India China Face-off – Employment of Air Power

JP Joshi, air power asia, Ladakh Stand-off. Air Power

The marathon talks of over 14 hours between the Corps Commanders of India and China, at Chushul, on the 14th of July has reportedly gathered forward traction on the disengagement process, from all the four stand-off points. As reported by the Hindustan Times of 16 Jul 2020, officials in the know stated that, “it looks like things have cooled down between the two armies and that the Chinese PLA is showing signs that it is working towards returning to the April 2020 status quo.” It also reported that the Chinese withdrawal is being verified on the ground, by both, physical observation as well as through technical intelligence. After the Galwan deceit, India must heed the time tested maxim of ‘Trust, but verify’. The step by step process of disengagement is only to build distance between the troops to prevent further clashes; this will in due course be followed by de-escalation, which will attempt to bring about a reduction in the number of troops deployed along the LAC. Considering what is happening, it is going to be a long drawn affair. The possibility of China using the disengagement/ de-escalation process to put into practice Sun Tzu’s famous quote, ‘All war is deception’ cannot be ruled out, as happened on 15 Jun 2020 at Galwan.

Image Source: kashmirobserver.net

Galwan Face-off – A Watershed Event

          15 June 2020 will go down as a watershed event, when it was discovered that Chinese were deceitful, and had no intention of disengaging and withdrawing from PP14, to their original positions; this after having agreeing to disengage at the Corps Commanders level. A violent clash followed where-in 20 Indian soldiers, including Col Santosh Babu, the CO, and unconfirmed numbers of PLA soldiers were killed in action (KIA), without a single shot being fired; unconfirmed reports put the PLA soldiers KIA at anywhere between 35 and 123. This violent clash has effectively neutralised the 1993 agreement, as also all subsequent agreements, for maintaining peace and tranquillity along the LAC. The Chinese have not declared their casualties or names of the PLA soldiers killed in action. This shows the absolute, and unquestionable, control exercised by the Chinese communist party and its leadership.

Image Source: businesstoday.in

Chinese Deceit and Indian Resolve

          The Galwan misadventure by the Chinese has strengthened India’s resolve to take whatever action is needed to defend its territory. Chinese military dispositions on 15 June 2020, as seen on open source satellite pictures, clearly bring out the fact that the Chinese never expected any retaliation from the Indian side, and were also not expecting to go to war. They were trying to put into practice Sun Tzu’s famous quote of ‘win without fighting’, by deceitfully occupying territory that is unresolved, and was thus far being patrolled by both sides. They never anticipated the strong Indian response, as they probably felt that Indian leadership was distracted and busy dealing with multiple internal issues, like the pandemic and successive lockdowns; impact on the Indian economy; unemployment and migrant issues, and would thus not be able, or ready, to go to war. Their calculation that India would be content to live with the new status quo, while relying on the political and diplomatic channels to resolve it; this they felt would be to their advantage, as physical occupation gives one an advantage, in case of disputed borders. The unexpected Indian military response at the sub tactical level was a response to what is widely perceived to be a pre-meditated deceit by the PLA, after agreeing to disengagement, as also the barbaric nature of the PLA’s assault on the Indian troops, led by the CO.

PLA camp at Galwan Valley clash site. Image Source: timesnownews.com

Political Freehand – Sudarshan Chakra

          The news of the barbaric nature of the clash united the Indian people, who were hurt, angry, and deeply traumatised by this deceit, and wanted the govt to respond. The political leadership respecting the will of the people announced a free hand to the army in dealing with the threat. The PM’s visits to Leh/ Nimu on 03 Jul 2020, where-in he drew the analogy of Shri Krishna carrying the flute in one hand and the Sudarshan Chakra in the other. Flute represents peace and the Chakra is a symbol of destruction of adharma. Chinese unilateral actions in changing the status quo, in spite of agreements to not do so, and not adhering to the agreement on de-escalation by the Corps Commanders, are effectively acts of adharma. The PM also clarified that the era of expansionism is over in global geo-politics, and that this is an era focussed on development. Development is linked to peace The present situation corresponds to a scenario of ‘no war, no peace’; an unstable situation that is likely to persist for an extended duration. In such a situation, the military has to be ready and prepared for any eventuality, including war.

Shri Krishna With Sudarshan Chakra. Image Source: ritsin.com

India’s National/ Strategic Objective

          The military of both sides is on heightened alert, most of it at altitudes that are well above normal human physiological limits. These limits can be stretched somewhat with acclimatisation and training, though. Army is manpower intensive and its role will be very important considering the national strategic objective of achieving and maintaining peace, and not permitting Chinese expansionism, or any compromise on the territorial integrity of India. India has no territorial ambitions beyond what it considers to be its legitimate borders. Thus the army may be fighting to a defensive strategy in the mountains, which impose serious challenges to mobility, manoeuvre, target acquisition, and accuracy of engaging targets with the normal ballistic fire power available with the ground forces. On the other hand, airpower, of either side, is not subject to the challenges faced by the ground forces. It would thus be incumbent on the IAF to provide the needed protection against air attacks on Indian Army and other targets. It would mean air superiority over our territory/ VAs/ VPs, etc. Having achieved that to the desired degree, in the area of operations, the IAF can then operate in all the other roles to facilitate achievement of the national objective, in joint operations with the other services.

Air Power in Mountains. Image Source: timesofindia.indiatimes.com

The Air Campaign – Overview

          As the aim is limited by our national/ strategic objectives, all airpower actions will be a means to the desired end. As of now, the IAF has a qualitative edge in the area of interest, in terms of platforms and operating surfaces; the PLAAF has a quantitative edge overall, which however does not translate to an effective advantage in the Tibetan theatre. As per an analysis by Arjun Subramaniam in the ORF journal, June 2020 issue, IAF has an advantage over the PLAAF in the Tibet autonomous region (TAR), as the PLAAF, even with higher numbers “will not be able to induct fighter squadrons into TAR to create a significant force advantage. With 10–12 forward tier IAF airfields already capable of sustaining intense fighter operations, the IAF could still retain a numerical advantage in an aerial battle over TAR”. Offensive IAF air operations however would be faced with a combination of the PLAAF’s “dense air defence cover”, as also “superior EW and space-based intelligence”. Large numbers of SSM would pose a challenge to IAF’s operating surfaces, as well as to other VAs/ VPs in the theatre, and beyond. These would need to be countered to prevent damage/ loss, or re-activated to re-commence operations at the earliest.

An IAF Apache cflies in the skies above Leh in Ladakh. Picture Source: hindustantimes.com

Surveillance and Intelligence

          The first challenge is surveillance and intelligence information of the enemy dispositions in terms of EW assets; AD weapons; aerial platforms, including EW and midair refuelling platforms; army formations, right down to Brigade level; C4 (command, control, communications & computer centres); lines of communications (LoC), specifically choke points and bridges, rail bridges are higher priority than road; logistics areas, storing reserve ammunition, fuel, oil and lubricants (FOL), etc. All means possible, such as satellite, aircraft, helicopters, UAVs, as well as through human intelligence operatives from the Tibet/ Xinkiang/Aksai Chin regions need to be used. It is presumed that all sensors have been well integrated including recce aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles(UAVs), and Indian space sensors. Commercially sourced satellite information from friendly sources, and human intelligence would be needed by the IAF and IA commanders with a detailed order of battle (ORBAT) of the PLA, PLAAF and other critical assets that are worth targeting. Knowing these dispositions will give an advantage in target prioritisation to achieve optimum results, in line with our strategic and national objectives.

Satellite images indicating construction activity at Ngari Gunsa airport (image: detresfa_) Image Source: defenseworld.net

Defensive Counter Air (DCA)

          The second challenge is to harness all airpower resources, be they IAF, IA, Civilian, ARC, BSF, etc under a single authority exercising absolute control as per the proven airpower employment dictum of ‘centralised control and decentralised execution’. This becomes even more critical for the AD of own territory, and own assets, as there is a need to prevent fratricide, which happens to be the most demoralising factor in war. This requirement becomes even more challenging in the mountainous terrain of the Himalayas. All airpower resources operating in the theatre will need to be very clearly assigned their tasks, by a single authority. Any resources operating outside of this authority will need to have clear rules of engagement in terms of height, speed, geographical area, and a common electronic identification protocol, as laid down. DCA operations will need the integration of all Air Defence Ground Environment  assets as well as airborne platforms to provide the needed degree of air superiority over the theatre and beyond too, including VAs/ VPs in the plains.

India Deploys Akash Missile Systems In Ladakh. Picture Representative. Source: kashmirobserver.net

Gaining and Maintaining Control of the Air

          The third and most important challenge would be gain and maintain a degree of air superiority, as envisaged, for the prosecution of the air and ground war, over own territory, DCA, as also over the areas of interest over the enemy territory, through offensive counter air (OCA). Air superiority is desirable over own territory, including our own airfields, and other important VAs/ VPs, which includes our lines of communications, storage facilities for ammo, FOL, armoured, artillery and troop concentrations, etc. A favourable air situation would be needed over enemy territory, during specific times/ durations, when undertaking offensive missions against the PLAAF, PLA or other targets destruction of which is critical for the successful prosecution of war. Fighter sweeps of the area of interest by our air dominance fighters like the Su-30MKI and MiG-29s; AD escorts, EW escorts, air to air refuelling tankers and AEW&C will all need to be employed judiciously, as needed.

IAF’s DRDO Netra AEW&C. Picture Source:  defenseworld.net

Air Mobility

          The fourth challenge is inter & intra-theatre wide/ battlefield mobility of our own troops and logistics supplies, to re-supply/ reinforce/ strengthen positions that need it. This is of critical importance in the mountain region where an inter valley/ across valley distance of a few kms, as the crow flies may take hours, if not days, to traverse, by other means. The IAF strategic/ tactical airlift platforms, like the C-17, C-130J, IL-76, An-32  and helicopters, like the Chinooks, Mi-26/ Mi-17/ Mi-8, Cheetahs, Dhruv can be used to airlift troops and critical items to airfields closer to the theatre/ battlefields. It is pertinent to mention that a T-72 can be air transported by an IL-76 and a T-90 by the C17. Chinook has a significant under-slung load capability. These resources can also be utilised for many other important roles, including Casevac.

IAF CH-47F Chinook airlifting Indian army Equipment in Ladakh Area. Image for reference. Source: defenseworld.net

Battlefield Air Interdiction

          The fifth challenge is to neutralise the enemy’s ability to prosecute war by interdicting his armour, artillery, lines of communications, choke points, bridges, storage areas used to store ammo, FOL, and reserve troops before they can effectively engage with our own troops. These strikes play a crucial role in shaping the battlefield to our advantage. These are the Battlefield Air interdiction (BAI) strikes, which can be undertaken by shallow strikes across the LAC/ border on targets that are not in contact with own forces, initially just behind the contact troops of the enemy to degrade, destroy, disrupt the most immediately available troops/ supplies and slowly extending up to a distance of about 150 kms from the LAC, to deny the longer term needs of the enemy contact troops. Considering the nature of the terrain, BAI would be the most effective employment of our fighter assets in enemy territory, as this delay/ degrade/ disrupt/ destroy replenishment/ replacement of supplies, as also it stops effective reinforcement of the enemy. This will directly affect the enemy’s morale, as also the Will to continue the battle. Needless to say these strikes would need to be so conducted that they can be kept safe from enemy ground AD capabilities, as also under a favourable air situation.

Bridge in Bomi County, Nyingchi of southwest China’s Tibet Autonomous Region. Along the Sichuan-Tibet Highway. Picture Source: xinhuanet.com

Battlefield Air Strikes

          Battlefield air strikes (BAS) may also need to be undertaken to engage targets that are engaged in contact operations with own troops, where extra or precision fire power is needed to neutralise the target, which may not be within own army’s organic capability, due numbers, terrain, or other constraints. These could be undertaken by fixed wing fighters or attack helicopters, depending on the situation. IAF gained good experience in high altitude BAS and BAI during Kargil war.  

Apache Helicopter in Attack. Picture Source: newindianexpress.com

Force Multipliers

          The last and final challenge is the deployment and employment of the critical AEW&C and air to air refuelling platforms. These are going to be critical in any employment of airpower in anger, especially in the Himalayas. These would need to be based far away from the action, as also from the enemy’s reach, but yet near enough to provide effective and efficient force multiplier effect to our fighter assets. Their deployment would need to be on a random basis, to prevent the enemy from targeting them, or their effective employment, with their long range SSMs. This will demand a great amount of co-ordination and control.

SU-30s taking fuel from IL-78 Air Refueller. Picture Source: indiatoday.in/mail-today

Closing Thoughts

          All these challenges will need to be prioritised, depending on the situation. The surveillance and intelligence gathering is a priority and is a continuous task, more so during this ‘no war, no peace’ period. All airpower assets that can do this task, across organisations, need to be identified, and procedures worked out for their effective and efficient employment to acquire the degree of information needed to prosecute a successful air campaign. Once the war breaks out the first priority will be to ensure safety of our troops and assets from air strikes through DCA and provide a favourable air situation in our areas of interest across the LAC, through OCA. The IAF will thereafter have to orchestrate the air campaign, utilising its strengths to achieve the results that would most effectively and efficiently achieve the limited strategic/ national objectives, jointly with the other forces. It must be mentioned here that gaining and maintaining control of the air is of critical importance for the success of own ground/ surface and air operations, it is not an end in itself, it is just a means to achieve the end of meeting our limited national/ strategic objective in the Himalayas, against China.

Hotan airfield in Xinjiang, just north of Jammu and Kashmir. Picture Source: defencenews.in

          This ‘no war, no peace’ is likely to continue for some time, and may happen intermittently over the coming years, if a permanent solution is not found for the unresolved border issues. China has been reluctant to share maps of their version of the border, due to devious/ ulterior motives; there can be no other explanation for this behaviour of the Chinese. This needs to change if China is serious about living peacefully. Right now China is facing the ire of the world due to its irresponsible handling of the Corona virus, leading to its uncontrolled global spread causing a large number of deaths. Also, besides its actions on the LAC with India, its belligerence in the South China Sea has seen a noticeable increase in USN and USAF deployments in the area. Japan, Taiwan, ASEAN countries, Australia, UK, India, and other adversely affected states are taking actions that will add to the military, political, diplomatic, and economic costs to the Chinese expansionism. Chinese disregard for international law and agreements wrt Hong Kong, India, and Philippines are worrying signs emanating from a major and growing power in the Asian region. This expansionism is the direct result of the absolute power that is vested in China with the all pervasive Chinese Communist party in general and in Xi Jinping in particular. The world will have to come together and find ways to tackle this common threat to all of human kind, both inside, as well as outside China.

Area of Immediate Tense Action: Image Source: forexlive.com

          India on its part will have to take all actions needed, militarily, economically, politically, diplomatically, and technologically to safeguards its own national interests, while continuing to build an international consensus for furthering peace and development, as also against unilateral expansionism of the Chinese kind.

Author: Wing Commander JP Joshi (Retd) was a fighter pilot in Indian Air Force, and has done Command and Staff College in USA. The views expressed are the author’s own.

Lead Image: dnaindia.com

Published by Anil Chopra

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

3 thoughts on “India China Face-off – Employment of Air Power

  1. Very well articulated and giving good insight into what could happen. The narrative towards the South Chinese sea and US involvement could be added.

    Like

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