

The IAF can muster an equivalent or maybe, even a larger number of aircraft for use in Eastern Ladakh area; the number that can be deployed all along the LAC is very large, but it includes the Eastern and Central parts of the country too. Of course, the PLAAF can bring in more aircraft from other theatre commands for an India-contingency, but lack of proper basing facilities and the operational situation existing in the other regions would limit this number. One needs to remember, that while China is harassing India in Ladakh, it is itself vulnerable opposite Taiwan, in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, all fronts of its own making! This places the IAF at an advantage as against the numerical strength available to the PLAAF in the Ladakh area.

Even qualitatively, the PLAAF is at a disadvantage with respect to the IAF. Most of the PLAAF’s existing fleet, made up primarily of J-10s, J-11s, SU-27 and SU-30, is not as capable as the IAF’s Su-30 MKIs, Mirage-2000s and MiG-29UPGs, despite contrary claims by Chinese strategists and media mouthpieces. An aircraft that the IAF would do well to watch out for is the J-20, the latest, most modern and advanced aircraft in the PLAAF inventory. The J-20 entered service sometime in 2017; while its participation in exercises in the Tibet region of the WTC generated much hype in the Indian media, it has mainly been deployed opposite Taiwan in the Eastern Theatre Command (ETC), for obvious reasons. The PLAAF claims it to be a game-changer, but it may not be as much as a “Powerful Dragon” as claimed, since reportedly it has some serious limitations; the aircraft does not have as low a radar signature as claimed, especially in the side and rear aspects; originally designed to use Chinese turbofan engines, which have not been made available, the causes for which are not found in the open domain, the PLAAF is forced to use other Chinese/Russian engines that significantly compromise its stealth profile and manoeuvrability. In the long term, what should be of deeper concern to the IAF is the PLAAF demands for a long-range strategic bomber with a range of over 8000 kms, without refuelling, and a payload of over 10 tonnes; this, along with the latest variant of the H-6 bomber, the H-6K, that can carry six cruise missiles, which have a range of around 1,500 km, can blunt IAF’s capability to launch its air power.

Sukhoi 30 Indian Fighter

 

The social media and the TV channels are abuzz with the news that some PLAAF fighter aircraft had been deployed in Skardu, in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK); fact checks are to the contrary. Reports have indicated the presence of an IL-78, air-to-air refuelling aircraft, some time ago; the news could have been a part of psy-ops by China, although the possibility does exist. PLAAF and the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) have been carrying out joint exercises in the POK and Pakistan, the last being conducted in 2019. The axis may not be a threat at present, but requires close and constant monitoring.

This is just a broad comparison of numbers and types of fighter aircraft and may not make for a realistic assessment. IAF has a definite edge in the availability of helicopters, especially after the induction of the Apache gunship, and Chinook heavy-lift helicopter. Drones, air defence have not been included in this assessment; hence, a more detailed analysis needs to be done, which the author is quite certain that it would already have been completed in the required offices dealing with national security. Suffice it to say that the IAF is almost at par, if not holding an advantage against the PLAAF in the current area of concern. In so far as the entire WTC is concerned, the PLAAF, which always had a numerical advantage over the IAF, has, in the recent past, begun to edge past qualitatively too. The PLAAF threat is present, and considering the lethargy of the policy makers towards enhancing the IAF combat strength, one can only hope for the best in the unlikely event of an all-out war on two fronts.

 

Air Marshal Dhiraj Kukreja (Retd.)

Tags:

India border with China,India-China border,Naku La,India China disputed territory,India China standoff

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