In 2014, the IAF had informed the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence that, given the state its combat fleet was in, it would be difficult to manage a two-front war
In the context of the recent deal for 36 Rafale combat aircraft, remarks by the Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), Air Chief Marshal B.S. Dhanoa about India facing a grave threat from its adversaries, has brought to the fore the discourse on a possible ‘two-front war’ that India may have to face in the future. Although the possibility of China and Pakistan openly colluding to carry out coordinated operations as an alliance against India may appear remote, a two-front war scenario could still confront India if one of the two escalates the present state of ‘no war, no peace’ to a conventional war and the other decides to derive strategic advantage from the situation. From the Chinese and Pakistani point of view, it would make good sense for such complementary action against a common adversary and would put India in a difficult state. In 2014, the Indian Air Force (IAF) had informed the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence that, given the state its combat fleet was in, it would be difficult to manage a two-front war. At that point in time, the strength of the combat fleet of the IAF stood at 34 squadrons as against the newly authorised level of 42 squadrons. As of now, the figure has dropped to 31 squadrons.
In March 2016, Air Marshal B.S. Dhanoa, the then Vice Chief of the Air Staff, had said, “Our numbers are not adequate to fully execute an air campaign in a two-front war scenario”. Statements from him after taking over as the CAS once again reflect the admission that the IAF cannot match the combined strength of China and Pakistan. So what is the threat looming over the horizon?
PEOPLE’S LIBERATION ARMY AIR FORCE (PLAAF)
According to World Air Forces 2018, a publication from Flight Global, an aviation and intelligence company, China has 1527 combat aircraft against India’s 804. This nearly 2:1 ratio is a cause for concern. The qualitative aspects of the aircraft inventories of China and India cannot be discussed in the short space available here, but some points can be made to evaluate the threat posed by the PLAAF. After a reorganisation exercise in 2015, around 300 fighters and 72 bombers have been deployed in Lanzhou and Chengdu Military Regions. China has been increasing deployment of its combat aircraft at dual-use airports in Tibet for both offensive and defensive missions against India. The fighter fleet includes J-7H, JH-7A, J-7II, J-8F, J-8H, J-10A, Su-27SK, J-11 and J-11B. Of these, Su-27SK, J-10A and J-11/J-11B have comparatively superior performance and can be expected to be fairly effective from the high elevation airports in Tibet while the others may be severely constrained operationally. The J-11B has a performance that is better than Indian Su-30 MKI. In future, J-20 and FC-31 fifth-generation, multirole, stealth aircraft could be expected to join the fray. 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.
A shortfall of over ten fighter squadrons exists which severely affects the IAF’s capability to take on its hostile neighbours
According to one recent estimate, there are 14 major airbases in 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 Tibet because of the unpredictable weather and the high altitudes at which the airfields are located. There are severe limitations on the fuel and weapon payload carried from these airfields and air-to-air refuelling would become critical to launching aircraft carrying reasonable payloads against targets in India. Nonetheless, each of these airports, even when not integrated with the PLAAF, has some degree of role to support operations by the PLAAF. Coming to nuclear capability, a new long range bomber (H-20) with nuclear capability is under development and is expected to join China’s nuclear triad before 2025. However, the PLAAF has not had much experience of actual aerial warfare and thus there is an interrogation mark over its possible performance in actual combat operations against the IAF.
PAKISTAN AIR FORCE (PAF)
On the other hand, Pakistan Air Force (PAF) is battle-hardened and a potent force that would pose a challenge for the IAF. Up till the 1980s, the US supplied the PAF with combat aircraft, but after the Pressler Amendment in 1985, US holdback led to Pakistan approaching China which willingly stepped in to provide aircraft and equipment to the PAF. According to Flight Global, the PAF currently has 20 combat squadrons consisting of about 410 combat aircraft. Some other sources indicate a figure of 465 combat aircraft. According to Flight Global, the PAF holds around 70 JF-17s, 45 F-16s, 69 Mirage IIIs, 90 Mirage Vs and 136 F-7s. The JF-17 Thunder is a Chinese design fighter aircraft co-produced in Pakistan by Aeronautical Complex, Kamra and Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group, China. The JF-17 is claimed to be a fourth-generation, multi-role aircraft. Apart from the 70 JF 17 on the inventory of the PAF, there are reports of another 100 being on order. The PAF plans to acquire a total of 250 to replace its Mirage IIIs and F-7s. Some of these would be Block 2 version with 4.5 generation features while some more would be Block 3 which are expected to have fifth-generation characteristics. The PAF is also said to have placed an order for 36 Chinese J-10 (4.5 generation) aircraft. The J-10 is expected to be inducted as the FC-20, an advanced PAF-specific variant.
The PAF is a highly skilled and well trained force with good exposure to modern aircraft and tactics through its relations with the West, especially the US. Moreover, it is constantly endeavouring to remain close to the leading edge of combat aircraft technology. Thus, while the PAF has a lesser number of combat aircraft, it is well equipped, admirably trained and could be expected to display high morale in a stand-off with the IAF.
Earlier in this write up, the possibility of China and Pakistan colluding in a coordinated attack against India was stated to be low. However, it must be kept in mind that the PLAAF and the PAF have been conducting joint exercises since 2011 under a series named Shaheen. At the end of the sixth edition of the exercise held in September last year, a Chinese Defence Ministry spokesperson stated at a media briefing “If we characterise Pakistan-China military-to-military relations, the three key terms are ‘all-weather brotherhood, high-level mutual assistance and support as well as deep-rooted strategic mutual trust.” For the IAF, such statements hold forth forebodings of a two-front war. While the PLAAF and the PAF individually pose a challenge to the IAF in the event of outbreak of hostilities, a collusive effort could bring the IAF to an ignominious state due to its present depleted strength of combat aircraft.
It is apparent that the IAF needs to have plans to cope with a two-front war. Exercise Gagan Shakti, held in April this year, was a two week work out by the IAF to assess its own war waging capability vis-a-vis its inimical neighbours. The first phase was focused on the Western borders of India after which the Northern borders became the significant area of operations. Notwithstanding the hype that the media created about how the exercise related to practicing for a two-front war, the fact that the exercise was run in two phases, corresponding to the two possible adversaries, is adequate indication of the IAF’s inability to take on both the enemies simultaneously. An operational orientation towards one adversary would be at the cost of leaving our frontiers with the other comparatively under-defended. Risk assessment playing off probabilities of occurrence of a two-front war against severity of its consequences suggests that, while the probability of a two-front war is low, the severity of its consequences on India could be disastrous.
The CAS has himself recently said, “No country is facing the kind of grave threat that India is confronted with. Intentions of our adversaries can change overnight. We need to match force levels of our adversaries.” He has gone on to indicate that a shortfall of over ten fighter squadrons exists which severely affects the IAF’s capability to take on its hostile neighbours and that even adding another 200 aircraft may still not meet with the requirements of the IAF.
In this context, the ongoing efforts to induct 36 Rafale jets and another 114 single/twin engine combat aircraft, take on grim urgency. The ongoing political campaign by the opposition to dub the 36 Rafale deal a scam, should be kept apart from the actual induction process. And if it is indeed proved to be a scam, let the guilty pay for it. Also the process for the 114 combat aircraft induction should be followed through to a logical conclusion and not be smothered at maturity stage like the tender of 126 MMRCA that was cancelled in 2015. Even with both these inductions supplemented by Tejas Mark II whenever it comes, the IAF will be able to reach a 42 squadron strength only in a decade or so. And when that happens, it will be time to review the 42 squadron figure itself. Meanwhile, the spectre of a twofront war with the PLAAF and the PAF hangs like the proverbial Sword of Damocles over the IAF.