With little follow-on action by China after the marathon Corps Commander level talks, the two armed forces continue to be eye-ball to eye-ball across the Line of actual control (LAC). Indian Army (IA) and Indian Air Force (IAF) have always had a yearlong active action in Ladakh region ever since the Siachen glacier became the world’s highest battlefield in 1984. While IA does a lot of winter stocking through the summer months through road transportation on the two major road axis, one via Drass – Kargil, and the second via Manali, the IAF lifts close to 30,000 tons of IA load every year by air. With the IA strength increasing nearly fourfold due to the very active LAC, the logistics requirements in Ladakh will go up manifold. Also, since the LAC is hot, the requirements of weapon assets and therefore the ammunition and maintenance requirements have 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 with IAF moving its own assets into the region IAF will have to logistically support them. The most important thing would be the Sword edge sharp by continuous combat air operations. This articles tries to analyse all the types of air operations that are expected in Ladakh region this winter.
Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) Ops
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 source. Indian Defence satellites controlled by India’s Defence Space agency (DSA) in close coordination with Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) would be feeding the satellite imagery of the immediate areas across the LAC and also of Chinese airfields, Army formations and logistics nodes of interest to IA and IAF. Also in use would be IAF and IA UAVs to gather intelligence. IAF’s Jaguars and SU-30 have significant ISR capability and those would be employed to get tactical information, including pictures. ISR assets are also required to confirm compliance of various border related agreements. NTRO assets would be in Use for Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) and Signal Intelligence (SIGINT). IAF also has its ELINT platforms. IA and other agencies like RAW and IB would use assets for Human Intelligence (HUMINT). With Chinese often going back on their committed actions, India’s approach would have to be “Don’t Trust, First Verify, Then Double-Check, and Yet be Operationally Prepared.”
A large number of IAF fighter aircraft are technically cleared to operate from Leh and airfields of those altitudes. These include the Su-30 MKI, MiG 29, Mirage 2000, and LCA. Physically there is no need to position these aircraft at Leh. At best 4-6 MiG 20s may be kept at Leh for air defence duties. 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. The fighter ops in Ladakh could include full spectrum of air operations. Counter air strikes against Chinese airfields; Counter air to destroy enemy aircraft in the air; and air defence of Indian assets, including landing strips in the region. Battle Field Air Interdiction (BAI) to strike Chinese lines of communications, Army bridgeheads, troop concentrations, logistics nodes, amongst others. 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 IA. Fighters will also use electronic warfare to impede enemy air and ground action. There will be need for regular enemy Battle Damage Assessment (BDA) missions to plan next course of action. The Indian Navy’s MiG-29 K would be used for air defence missions.
IAF has announced that Rafale pilots are already full operational to get into actions. Also the weapons and other operational systems have arrived in advance. 5 Rafale aircraft arrive on 29 July 2020. They bring with them the 540 km range SCALP cruise missile, the 150 range Meteor BVR and also many other state of the art game-changing systems.
Airfields of Interest
It is presumed that any war between two nuclear powered nations with the largest populations in the world would remain a localised conflict. It is also presumed that it will not mean a two-front war, because if the action opens up then the entire dynamics and options with India can also change, including nuclear. Therefore of interest are basically two Chinese airfield. Ngari Gar Gunza in Tibet is around 300 km from Leh. It is around 300 km from Ambala too. 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 or 14,022 ft. That is much higher than the airfield elevation of Leh at 3,256 m (10,682 ft) above mean sea level. Higher altitude has its own penalties in terms of max weight that an aircraft can take-off with. Gar Gunza has a runway of 4,500 m (14,764 ft).
The second Chinese airfield of interest is Hotan in Xinjiang. This airfield is around 350 km from Leh and also from Galwan area. The airbase is at a relatively lower altitude of 1,424 m or 4,672 ft. Hotan is an active People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) base where they have been holding regular exercises, including the Shaheen series with Pakistan. It has a runway which is 3,200 m or 10,499 ft long. Operations from this base could be significant. Normally, the PLAAF maintains roughly twelve unidentified FLANKER variants at Hotan Air Station and an unknown number of CH-4 UAVs. An air defense battalion garrisoned in Hotan provides the PLAAF with additional air defense capabilities in the region. To augment these forces already in theater, the PLAAF deployed a number of additional assets in early June 2020. Unverified handheld photography from early June 2020 and overhead electro-optical imagery from 14 June 2020 shows that the PLAAF has deployed an additional 24 aircraft to Hotan (Table Below)
|Aircraft||Normal Presence/Additional Deployment|
|Unidentified FLANKER (possibly J-16) fighter||12 / 12|
|J-8 (possibly J-8DF) fighter||0 / 6|
|Y-8 (possibly Y-8G electronic warfare variant)||0 / 2|
|KJ-500 early warning and control aircraft||0 / 2|
|Mi-17/171 Hip helicopter||0 / 2|
|CH-4 Medium Altitude, Long Endurance UAV||? / ?|
Other than Leh, IAF has a major transport airbase at Thoise just north west of Leh. IAFs other major active airfields within much lesser distance than Hotan (350 km) of action area are Srinagar, Awantipura, Udahampur, Pathankot, Adampur and Ambala. Most of IAF bases are at much lower altitudes, and unlike Chinese, these are regular home bases of IAF fighters.
Winter Weather – Affect on Operations
The average temperatures at Leh in the months of December to February are -50 to -80 C. It is much colder in the areas of action such as Galwan. The site where the confrontation took place is at an altitude of 17,000 feet, which is an extremely high altitude. Also there is a need for various stages of acclimatization for all troops. Special clothing will be required for a much larger number of troops including the larger number of ground crew of IAF. Much more heated accommodation will be required for such larger numbers. The aircrew will have to fly in special clothing. Oxygen requirements will also increase. All this will add to the logistics load.
Flying Operations – Lessons from Kargil
IAF had learnt a few lessons the hard way in the initial days of Kargil. Operations and weapon firing at high altitude have their own dynamics. IAF lost a MiG-27 when it fired rockets at that high altitude and the disturbance to airflow caused the aircraft engine to flame-out. IAF also lost a helicopter to shoulder fired man-portable SAM. The weapon release charts and computations in the aircraft computers often do not cater to such high altitude release. All these factors have been looked into. ISR missions are most important for any operations. The operations in Ladakh will be harsher and enemy for unforgiving and therefore there will be need to tighten the belt further.
AWACS and FRA
In the absence of many radars in the Ladakh region, both sides will extensively use the AWACs and other AEW assets. For IAF the IL-76 based Phalcon AWACS and DRDO’s Embraer 145 based AEW&C ‘Netra‘ will be of support. Indian Navy’s P8I, which has already begun operations in Ladakh area will also help in ISR and AEW roles. IAF’s IL-78 based Flight Refueling Aircraft (FRA) will be used on as required basis.
Transport Aircraft Operations
IAF’s transport and helicopter fleets air maintain the IA in Ladakh every year, lifting nearly 30,000 tons of load. The quantum of requirements will be 3-4 folds with the much larger strength. Of course IA is moving much larger number of convoys this year and will try do significant stocking before the winter sets in. 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. IAF has a large number of C-130 Super Hercules and nearly a 100 An-32. So, weather holding, IAF will be able to take-on the increased air transportation load. IAF’s C-130 and An-32 can land at DBO. 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 (just a few available right now) and the Chinook will be able to take heavy loads including under-slung guns and other large IA loads. The very sizeable Mi-17, ALH and Cheetah fleets will be the real work horses for utility and communication duties. IA has a significant fleet of ALH and Cheetah. The Apache attack helicopter with Hellfire anti-tank missile and other weaponry will play a significant role.
The tri-services Armed Forces Special Operations Division (AFSOD) will be in action. IAF will be an active participant in airborne or air-landed operations. IA has been regularly practicing the air drop at Stakna, south east of Leh in Ladakh. The special forces are well trained for the operations in the region.
Time Build Capability and Acquire Ammunition Stocks
We have always heard that ammunition, missiles, bombs etc have always been in short in numbers. Immediately after the Balakot strikes, IAF reportedly ordered more Spice 2000 stand-off bombs. We are now hearing that IAF may order the 60 km range HAMMER stand-off missiles for Rafale. It is a good time to build stocking levels for ammunition, winter clothing and other requirement. Chances are that India will have to maintain larger troops in the region for time to come.
Agression – The Only Language Chinese Are Worried Off
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, over-hyped 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 need not be over confident, and be cautious that China has a huge weapon inventory. Time to hold ground and prepare for long haul, even at cost. It will do India good in the long term.
Lead Picture Credit: Indian Aerospace Defence News – IADN