Operational Philosophy of the PLAAF
PLAAF’s operational philosophy states that battlefield dominance will depend on an integrated struggle for air, space, information and electro-magnetic superiority. This came about after Chinese military was jolted out of its earlier dependence on mass and size, by the demonstrated predominance of air power in the 1991 Gulf war and the subsequent operations by the Western powers. China realised that a smaller, better equipped force created through improved training, equipped with high-technology stealthy aircraft and an overall capability of rapid response, were essential in modern warfare. As per established principles, air superiority is a prerequisite for victory in war. However, the PLAAF does not assert that achieving absolute air superiority in all stages of combat across all theatres is necessary. Instead, it aims to achieve air superiority to achieve its tactical objectives.
As per established principles, air superiority is a prerequisite for victory in war. However, the PLAAF does not assert that achieving absolute air superiority in all stages of combat across all theatres is necessary.
The PLAAF places primary emphasis on achieving air superiority by attacking the enemy forces, equipment, bases, and launch pads used for air raids whether on land or sea. In the initial stages of a war, the PLAAF will endeavour to attack enemy air bases, ballistic missile bases, aircraft carriers and warships equipped with land-attack cruise missiles before enemy aircraft can take-off or air strike launched by other means. Another means of achieving air superiority will be to carry out attacks to destroy and suppress ground-based air defence systems and air defence command systems. In addition, defensive operations will be an important component of air superiority throughout a campaign.
In future wars, space superiority is expected to be crucial for controlling the ground, naval, and air battlefields. To gain space superiority, offensive and defensive weapon systems will be deployed on the ground, air, sea, and space. Space control operations are likely to include space information warfare, “space blockade warfare,” “space orbit attack warfare,” space-defence warfare, and space-to-land attacks.
In the struggle for information superiority, the goal is to control information on the battlefield, allowing it to be transparent to one’s own side but opaque to the enemy. Methods for achieving information superiority include achieving electromagnetic superiority through electronic interference; achieving network superiority through network attacks; using firepower to destroy the enemy’s information systems and achieving “psychological control”.
The induction of AWACS also allows PLAAF command & control over 100 aircraft. PLAAF can now send 30 aircraft of different types to South China Sea with aerial tankers and AWACS in a possible dispute with Vietnam.
While acquiring electromagnetic superiority is described as a subset of acquiring information superiority, it is treated as a distinct operation. Methods for obtaining electromagnetic superiority include electronic attack and electronic defence. In electronic attack, soft kill measures include electronic interference and electronic deception. Hard kill measures are said to include anti-radiation destruction, electromagnetic weapon attack, firepower destruction, and attacks against the enemy’s electronic installations and systems. Electronic defence is simply defending against enemy electronic and firepower attacks. The primary targets of electronic warfare (EW) include command, control, communications, and intelligence systems. There have been allegations that China has carried out clandestine hacking operations against selected target in the USA, India and other countries in a bid to test its own capabilities in this field.
Chinese military publications identify four types of air force campaigns: air offensive, air defence, air blockade and airborne campaigns. These can be either air force only campaigns or, more frequently, air force–led joint campaigns that incorporate other services. These air force campaigns can also be part of broader joint campaigns, such as an island-landing campaign or joint blockade campaign. In most air operations, a great deal of emphasis is placed on surprise, camouflage, use of tactics, meticulous planning, and strikes against critical targets.
The PLAAF is training and developing tactics to operate nation-wide rather than just within individual military region. In Exercise Red Sword 2008, Su-30MKK, JH-7 and H-6 performed long range strikes with KD-88, KH-59ME, KH-31P and penetration of layers of opposing defence and launched bunker buster KAB-1500 and LGB-250. In fact, PLAAF fired more Russian A2G missiles in this exercise than Russia did in the conflict in Georgia in 2008. The exercise demonstrated that PLAAF’s role has changed from support to ground forces to being able to conduct operations independently. The induction of AWACS also allows PLAAF command & control over 100 aircraft. PLAAF can now send 30 aircraft of different types to South China Sea with aerial tankers and AWACS in a possible dispute with Vietnam. PLAAF aims to form several AF strike groups under the direction of Beijing Military Region for offensive missions. PLAAF is actively trying to imbibe better training programs from the West. It has increased joint training with other air forces in the recent years. In Peace Mission 2007, a JH-7A regiment performed better than a Russian Su-25 in a ground attack exercise. During the past year, PLAAF has held exercises with Turkey and Pakistan. According to some reports, the PLAAF actually fared pretty badly in an exercise with the Turkish Air Force, but learnt some lessons in the process. These are the growing pains it must experience to become a modern air force.
Implications for the IAF
The PLAAF is striving to become the second most powerful air force in the world. Its trajectory so far indicates that this aim will be achieved in the near future. The bleak economic situation in the USA and Europe inhibits Western air forces from spending too much on their military, though with a $ 700 billion defence budget, the USA is still leagues ahead of other countries.
The implications of the growing strength of the PLAAF for the IAF are implicit in what has been stated in this article so far. The PLAAF is clearly sprinting ahead of the IAF. India has yet not articulated a long-term vision for its security and military requirements. Inter-service bickering impede effective jointness, which is the essence of modern warfare. Military acquisitions are done piece-meal service-wise, without any comprehensive, joint threat analysis based on national security imperatives. It is not lack of resources but less than optimum utilisation of the available resources that bedevil India’s military modernisation effort.
…pilot training in the IAF has been disrupted by the grounding of the HAL-built HPT-32 aircraft. The successor to HPT-32 is nowhere in sight and the IAF is scouring the international aviation market for a replacement aircraft.
In the short/medium term the IAF is poised to add 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA), over 200 fifth generation T-50 aircraft, two additional AWACS, 10 C-17 heavy lift transport aircraft, 140 medium lift helicopters, 22 attack helicopters and unspecified air defence systems to its arsenal. These accretions will stabilise the IAF to a degree. However, the IAF still has a number of MiG-21 and MiG-27 squadrons in its inventory which need to be replaced. With China rapidly improving its air force and the PAF benefitting from China’s rise, the IAF and the other two services should seriously factor in a two-front conflict situation. An earlier study, still relevant, had concluded that the IAF requires 55 combat squadrons to fight a two-front war. It should be abundantly clear to the political leadership of the nation that in the event of a conflict, China and Pakistan would collude and countries like Russia, USA and the European Union would not intercede. India has to stand on its own but there are many shortcomings in our military capacity and preparedness.
The most glaring deficiency has been the inability of the indigenous industry in supporting the armed forces. India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and the US equivalent Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency(DARPA) were set up in the same year-1958. DARPA has a scientist to support staff ratio of 1.4:1, while the figure for DRDO is 1:5. The DRDO has been bureaucratised and there is no visible accountability. The organisation is into developing and producing ‘Leucoderma Herbal Care’ and mosquito repellent cream while the Kaveri engine project languishes despite huge investments.
The National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL) designed and built the SARAS light transport aircraft with questionable technology resulting in a disaster during a test flight. NAL is persisting with the project but there is resistance from the IAF which lost two test pilots and a test engineer in the mishap. The DRDO has not made any worthwhile contribution to India’s war fighting capability. Their latest claim is about the deployment of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) system by 2014 to protect the national capital. The ABM is an expensive system whose effectiveness is, at best, limited. The DRDO should direct its efforts and resources at providing better aircraft and tanks.
Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) is the premier aircraft manufacturing entity in the country. The last indigenous fighter aircraft it designed and produced, and which entered operational service, was the HF-24 Marut. The LCA Tejas is yet to be inducted into the IAF. The LCA Tejas has been unduly delayed and the IAFs Long Term Re-equipment Plans adversely affected by the delay. HAL is now concentrating on licensed production of Su-30MKI and mid-life upgrade of MiG-27 and MiG-21 fleets. It will take up manufacturing of the 126 MMRCA after the vender is finally chosen This MMRCA deal was first mooted in 2000 and it will be 2015 when the IAF will get the first squadron. HAL is also collaborating with Russia in producing the T-50 fifth generation fighter.
Perhaps the unstated objective of the plan is to expand China’s “comprehensive national power” beyond the existing regional status.
What is most disconcerting is that basic pilot training in the IAF has been disrupted by the grounding of the HAL-built HPT-32 aircraft. The successor to HPT-32 is nowhere in sight and the IAF is scouring the international aviation market for a replacement aircraft. The Interim Jet Trainer (IJT) programme has suffered delays due to a variety of reasons including accidents. The overall military aviation industrial scene in the country is not very encouraging. The Defence Public Sector Units(DPSUs) have to be freed from the clutches of bureaucratic control. Despite the high quality of professionals in entities like the HAL, the final decision is taken by a Joint Secretary in the Ministry of Defence Production, and the IAF, the main customer and user has hardly any leverage in the decision-making process. There is a strong case for the private sector entry into defence industry. The IAF needs radars and air defence weapons like SAMs to strengthen our capability along the northern borders which will be the front line of defence in the event of a conflict with China.
The Way Forward
The IAF’s operational philosophy is based on solid foundations honed by the experience gained in the air wars fought from 1947 to Kargil. Our pilot skills and professionalism of the 1,40,000 Air Warriors, are as good as any air force in the world. There is realisation in the decision-making bodies that air power will play a dominant role in future conflicts. The IAF should take the lead in jointness and shed the apprehension that a much larger Indian Army would subsume it in a changed environment.
The fifth generation technology that the IAF is inducting should be matched by an equivalent new generation mindset. An ever growing PLAAF will loom large over the northern borders, with the PAF set to play spoilers in the West. India has to get its act together in facing future challenges. The Indian military in general and the IAF in particular need to study the developing threats and optimise our strategies to meet the challenges ahead.
- Rand Corporation- Study of PLAAF 2011.
- Wikipedia-The Chinese Air Force.
- Wikipedia-Articles on PLAAF.