Showdown in Ladakh – The IAF in a Two Front War

anil chopra, air power asia, Two Front War

          With a Major showdown including loss of life on both sides, things are heating up between India and China around the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Meanwhile the Pakistan DG Inter Services Public Relations (DGISPR) has tweeted that General Nadeem Raza, CJCSC, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, COAS, Admiral Zafar Mehmood Abbasi, CNS, and Air Chief Marshal Mujahid Anwar Khan, CAS visited the HQ of Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). Lt Gen Fiaz Hamid DG ISI gave a comprehensive briefing to the military leadership on the regional security issues with special focus on LOC and J&K.

Pakistan Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa, Naval Chief Admiral Zafar Mahmood Abbasi, and a top officer of Pakistan Air Force. Picture Credit: dawndotcom

Indian Air Force (IAF) practiced two-front war scenarios in it mega exercise ‘Gagan Shakti’ in April 2018. “Two-front war is a real scenario, we are not a war mongering nation but there are certain thresholds that shouldn’t be crossed, said General Rawat, the then Chief of Indian Army and now Chief of Defence Staff, in July 2018. Indian government has repeatedly stated in the Parliament about proactively taking back Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) and the Gilgit-Baltistan territories, and regions of Ladakh that are now occupied by China. Abrogation of Articel 370 made integration of J&K more complete. The day Indian Defence Minister was officially taking over the first Rafale in France, a headline in ‘Times of Islamabad’ of October 09, 2019 said ‘Indian military prepares for two front war against Pakistan and China’.

Defence Minister was officially taking over the first Rafale in France. Picture Credit: dailyexcelsior.com

Both China and Pakistan have territorial disputes with India, and have chosen to be strategic partners. Given the possibility for collusion between India’s two military adversaries, India has to factor in, and prepare for such an eventuality. Most analysts believe that there could be three situations. Firstly Pakistan takes advantage of an India-China conflict. Secondly, China looks at a window of opportunity in an India-Pakistan military engagement to wrest its territorial claims. Lastly, China and Pakistan collude to launch a coordinated attack. Most feel that the first is the only probable case where Pakistan tries to gain ground in Kashmir. Militarily stronger China would not want Pakistan to step in.

        End of the Cold war and rise of China realigned the world power equations. The geo-strategic Centre of Gravity has shifted from trans-Atlantic to Indo-Pacific. Rising China is of great concern to USA who sees a challenger to its global dominance. United States would want a uni-polar world and a bi-polar Asia, but China is working towards a Bi-polar world with uni-polar Asia. India has to fit in this aspiration matrix. Both of India’s neighbours not only have deployed nuclear weapons, but Pakistan has a clearly enunciated ‘first-use’ nuclear policy against India. Whether such a collusive attack on India ever takes place or not, Indian military needs to fundamentally prepared for such a challenge, which will also act as a deterrent. China continues to rapidly modernize and make its military more capable through significant defence spending. At the same time the Indian military preparedness continues to slide due low Capital budgets and delayed acquisitions, rapidly shifting the force numbers and capability in China’s favour. India’s economy is roughly five times smaller than China’s. The Chinese defence budget is around 3.5 times India’s. Therefore India must use international diplomacy to make sure that such a collusive war does not take place. Meanwhile Indian military must urgently make qualitative and quantitative improvements.

Sino Pak Defence Cooperation. Shaheen VIII Exercise. Picture Credit: geo.tv

Aerospace Power – Key First Responder

China has taken the leaf from the American strategic thought and is also convinced that ‘who controls the aerospace, controls the planet’. It can thus be seen that they are concentrating the power build up in aerospace technologies. They are making huge investments in technologies and capabilities related to space, hypersonic flight, stealth aircraft, strategic bombers and airlift, long range missiles, aircraft carriers, unmanned systems, Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities  among others. China is also investing heavily in game changer technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI), robotics, advanced materials, cyber, and information warfare. they are spending in excess of US$ 25 billion a year in Defence Research and Development (R&D). India has to factor all this in its assessment.  

Planned Chinese H 20 Stealth Bomber. Picture Credit: scmp.com

China Pakistan Strategic Ties

In order to deter India, in the early years of its existence, Pakistan chose to befriend China by ceding nearly 5,000 Sq Km territory in Baltistan region of North Kashmir as early as 1963, and closing boundary disputes. Military assistance began in 1966, a strategic alliance was formed in 1972, and economic co-operation began in 1979. China also helped Pakistan build its military industrial complex and acquire technologies for its nuclear weapons and missile program. It is Pakistan’s largest supplier of arms and its second-largest trading partner. Recently, China began supporting Pakistan’s civil nuclear power sector. Military cooperation has deepened, with joint projects producing armaments ranging from fighter jets, tanks, missiles, frigates and submarines. Pakistani leaders often describe the relations between the two countries as “higher than the mountains, deeper than the oceans, stronger than steel, dearer than eyesight, sweeter than honey”, and so on. China has an ongoing US$ 46 billion investment in building the strategically important China Pakistan Economic Corridor that connects Xinjiang region of West China to the China-built-and-operated Gwadar port near Gulf of Hormuz.

An aerial view of the Gawadar Port. Picture Credit: Getty Images

          Maintaining close relations with China is a central part of Pakistan foreign policy, and China is considered a low cost insurance against India. Pakistan, alongside Cuba was the only other country to offer support to China after the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. China supports Pakistan’s stance on Kashmir, and Pakistan supports China on Xinjiang, Tibet and Taiwan. The Sino-Pak nexus against India has only strengthened with the implementation of transnational infrastructure projects like the CPEC with significant Chinese security personnel presence.

CPEC – China’s gateway to Arabian Sea. Image Credit: business-standard.com

Peoples Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF)

PLAAF is the second largest air force in the world with 330,000 personnel and nearly 2,800 main stream aircraft including 1,900 combat aircraft, 800 of which are state-of-the-art. In the last two decades it has made the great strides in developing airpower capability, albeit, it remains work-still-in-progress. The introduction of fourth-generation fighters, bombers, large transport, unmanned aircraft, long range air-to-air missiles (AAM) and advanced cruise missiles has transformed it from a defensive force to one that can project Chinese power throughout Asia and its eastern Pacific sea board. Its current modern combat aircraft holdings include 24 SU 35, 76 SU-30 MKK, 130 J-16, 350 J-11, and 500 J-10 fighters.

They operate 120 H-6 bombers, and 23 Ilyushin IL-76, 69 Shaanxi Y-8/Y-9 transport aircraft among many others. China developed the KJ2000 AEW&C with radar and avionics mounted on IL-76 aircraft. China has also developed the KJ-200 by installing a simplified system on board the Shaanxi Y-8. Plans are to modify a Boeing 737-800 to host the radar. KJ-3000, a newer variant with next generation radar is already under development. On April 6, 2015, a new Chinese KJ-500 AEW&C based on Y-9 turboprop airframe (An-12 copy) entered service and will eventually replace the eleven KJ-200s in service. There are also four export models of the same (ZDK-03) in Pakistan. Shaanxi Y-9/Y-8 based 20 Electronic warfare aircraft and 4 Tupolev Tu-154 ELINT aircraft are for support roles. Around seven Y-20 strategic airlift aircraft have been inducted. Another 40 have already been ordered. China is reportedly working on a stealth bomber designated H-18. 10 Xian H-6 are the main flight refueling aircraft (FRA) along with a few IL-78. PLAAF has nearly 150 helicopters include Z-9, Z-18, Mi-8/Mi-17, and Eurocopter AS332 Super Puma.

KJ2000 AEW&C. Picture Credit: thaimilitaryandasianregion.wordpress.com

PLAAF purchased the Russian S-300 surface-to-air missiles (SAM) and produced comparable indigenous the HQ-9. PLAAF has about 192 modern launchers along with 490 legacy launchers. China subsequently acquired six batteries of more advanced S-400 SAM system. Newer bomber variant H-6K can carry six DH-10 cruise missiles or eight long-range air-to-air missiles to take on airborne early warning aircraft such as the E-3 AWACS. Currently China has up to 500 DH-10 missiles with a 1500 km range, and part of these is air launched. It has the R-27semi-active radar/infrared; the short-range infrared guided R-73; the active radar homing R-77 and the indigenous variant PL-12 air-to-air missiles. The PL-15 AAM has an indigenous active electronically scanned antenna (AESA) radar, and a range of around 180 km. It entered service in 2016 and is carried on most modern fighters. Reports suggest that another variant PL-21 may have a range of over 400 km.

H-6K bomber 6x CJ-10K Land Attack Cruise Missiles. Picture Credit: http://chinesemilitaryreview.blogspot.com/

Pakistan Air Force (PAF)

The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) is the 7th largest Air Force in the world and the largest in the Islamic world with 450 combat and over 300 other support aircraft. PAF has around 75 F-16 variants with Block 52 being most modern,  150 Mirage-III and V variants, 135 Chinese J-7PG interceptors, and 120 JF-17 fighters (20 Block II and 50 Block III are on order). Many countries like Russia and France denied modern aircraft to Pakistan so as not to antagonise their bigger customer India. JAS-39 Gripen was denied because nearly 20% components on the aircraft are from U.S. suppliers. PAF’s main combat fleet in the long run will be F-16s and  JF-17. There are currently 20 front-line squadrons operating from 13 flying bases. The numbers will soon go up to 22. PAF’s F-16A/B fleet has been upgraded with modification kits by Turkish Aerospace Industries starting 2010. The package included the APG-69 radar, a Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System, data-link Link-16, new communications, and targeting and electronic warfare systems to Block 52-plus level. Pakistan has been in talks with China to acquire more modern fighters including 30 to 40, J-31 Stealth fighters. Russia and Pakistan are talking about possible purchase of Sukhoi Su-35 air-superiority multi-role fighter.

JF 17 aircraft. Picture Credit: asia.nikkei.com

          PAF has 5 C-130B and 11 C-130E tactical transport aircraft in service. Four CASA CN-235 transport aircraft are on VIP duties along with three Boeing 707s of PIA. PAF has four IL-78 FRA. PAF operates four Saab 2000 Erieye AEW&C aircraft. It also has four Chinese ZDK-03 AEW&C aircraft which is a PAF-specific version of the KJ-200 incorporating a Chinese AESA radar similar to the Erieye mounted on the Shaanxi Y-8 transport aircraft. Pakistan has modified a few C-130s for day/night ISR operations. PAF operates 10 batteries of MBDA Spada 2000 low to medium altitude air defence systems with intercept range of 20 km. Pakistan has tested the new SPADA 2000 Plus system and may order. PAF still has a few batteries of old SA-2 high altitude air defence system. Chinese FT-2000 anti-radiation variant of the HQ-9 long range air defence system was expected to be chosen. Pakistan has recently developed armed unmanned combat aerial vehicle named Burraq based on Falcon drone technology from Selex Galileo of Italy. China has supplied Pakistan with nuclear technology and assistance, including perhaps the blueprint for Pakistan’s nuclear bomb. Pakistan has Chinese design based short and medium-range ballistic missiles, including the Shaheen series with range up to 2500 km. China has also built a turnkey ballistic missile manufacturing facility near Rawalpindi.

Saab 2000 Erieye AEW&C. Picture Credit: pakpassion.net

Indian Air Force (IAF)

          As per International Institute for Strategic Studies, IAF has around 1700 aircraft and approximately 800 of which are combat aircraft. The aircraft are from a mix of foreign countries and indigenously built. Around 250 air-superiority, Su-30 MKI are in service and final number on order as on date is 272. Three squadrons each of upgraded MiG-29UPG are the second line of air-superiority aircraft. IAF is likely to acquire 21 more MiG 29s and upgrade them. There are three squadrons of Mirage 2000-5 Mk II standard. Second squadron of LCA Mk I has just formed but will take a year to get all its aircraft. 83 (4 Squadrons) LCA MK IA are being ordered and likely to start joining by 2023. 5 Squadrons of SEPECAT Jaguar are being up graded to DARIN III standard and form the dedicated strike force. The five squadrons of upgraded MiG-21 Bison will stretch till 2024 with gradually depleting numbers. 36 Dassault Rafale aircraft will begin inducting in May 2020. The RFP for 114 MMRCA class fighters, that are partially to be built in India, is expected to be released by late 2020. Order for these may be placed not earlier than 2023. The HAL-DRDO Tejas Mark 2 or Medium Weight Fighter (MWF) is planned to be single engine, 17.5 ton class aircraft designed to replace 4th Generation fighters like Jaguar, Mirage 2000, and MiG 29. The same is still at design stage, with a target of first flight around 2025. The HAL-DRDO Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) is still on drawing boards. First flight is likely around 2028 and induction around 2035. Two DRDO ‘Netra’ AEW&C Embraer ERJ 145 has been inducted. IAF continues to operate the three EL/W-2000 Phalcon AEW&Cs and two more are on order. IAF has 7 IL-78 aerial tankers. The strategic lift capability includes 11 C-17 Globemaster IIIs and 17 IL-76. 12 C-130-J are for special operations. Nearly a 100 An-32 are the medium lift fleet. They also have the para-drop and bombing role. The 56 HS-748 Avro are meant to be replaced by Airbus C295W to be built jointly with Tatas in India. Order is awaited. IAF operates nearly 240 Mi-17 variants and around 100 Dhruv ALH and Chetak/Cheetah combinations. Two squadrons of Mi-25/35 attack helicopters are already being replaced by 22 Apache Longbow AH-64E under induction. Similarly 15 Chinook Ch-47 F heavy-lift helicopters are under induction. IAI Heron and Searcher UAVs and Harpy UCAVs form the unmanned fleet. Significant number of Israeli Harop loitering munitions anti-radiation autonomous drones have been ordered.  Israeli SPYDER is the low-level quick reaction surface-to-air missile system with medium range. These are complimented by the indigenous Akash air defence missile system and the existing S-125 Pechora and OSA-AK systems.

Mirage 2000. Picture Credit: defpost.com

          PAF has over 500 AMRAAM AIM-120 C-5 missiles since 2010, and they have a BVR edge over the IAF Russian missile inventory of R-77 and R-27 variants. This came as a stark reality during the air engagement on 27 February 2019. Induction of the French Meteor missile (150 Km+ range) with Rafale will outperform the 120 km range AIM-120. The missiles being bought in large numbers will also arm the Mirage 2000 later.

IAF-PAF War Scenario

          PAF and IAF have had two full-fledged wars in 1965 and 1971. Both these wars ended in favour of IAF. PAF did not take part in Kargil war. IAF could carry out an unopposed successful deep air strike at Jaba Top near Balakot in Pakistan in February 2019. IAF prevented PAF from crossing LoC during the brief riposte next day. Also all the 11 stand-off weapons dropped by PAF did not hit their target. IAF did feel the need for longer range AAMs and encrypted radios. For very long IAF has maintained a numerical edge over PAF of 3:1. With depletion of IAF’s combat squadrons, this edge is currently down to around 1.5:1. IAF has clear technological superiority. Once the IAF gets back to the authorised 42 squadrons, the edge could stablise at around 2.0. PAF is inherently an air defence oriented force. As in the past, in a pure Indo-Pak war scenario PAF will be kept head-down by IAF and likely to get a drubbing. In the shadow of nuclear stand-off, a full-fledged war is less likely. In a limited war as a follow-up to a trigger incident or a surgical strike IAF will be much better placed based on its larger weapon inventory, and superior platforms.  

IAF Vs. PAF. Image Credit: Pinterest

China-India War Scenario

            China has 14 airbases in the Lanzhou and Chengdu regions, which are opposite India. Of the 14, the key bases are Hoping, Bangda, Shiquanhe, Bayixincun and Kongka. Ngari Gunsa airport around 200 km from Leh is being strengthened with new infrastructure. There are two airfields in Lhasa. An additional four are also being readied which can be made operational quickly. Many of these airfields are at an average altitude of around 4,000 metre, and that affects performance of aircraft. Aircraft would have to trade-off with fuel and payload. Additional airfields in the Chengdu Military region would require PLAAF to over fly Myanmar. Most of the airfields in Tibet region have now been logistically well connected with eastern and central China. India has chain of airfields from Leh and Nyoma in Ladakh to Chabua in the East. Important airfields for China Operations will include Srinagar, Ambala, Sarsawa, Bareilly, Gorakhpur, Bagdogra, Hashimara, Chabua and Tezpur among others. More civil airfields in the north-east are being operationalised for IAF use. Most of IAF airfields are in the plains and will not have load carriage restrictions. India has also upgraded many Advance Landing Grounds (ALG) and can now operate larger aircraft even in adverse weather conditions in the North East mountains. IAF has a clear edge in terms of number airfields and infrastructure. China has a clear edge in the surface-to-surface missiles (SSM) that they are likely to use to strike Indian airfields. IAF is acquiring five batteries of the advanced S-400 SAM system. Also IAF inventory of other SAMs is gradually growing up. With world focus shifted towards Indo-pacific and the reclaiming of Taiwan being the number one priority for China, Sino-Indian conflict can at best be localised. Unlike 1962, IAF today is a potent force and will inflict heavy losses in case of conflict. Also with Trump administration becoming conservative in trade policies and European economies shrinking, India remains an important market for China with over US$ 100 billion trade. They will not like to ‘hurt’ the goose that gives the golden egg. The recent Coronavirus tragedy has affected China’s global image. On the other side to divert the world opinion and pressure for being the originator of the virus and the strong stand it has taken in Hong Kong, South China Sea, and against strong anti-China government in Taiwan, China could create trouble on Indian border.    

Ngari Gunsa airport, the fourth highest-altitude airport in the world.Picture Credit: Pinterest

Two Front War

          China-Pak tie-up gives India a potential two-front theatre in the event of war with either country. Though another school of thought is that will China and Pakistan push a nuclear India ever to the corner of a two-front war? In case of a localised war across LoC between India and Pakistan, China is likely to restrict to military supplies and diplomatic pressure. India is now a closer ally of USA and the Americans and Russians will prevent China from entering into a full war. On the other hand if there were to be Sino-Indian war, say limited to Arunachal, known for misadventures, Pakistan army may jump into the fray to avenge their repeated defeats. In such a scenario India will have to balance its forces on both fronts. With Current strength the IAF will find it tough to take on both PLAAF and PAF. IAF requires at least 50 combat squadrons for a possible two front war.

China Focused Infrastructure

          Till very recently, all major airbases, radars and other assets were looking West towards Pakistan. Same was the case with Indian Army and Navy. Most eastern airbases were bare runways with no ballast protection shelters, and at best a few Operational Readiness Platforms (ORP). They were mostly used for fighter training and air maintenance operations. Emerging economic strength, self confidence, doctrinal maturity, allowed IAF to look beyond borders and reach out into the seas beyond Indian Island territories. China’s focused concentration on building air power also made India have a rethink on its air strategy. Kargil helped IAF understand the dimensions of fighting an air war at Himalayan heights. It was clear that the application of airpower has to be precise and proportionate. Kargil review report also helped IAF get larger proportion of the Capital acquisitions budget and also have importance to strategic assets and combat enablers like the AWACS, Flight Refuelling Aircraft (FRA), heavy lift aircraft, UAVs and Electronic warfare. IAF has now deployed front line fighter aircraft like SU-30 MKI and second Rafale squadron will be in the east. The C-130 special operations aircraft, Chinook and  Apache also have bases in the eastern sector. One Rafale squadron is also slated to be deployed in the east. India has also to defend itself against a possible sizeable Chinese surface-to-surface missile (SSM) attack. Inductions of new SAMs including S-400 will help.

SU 30 MKI ant Tezpur airbase. Picture Credit: aame.in

Way Forward –IAF

          India cannot match China’s numerical strength, but IAF would provide a sufficiently strong “deterrent force”. If the IAF continues to deplete in numbers at current rate, it could hit a low of around 26 fighter squadrons, making fighting a two-front war a near impossibility. Air Chief Dhanoa had mentioned in 2018 “Our numbers are not adequate to fully execute an air campaign in a two-front scenario”. The first priority for IAF is to quickly rebuild the numbers to the authorised 42 squadrons. The 2020 Capital budget allotment of  Rs 1,13,734 Crore (US$ 16.0 billion) is 29 percent shortfall from the requirement.  IAF gets Rs 43,282 Crore (US$ 6.0 billion). Most money will go towards existing capital liabilities on existing schemes, funds for new acquisitions are too few. This year’s defence budget (less pensions) is mere 1.4 percent of the GDP. This needs to go up to 2.5 percent. In a two front war IAF will require to double the number AEW&Cs to at least 10. IAF also urgently requires more FRA. IAF also has to invest much more in UAVs and UCAVs, AAMs and PGMs. One of India’s assets could be its new BrahMos cruise missile that can be used against multiple targets. IAF now has credible “strategic reach” from the Persian Gulf to the Straits of Malacca, combining fighter aircraft with FRA and AWACS. In view of limited budgets and long wish-list, IAF force planners would have to prioritise critical systems to bridge the gap through capability based planning.

This Article was earlier published in Indian Defence Review and since then considerably updated 

Picture Credit: SU 30 MKI. economictimes.indiatimes.com

Published by Anil Chopra

I am the founder of Air Power Asia and a retired Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force.

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