India-China Face off - Air Operations in Ladakh

Operations in Ladakh could include full spectrum of air operations namely counter air strikes against Chinese airfields; destruction of enemy aircraft in the air and air defence of Indian assets.

Issue: 9 / 2020By Air Marshal Anil Chopra (Retd)Photo(s): By IAF
Su-30 MKI are flying regular sorties over the LAC

With little follow-on action by China after several meetings at diplomatic and military levels, the two armed forces continue to be eye-ball to eye-ball across the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The Indian Army (IA) and the Indian Air Force (IAF) have always been operationally alert in Ladakh ever since the Siachen glacier became the world’s highest battlefield in 1984. While the IA does its winter stocking in summer through the two major road axes, one via Drass–Kargil and the second via Manali, the IAF airlifts close to 30,000 tonnes of load annually for the IA. With the IA strength increasing nearly fourfold due to the very active LAC, the requirement of weapons, ammunition and maintenance in Ladakh has gone up considerably. Once major passes close during winter and road access is not available for nearly five months, the air maintenance requirements will increase phenomenally. Also, the IAF will have to logistically support its own assets whose deployment has increased considerably. There is a need analyse the types of air operations that would be required in region.


One can see a large number of satellite pictures of the Galwan area that are being put out on social media by individual enthusiasts. Most of these are from open sources. Indian Defence satellites controlled by India’s Defence Space Agency (DSA) in close coordination with Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), would be feeding satellite imagery of the areas across the LAC and also of Chinese airfields, People’s Liberation Army (PLA) formations and logistics nodes of interest to the IA and the IAF. Also in use would be Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to gather intelligence. IAF’s Jaguars and Su-30 have significant ISR capability and those would be employed to get tactical information. ISR assets are also required to confirm compliance of various border-related agreements. NTRO assets would be employed for Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) and Signal Intelligence (SIGINT). IAF also has its ELINT platforms. IA and other agencies such as RAW and IB would use assets for Human Intelligence (HUMINT). With Chinese often going back on their commitments, India’s approach would have to be “Don’t Trust, First Verify, Then Double- Check, and Yet be Operationally Prepared.”


The Su-30 MKI, MiG-29, Mirage 2000 and LCA of the IAF are technically cleared to operate from Leh and airfields at high altitudes. There is actually no need to position these aircraft at Leh. At best six MiG-29s may be deployed at Leh for air defence. There are a large number of other airfields at much lower altitudes and at safer distance and not too far from area of action where these aircraft could be positioned. Operations in Ladakh could include full spectrum of air operations namely counter air strikes against Chinese airfields; destruction of enemy aircraft in the air and air defence of Indian assets, including landing strips in the region. Battlefield Air Interdiction (BAI) could be undertaken against Chinese lines of communications, army bridgeheads, troop concentrations and logistics nodes. The IAF will also have to attack other targets such as enemy radars. Close air support would mean taking on troops, bunkers, artillery and armour engaged in battle with the IA. Fighter aircraft will also use electronic warfare to impede enemy air and ground action. There will be need for regular Battle Damage Assessment (BDA) missions to plan next course of action. The Indian Navy’s MiG-29K would be used for air defence missions. The IAF has announced that Rafale pilots are already fully operational and other operational systems including weapons have already arrived. The five Rafale jets already with the IAF can carry the 540 km range SCALP cruise missile, the 150 km range Meteor BVR and other state-of-the art game-changing systems.


It is presumed that conflict between the two nuclear-power nations with the largest populations in the world, would remain localised and not escalate into a two-front war. Therefore of interest are basically only three Chinese airfields. Ngari Gar Gunza in Tibet is around 300 km from Leh and Ambala. Air distance from Leh to Galwan area is around 80 km, whereas from Gar Gunza to Galwan is around 200 km. Gar Gunza elevation is 4,274m, vis-a-vis Leh at 3,256m. Higher altitude restricts maximum payload an aircraft can takeoff with. The second Chinese airfield of interest is Hotan in Xinjiang, 350 km North of Leh. This active PLA Air Force (PLAAF) base is at a relatively lower altitude of 1,424m. Hotan has been the airbase for regular exercises, including the Shaheen series with Pakistan. Operations from this base could be significant. Normally, the PLAAF maintains roughly twelve J-11 class aircraft at Hotan and also some CH-4 UAVs. An air defence battalion garrisoned in Hotan provides the PLAAF with additional air defense capabilities. The PLAAF deployed a number of additional assets in early June 2020, including J-10. Khashgar airfield which is nearly 600 km away from action is known to have the H-6 bombers.

Other than Leh, the IAF has a major transport airbase at Thoise, North West of Leh. IAFs other major active airfields within much lesser distance than Hotan are Srinagar, Awantipura, Udhampur, Pathankot, Adampur and Ambala. Most of IAF bases are at much lower altitude and unlike the Chinese, these are regular home bases of IAF fighters. Kargil taught the IAF the risk from man-portable SAMs.


China is likely to use surface-to-surface missiles (SSM). India would also do the same. India’s BrahMos missiles are already deployed in the region. The IAF and the IA have positioned air defence weapons in the area including the Akash missiles to counter aerial threats.


With inadequate radar coverage in the Ladakh region, both sides will extensively use the AWACS and other AEW assets. For the IAF, the IL-76-based Phalcon AWACS and DRDO’s Embraer 145-based AEW&C ‘Netra’ will be of support. Indian Navy’s P-8I, which has already begun operations in Ladakh, will also help in ISR and AEW roles. The IAF’s IL-78-based Flight Refueling Aircraft (FRA) will be used on as required basis.


IAF’s transport and helicopter fleets regularly air maintain the IA in Ladakh. This requirement will increase four times with the much larger strength of forces deployed in Ladakh. The IAF’s transport fleet today has very significant capability. The C-17 can carry the T-90 tank. Similarly the IL-76 can carry a T-72 tank. The IAF has a large number of C-130 Super Hercules and nearly a 100 An-32 medium-lift platforms. So, weather holding, the IAF will be able to take on the increased air transportation tasks. The C-130 and An-32 can land at Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) airfield. Of course, such task can best be done by heavy-lift helicopters. There is an airstrip at Nyoma that is much closer to place of action and can be used by transport aircraft.


Helicopters will play a great role in air operations. The larger Mi-26 of which only three are available, and the Chinook will be able to airlift heavy loads for the IA including guns under-slung. The very sizeable Mi-17, Dhruv ALH and Cheetah fleets will be the real work horses for utility and communication duties. The IA has a significant fleet of Dhruv ALH and Cheetah helicopters. The Apache attack helicopter with Hellfire anti-tank missile and other weaponry will play a significant role in supporting ground operations by the IA.


The tri-services Armed Forces Special Operations Division (AFSOD) will be in action. The IAF will be an active participant in airborne or air-landed operations. The IA has been regularly practicing air drop missions at Stakna, South East of Leh. India’s special forces are well trained for the operations in the region.


Ammunition, missiles, bombs etc have always been short in supply Immediately after the Balakot strike, the IAF reportedly ordered more Spice 2000 stand-off bombs and that the IAF may order the 60 km range HAMMER stand-off missiles for the fleet of Rafale jets inducted recently. It is a good time to build up stocks of ammunition, winter clothing and other requirement for operations in Ladakh. Chances are that India will have to maintain troops in larger numbers in the region for quite sometime in the future.


The world’s past experience is that the Chinese buckle down when some country stands up to it. Vietnam was one that was ready to go to war for its territorial rights. India’s own experience in 1967, 1987, and more recently 2017 in Doklam is that if you take a strong stand, the over-hyped and under-prepared Chinese armed forces and the political leadership, back off. Countries like weak-kneed Pakistan who seeded significant territory to China, have effectively become client states. India must speak from a position of military and political strength. Yet India ought not to be over confident and be cautious that China has a huge weapons inventory. India must hold ground and prepare for a long haul, even at high cost. Air power will play a crucial role in the mountains and will do India good in the long term.