The PLAAF will pose a daunting challenge for the IAF whose combat fleet at this juncture is short of the numbers required and less capable than the adversary
The confrontation on the Doklam plateau in Bhutan between the Indian security forces and elements of the People’s Liberation Army Ground Force (PLAGF) of the People’s Republic of China that flared up on June 18 this year, is embedded with all the ominous possibilities of escalating into a wider conflict in the future. While the armies of both China and India are consolidating their respective positions to be prepared to engage in a prolonged conflict, it should only be expected that the Indian Air Force (IAF) would be called upon to provide the necessary logistical support as also to carry out reconnaissance and surveillance missions as and when required.
However, there is every possibility that the faceoff may not remain confined to being merely a case of sporadic conflict on the border and could well escalate into a major conflict or even a full scale war between the two nations. In such an eventuality, the IAF will be fully involved with all platforms in its fleet led by the fleet of combat aircraft spearheading the employment of air power with the required degree of lethality. The combat fleet of the IAF would also have to confront the challenges posed by the fighter aircraft of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). As both the nations possess nuclear weapons, it would be necessary for the planners in the IAF to factor in the possibility of nuclear exchange into their plans, lest they be caught off guard.
Combat Fleet of the IAF
Today the IAF is the fourth largest Air Force in the world with the authorised strength its combat fleet being just over 800 aircraft. Unfortunately, owing to a very tardy process of modernisation of the IAF over the last decade and a half, the strength of the combat fleet has progressively declined to 600 platforms primarily due to obsolescence. Of the 600 combat aircraft currently on the inventory of the IAF, the fleet of Su-30 MKI which presently numbers around 200, is of the fourth generation. By the end of 2019, the IAF is expected to have a fleet of 272 Su-30 MKI aircraft followed by another 40 by 2024, taking the strength to 312. The remaining 400 aircraft currently held in the fleet that are of the third generation include the Mirage 2000, MiG-29, MiG-27, MiG-21 Bison and the Jaguar. These vintage aircraft acquired over three decades or more ago, are operating with extension of airframe life having undergone extensive mid-life upgrade in respect of primarily avionics and weapons systems. As things stand today, in the event of a war with China, at this juncture, the IAF can field only the Su-30 MKI as the multi-role frontline fighter aircraft. However, the Su-30 MKI fleet is afflicted with issues related to the serviceability of the fleet which would adversely affect availability of aircraft on the flight line and place the IAF in a position of disadvantage. The Mirage 2000 fleet will be able to provide limited back up in a multi-role profile. The MiG-29 and the MiG-21 Bison can be employed primarily in the Air Defence role to ensure security of air bases. The fleets of Jaguar and the MiG-27 will have practically no role to play in a conflict with China as it would involve air operations at high altitudes.
Failure of plans of the IAF to induct up to 200 of the fourth generation Rafale jets from Dassault of France, has resulted in serious erosion of its operational capability. Induction of 36 Rafale jets instead that is expected to be delivered to the IAF in the period 2019-2022, will provide only partial relief to the IAF. The plan to develop and manufacture the fifth generation fighter aircraft jointly with the Russian aerospace industry based on the T-50 PAK FA from Sukhoi, is moving at a snail’s pace rendering the time frame of availability of this platform to the IAF completely uncertain. The indigenous light combat aircraft Tejas is likely to take several years to be fully operational. The IAF cannot rely on this indigenous platform to enhance its operational capability significantly. The indigenous Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) is proposed to be a twinengine, fifth generation multi-role stealth fighter. However, it is still on the drawing board and hence is not relevant to the present context of possible confrontation with the PLAAF. The proposal to invite a foreign original equipment manufacturer of a proven single engine fighter aircraft to jointly produce the platform in India in large numbers under the Make in India scheme, appears to be in limbo and is unlikely to fructify in a reasonable time frame, leaving the IAF literally in the lurch.
IN THE EVENT OF A WAR WITH CHINA, AT THIS JUNCTURE, THE IAF CAN FIELD ONLY THE SU-30 MKI AS THE MULTIROLE FRONTLINE FIGHTER AIRCRAFT. HOWEVER, THE SU-30 MKI FLEET IS AFFLICTED WITH ISSUES RELATED TO THE SERVICEABILITY OF THE FLEET WHICH WOULD ADVERSELY AFFECT AVAILABILITY OF AIRCRAFT ON THE FLIGHT LINE AND PLACE THE IAF IN A POSITION OF DISADVANTAGE.
In the final analysis, with the possibility of war with China looming large over the horizon, the IAF will have no option but to manage with the current holding of combat aircraft as listed above. In other words “The IAF will fight with what it has”, a rhetoric often heard from the highest echelons of the service, will be indeed be a brute reality.
Combat Fleet of the PLAF
Currently the third largest Air Force in the world and equipped with 1700 combat aircraft, nearly three times that with the IAF, the PLAAF is striving to displace the Russian Air Force and occupy the second slot by 2020 rubbing shoulders with the United States Air Force that occupies the top slot. The combat fleet of the PLAAF has a judicious mix of third, fourth and fourth plus generation platforms. The PLAAF is embarked on an ambitious modernisation drive that began twenty years ago. It acquired from Russia, the Su-30 MKK, an advanced version of Su-30 and the Su-30 MK2 air dominance fighters. Currently over 200 of these aircraft are in service with the PLAAF.
The major achievement of China however, has been the successful indigenisation of the Chinese aerospace industry as evident in the fourth plus generation Shenyang J-11B. This is an advanced platform based on the Su-27 initially acquired from Russia and later produced indigenously. Equipped with advanced avionics and radar, both produced indigenously, performance of the J-11B is reported to be as good if not superior to that of the Su-30 MKI operated by the IAF. Including all variants of this platform, the PLAAF has over 250 of these aircraft in service. Amongst the other aircraft operational in the combat fleet of the PLAAF are the over 400 of the multi-role Chengdu J-10, 50 of the multi-role Shenyang J-16, 75 of the Su-27, 73 of the Su-30 MKK and 24 of the Su-35 acquired recently from Russia. The PLAAF has made an entry into the fifth generation with the induction in March this year of the indigenously designed, developed and manufactured Chengdu J-20, a multirole, stealth fighter aircraft. Quite interestingly, the J-20 bears a striking resemblance with the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightening II Joint Strike Fighter. With only 32 J-20 aircraft inducted so far, the fleet is expected to reach full strength by 2018.
The Chinese aerospace industry continues to forge ahead as it is currently developing more capable platforms of the fifth generation. On top of the list is the Shenyang J-31 also known as the Shenyang FC-31. This is a twinengine, multi-role combat aircraft with stealth features. The prototype undertook its maiden flight in October 2012 and is expected to enter service in the period 2018–19.
A Formidable Challenge for the IAF
Over the last decade, China has been engaged in the development of a string of military airfields in Tibet and has significantly enhanced the facilities on the ground for combat aircraft of the PLAAF to operate from. The disadvantage of limitations on payload carried by combat aircraft while operating from airfields in Tibet that are located at medium to high altitudes, has been offset to a large extent through the employment of Flight Refuelling Aircraft (FRA). In 2015, the PLAAF acquired the Russian IL-78 FRA and subsequently converted the Xian H-6 medium range bomber for this role. Operations by combat aircraft of the PLAAF is also supported by a fleet of Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) aircraft such as the IL-76-based KJ-2000 and the smaller AN-12- based KJ -200. With the help of these force multipliers, the capability of the combat fleet of the PLAAF the strength of which is already three times that of the combat fleet of the IAF will be further enhanced. Thus qualitatively, the PLAAF will pose a daunting challenge for the IAF whose combat fleet at this juncture and even in the foreseeable future, is likely to remain short of the numbers required and by and large, less capable than the adversary.