In March this year, the leaders of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, the United States, Japan, Australia and India, held a virtual meeting and released a joint statement reaffirming their commitment to “a region that is free, open, inclusive, healthy, anchored by democratic values, and unconstrained by coercion.” Finally, a check is evolving on belligerent China who is muscle-flexing its way to becoming the sole Asian superpower. The Quad joint statement also stated that they would “launch a critical- and emerging-technology working group to facilitate cooperation on international standards and innovative technologies of the future.” That should boost the military technologies in the region that can serve as a counterweight to China in the Indo-Pacific region. The group could pool resources to counter China’s dominance in 5G technology. Other areas of cooperation could be artificial intelligence, cyber, space, hypersonic, and information and communications technologies. India has been dominated by Soviet and later Russian military technology for decades, but U.S. companies have made some inroads in selling modern weapon systems.
India’s relationship with China has deteriorated markedly, after the show-down in eastern Ladakh. Despite some moves to restore earlier positions, the damage has been done and positions hardened. The quad would have to take a forward-leaning approach to oppose Chinese activities throughout the region. There is a range of issues being flagged by Quad, and these include coronavirus fallout, Taiwan, the South China Sea, trade, human rights in Xinjiang and Tibet, Hong Kong, India border show-down, intellectual property theft, press freedoms, and others. For Quad to collectively provide a military deterrence solution by 2030, more needs to be done. The first face-to-face Quad summit in Covid Era took place in the White House on September 25, 2021.
Quad Joint Engagement and Military Exercises
New technologies will make warfare rapid and networked and take place over longer ranges, with adversaries conducting kinetic and non-kinetic strikes from thousands of miles away. Long-range strike operations will be enabled by hypersonic weapons, space, fifth-generation aircraft, and submarines—all managed through newly fielded architectures such as Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) and Air Battle Management System (ABMS).
Each of the four nations has different individual interests and defence strategies. India and Japan being physically closest to China have homeland defence as the priority. The United States is concentrating on power projection, and Australia feels a more balanced regional security. Quad countries have been regularly holding joint naval exercises, but air power is also where significant action will evolve. They must increase joint air exercises focussed on Indian and Pacific Oceans. The US is contemplating a decision to invite the air forces of Australia, India and Japan to Andersen Air Force Base in Guam to conduct training and elevate interoperability between Quad air forces.
People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF)
Like the Americans and the Russians, China realised very early that the one who controls the aerospace controls this planet. They began setting up aircraft building plants, initially with the help of the Soviet Union, and later during their honeymoon with the Americans, they could get better technologies. As they began becoming an economic power, they started aeronautical research and development in a big way. In parallel, they made leaps into space. With global power ambitions since the last few decades, PLAAF started becoming more independent of the Chinese army.
The PLAAF is the largest air force in the region and the third-largest in the world, with more than 2,500 total aircraft (not including UAVs or trainers) and 1,700 combat aircraft. The PLAAF is closing the gap with Western air forces across a broad spectrum of capabilities, such as aircraft performance, command and control, and electronic warfare. PLAAF is in transition from a tactical to an air force with a global reach. The state-owned Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) is developing and producing state-of-the-art airborne platforms and is fast catching up with the best in the world. PLAAF has also reoriented its flying training and tactics. There is a much greater emphasis on technological support even for operations. The PLAAF is evolving its operational doctrine, missions and roles, including concentrating on long-range precision strikes. PLAAF is working on integrated air and space capabilities and coordinated offensive and defensive operations in conjunction with the Strategic Support Force (SSF). The newer fifth-generation fighter aircraft, the J-20, and other fourth-generation-plus aircraft are fast replacing the ageing J-7s. The PLAAF is training for the hybrid nature of warfare, including precision and effect-based operations, network-based operational planning, and flexibility. PLAAF has low exposure to military conflict and modern air exercise but is trying to compensate through powerful platforms and weapons.
US Air Power in Western Pacific
United States Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) is a unified combatant command of the United States Armed Forces responsible for the Indo-Pacific region. Manned by nearly 375,000 personnel, it saw major action in the Korean and Vietnam wars. Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) is the air component command. PACAF has 334 aircraft and 31,299 airmen. PACAF includes the Fifth Air Force for USAF operations in Japan, with the primary role to defend Japan and work closely with Japanese forces. There are three major airbases. 18 Wing, Kadena, has F-15C/D Eagle, E-3B/C Sentry, HH-60G Pave Hawk, and KC-135R Stratotanker. 35 Wing, Misawa, has F-16CJ/DJ Fighting Falcons. 374 Airlift Wing, Yokota, has C-12J Huron, C-130J Hercules, and UH-1N Iroquois. 18th Expeditionary Air Wing, at Kadena, also has E-8C J-DTARS.
The Seventh Air Force is in Korea, to maintain armistice between the two Koreas. The main airbases are at Kunsan and Osan. The U.S. aircraft housed in South Korea are F-16C/D, A-10C Thunderbolt II. The Eleventh Air Force is responsible for USAF operations across the Pacific, including the states of Alaska and Hawaii and the US territory of Guam. With Headquarters in Alaska, they operate all aircraft of USAF inventory, including, the F-35, F-22A Raptor, C-17 Globemaster III, C-130 among many others. PACAF also has Expeditionary units in New Zealand and in Antarctica. PACAF also has a large Reserve component stationed at airbases in mainland USA and at Hawaii and Guam. United States Pacific Fleet (USPACFLT) includes 250,000 Navy sailors and Marines, 2,000 aircraft, and 200 ships. There are at least two carrier battle groups in areas around Taiwan. These are large nuclear-powered aircraft carriers of the Nimitz class with over 100,000-ton displacement and can house nearly 90 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. The U.S. has 12 similar large carriers and can easily be brought in. They also have nine 45,000 ton carriers that can operate VSTOL aircraft including F-35. The U.S. thus has significant air power in the region.
Japanese Air Power
The Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF), has around 50,000 personnel and operates around 740 aircraft, including approximately 330 fighters. It carries out combat air patrols around Japan, while also maintaining a network of ground and air early-warning radar systems. Of late, JASDF has been under increasing pressure to intercept warplanes from China’s PLAAF close to entering its air space. In the fiscal year ending March 2020, the JASDF had scrambled a record 947 times just against PLAAF warplanes. JASDF operates the F-15J (155), Mitsubishi F-2 (62) and F-35 (129 on order) fighter aircraft. They have 10 air refuellers and a significant number of AEW&C aircraft. By 2023, the service’s name will change to the Japan Air and Space Self-Defense Force in recognition of the increasing importance of the space domain.
Royal Australian Air Force
The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) operates the majority of the military fixed-wing aircraft, although both the Australian Army and Royal Australian Navy also operate aircraft in various roles. The RAAF has 259 aircraft, of which 110 are combat aircraft. The RAAF has great combat experience, having taken part in all major wars of the last century, including the Second World War. Later the RAAF served in the Berlin Airlift, Korean War, Malayan Emergency, Indonesia–Malaysia Confrontation and Vietnam War. More recently, the RAAF has participated in operations in East Timor, the Iraq War, the War in Afghanistan, and the military intervention against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Their main combat aircraft are 69 Boeing F/A-18, 24 F/A-18E/F (multirole), and 37 F-35 Lightning II. They have 18 dedicated Electronic Warfare aircraft, 14 Boeing P-8 Maritime patrol aircraft, and seven Airbus A330 MRTT air refuellers. Ultimately they will have nearly 100 F-35. They have a sizeable UAV force and they are working on the loyal Wingman unmanned force.
Indian Air Force and Naval Air Arm
The Indian Air Force (IAF) is the fourth largest air force in the world with nearly 140,000 personnel and nearly 1850 aircraft, including 900 combat aircraft. The IAF saw action in World War II and has been involved in four major wars with Pakistan, and one with China. Other major operations undertaken by the IAF include Operation Vijay, Operation Meghdoot, Operation Cactus and Operation Poomalai.
Main fighter aircraft are 36 Omni-role Dassault Rafale, 272 Sukhoi Su-30MKI air superiority fighters, 69 Mikoyan MiG-29UPG, 57 Mirage 2000 (upgraded), 32 HAL LCA Tejas, 139 SEPECAT Jaguar (DARIN-3 upgrade), and nearly 90 Mikoyan MiG-21 Bison. The IAF has two DRDO AEW&CS based on Embraer ERJ 145 aircraft, and three EL/W-2090 Phalcon AEW&C incorporated in a Beriev A-50 platform. India also has an in-house AWACS project. The IAF currently operates six Ilyushin Il-78MKIs in the aerial refuelling (tanker) role. For strategic airlift operations, the IAF has 17 Ilyushin Il-76 and 11 C-17 Globemaster IIIs. It also has 12 C-130Js for Special Operations and over 100 Antonov An-32 as a medium transport aircraft. The helicopter fleet includes 15 Chinook heavy lift, 22 AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, 240 Mil Mi-8 and the Mil Mi-17, Mi-17 1V and Mi-17V 5 medium-lift helicopters. It also has 60 HAL Dhruv in utility and attack roles, a large number of Chetak/Cheetah light utility helicopters. IAF has ordered 68 HAL Light Combat Helicopters (LCH), 35 HAL Rudra attack helicopters. The IAF currently uses the IAI Searcher II and IAI Heron unmanned reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft. The IAI Harpy serves as an Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV). Indian Air Force has nearly 20 airfields facing China vis-à-vis around 8 of China. Indian airfields are at much lower altitudes and thus allow payload advantage.
India currently possesses the seventh-largest navy in the world, with one aircraft carrier, 137 ships and submarines, and 291 aircraft. Indian Navy has a sizeable naval air-arm with one operational aircraft carrier and the second, an indigenous one under initial sea trials. It has over 50 MiG 29s. INS Vikramaditya has the ability to carry over thirty aircraft including MiG 29K, Kamov 31, Kamov 28, Sea King and HAL-Dhruv and Chetak helicopters. For maritime patrol and reconnaissance operations, there are 12 Boeing P-8 Poseidon, and more are on order. Indian Navy has over 100 helicopters.
Balance of Air Power
The balance of air power in numbers and quality is significantly in favour of the Quad countries vis-à-vis China. Future technology investments will be required by all four nations, coupled with the imperative to demonstrate seamless integration through new battle management systems. The Quad would have to clearly factor in homeland defence of the two immediate Chinese neighbours Japan and India. Japan has been inducting state-of-the-art weapon platforms of late. Japan has also slightly amended its constitution to permit the use of force “when an armed attack against a foreign country that is in a close relationship with Japan occurs and as a result, threatens Japan’s survival.” India and USA have already signed the four defence security cooperation enabling agreements.
Beijing is continuing to invest more in defence modernisation. China is focused on securing regional dominance through building a networked, precision-strike capability. This would have to be countered. Space battle management is an area of key priority. Retaining space superiority is important. India’s role in space development will provide IOR connectivity and situational awareness. The need for speed would mean accelerating the development of hypersonic weapons, especially for anti-shipping and high-value targets. BrahMos II will be important. A significant number of Russian weapons in India’s inventory would have to be factored in. The United States would need to have a larger bomber fleet to out-match China’s projected 120 H-6s and 30 H-20s by 2030. More joint Quad air exercises in the Indo-Pacific region are required to bolster interoperability.
More joint airbases would be required. In addition to the large air and naval bases in Guam, joint-use basing in Papua New Guinea and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands could be considered. The latter is just west of the Malacca Strait and can increase Quad air and naval presence in the IOR, and also serve as a strategic blunting option to deter aggression near the key trade corridor. The islands now have four airbases that can operate Su-30 MKI and take P-8I. The Quad could also use Western bases in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The U.S. exit from Afghanistan should allow the shift of resources and attention to the Indo-Pacific. The Quad formally declares an alliance or not, the Quad nations must increase integration and expand basing options. The Quad nations are best positioned to ensure balance and freedom across the Indo-Pacific.
The article by the author first appeared in India Strategic Magazine in September 2021
Header Image: The Diplomat