On balance, the PLAAF is at a competitive disadvantage on the Tibetan plateau because the payload is significantly reduced at bases at high altitudes
On June 16 this year, India-China relations worsened significantly when soldiers of the Indian Army stopped the Chinese from road construction work in the Doklam Plateau which sits astride the tri-junction between China, Bhutan and the Indian state of Sikkim. In the following weeks, both China and India took a firm stand, made combative statements and showed no intention of backing off. Eventually, military conflict was avoided and both militaries backed off, but the episode underscored the need to assess the opposition Indian military could face in case of a conflict. This article addresses the challenge posed by People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) of China in the North East region of India.
The PLAAF has been modernised over the last two decades qualitatively. It received 76 Su-27SK/UBK and 100 Su-30MKK/MK2 fighter jets from Russia starting in the 1990s and then built another 105 Su-27SK under licence. From the technology thus gained, it built the J-11B, which included Chinese avionics and radars that are even more advanced than that on the Russian Su-30s. The range of the J-11Bs is more than 3,500 km and with a top speed of Mach 2.35, it is more than a match for India’s Su-30MKI. Thus qualitatively, the PLAAF is a daunting challenge which is rendered even more menacing by the fact that the PLAAF has around three times more combat aircraft than the Indian Air Force (IAF) has on its inventory.
A PLAAF Air Division is believed to have around 72 aircraft. The aircraft deployment in erstwhile Lanzhou and Chengdu Military Regions (MRs) can be expected to be deployable in the airfields usable against India. Chengdu MR had two fighter divisions (with J-7H, J-7II, J-10A, Su-27SK and J-11 fighters) and a transport division, whereas Lanzhou MR had two fighter divisions (J-7H, J-7II, J-8F, J-8H, JH-7A, J-11 and J-11B) and a bomber division (H-6). The prefix ‘J’ denotes a fighter and ‘H’ denotes a bomber. Thus there could be around 300 fighters and 72 bombers that could be tasked in the Western Theatre. The fighter aircraft of the PLAAF i.e. Su-27, J-10 and J-11/J-11B with better performance, can be expected to be somewhat effective from the high elevation airports in Tibet while the others may be severely constrained operationally.
Last year, China disclosed its new generation H-6K strategic bomber that has a combat radius of 3,500 km and is equipped with the DH-20 land-attack cruise missile. Since 2010, the PLAAF has been deploying Su-27SK/Su-27UBK/J-11A at the dual-use airports at Lhasa Gonggar (facing Sikkim and Northern West Bengal) and Ngari (facing Ladakh in Jammu & Kashmir) twice every year for two-week deployment periods.
Pentagon’s Annual Report of 2016 to the US Congress on security and military developments in China flags the gradual enhancement of military presence along the India-China border while stating that this development could be due to internal compulsions of tightening control over Tibet. According to one recent estimate, there are 14 major airbases on the Tibetan Plateau and 20 small airstrips from which the PLAAF could conduct air operations against India. It is not easy to execute air operations from within the TAR because of the unpredictable weather and the high elevation of the airfields. There are severe limitations on the fuel and weapon payload carried from these airfields and air-to-air refuelling would become critical to launching reasonable payloads against target systems in India. Nonetheless, each of these airports, even when not integrated with PLAAF, has some extent of military role.
Recently, the then Minister of Defence, Arun Jaitley, iterated that the Indian armed forces are ready to face any eventuality, adding “no one should have any doubt on preparedness of the forces”. However, combat aircraft shortage of the IAF is alarming and the most optimistic projection for the current 32 Squadron strength to reach the sanctioned 42 Squadrons, is 2027 at the earliest. The 36 Rafale jets deal is a small consolation and in any case its consummation in terms of commencement of delivery, will not happen in the near future. Meanwhile, the total strength of Su-30MKIs is still building up to the planned strength of 272 which it will reach by 2019. India has reportedly deployed four Squadrons of Su-30 MKI fighters in Chabua and Tezpur obviously with China in mind.
INDIA HAS DONE WELL BY NOT SUCCUMBING TO CHINESE PRESSURE IN DOKLAM AND WILL NOT END UP IN AN IGNOMINIOUS SITUATION IN A WAR IN THE AIR
In addition to the deployment of fighter squadrons at the airfields existing in the region, India is speeding up the upgradation and renovation of Advanced Landing Grounds (ALGs) especially in Arunachal Pradesh where the Chinese threat is most likely to come. Seven ALGs at Mechuka, Ziro, Along, Walong, Pasighat, Tuting and Tawang are operational and another ALG is proposed to be reconstructed at Vijaynagar; but some delay is expected as the roads serving that area are inadequate to supporting the task. Su-30 MKIs could operationally use some of these ALGs as demonstrated on August 19 this year at Pasighat which is just 100 km from the nearest Chinese border. In September, a Su-30 MKI landed at Agartala, a civil airport. While the deployment of the Su-30 MKI and its exploration of the North East for maximum operational use is reassuring, the total strength we could deploy is disquieting.
As far as target systems are concerned, the Chinese terrain across the border is at an average elevation of 14,700 ft above mean seal level (AMSL) and is largely a desert with hardly any population and no industrial complexes. The road and rail networks are the only worthwhile targets besides the airports themselves and of course, military clusters. On the Indian side, airports and big cities are comparatively closer to the border and thus tilt the balance somewhat in favour of China in terms of vulnerability in the context of targets offered for aerial strikes.
On balance, the PLAAF is at a competitive disadvantage on the Tibetan plateau because the payload is significantly reduced at bases at high altitudes. The IAF, on the other hand, can operate with ease from its many airfields located in the plains in both the Western and Eastern theatres without compromising on its payload capabilities. Lack of support infrastructure in air bases on the Tibetan Plateau is also a concern for the PLAAF. Most of these bases lack hardened shelters to protect aircraft on the ground, leaving them vulnerable to aerial strike. Lower levels of support infrastructure would make it difficult for the PLAAF to carry out large-scale air operations in a sustained manner.
India has done well by not succumbing to Chinese pressure in Doklam and as is evident from the foregoing, will not end up in an ignominious situation as far as the war in the air is concerned. While one hopes that military confrontation would be avoided in future as well, India should prepare for the contingency where the PLAAF challenge in the North East needs to be taken head on. The objective should be that, in the conventional arena, India should upstage the numerically superior PLAAF by dint of the advantages of more favourable terrain and far better operational training.