The threat of co-ordinated action by China and Pakistan is a distinct possibility and, under such a scenario, the IAF would have to spread its assets on two fronts; that would render the PLAAF threat from Tibet even more worrisome. How worrisome would that threat be? The IAF is now posturing in the East to counter the PLAAF presence in Tibet. While the apparition of a two-front war does haunt the Indian psyche, there are counter arguments to suggest that in the event of a Chinese aggression a la 1962, Pakistan may be held back by international pressure led by the US, to desist from opening up another front.
Hugging India’s North Eastern border, Tibet contains the fulcrum of Sino-Indian territorial disputes (the extent of Chinese claims precludes the term ‘border’ or ‘boundary’ disputes) and also has a connection with the Chinese aggression in 1962. Tibet’s geography and the historicity of 1962 are inextricable from India’s strategic discourse and the China-Pakistan nexus, including all its military nuances, largely articulates the Indian security narrative. On China’s part, a ‘strategic containment’ of India appears to be the centrepiece of its disposition.
China’s party chief and President Xi Jinping visited North-Eastern Tibetan region in August 2016. The visit served to highlight Tibet as a part of China’s long term plans not only in the military context but also on account of the strategic importance of Tibet’s water resources and mineral deposits mainly lithium and uranium as also copper, gold, silver and chromium. During his visit to Tibet, the President also honoured Unit 77656 for its performance “in safeguarding borders, ensuring stability and helping disaster relief”. The event is a pointer to how China regards Tibet in terms of its political and strategic objectives. Given China’s penchant for symbolism, one could also interpret some significance into the fact that a unit in South China Sea currently a strategic hotbed for China, was also given the same honour simultaneously. As Claude Arpi very perceptively emphasizes, “equating the Chumbi Valley and India’s Achilles heel, i.e. the Siliguri Corridor with the South China Sea is a message to New Delhi about the importance that China accords to Tibet”. This article examines clues to Chinese intent, deduces People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) capability in Tibet and draws inferences on how worrisome PLAAF presence in Tibet is for India.
China’s intent with respect to Arunachal Pradesh is iterated loudly, clearly and repeatedly…
China’s Military Strategy 2015, a document released in May 2015, under the section on ‘Missions and Strategic Tasks of China’s Armed Forces’ avers that, “In line with the strategic requirement of building air-space capabilities and conducting offensive and defensive operations, the PLAAF will endeavour to shift its focus from territorial air defence to both defence and offence and build an air-space defence force structure that can meet the requirements of informationised operations.” Incursions into remote areas of Arunachal Pradesh by Chinese troops have been sporadic contrivances that have kept Chinese claims over Arunachal Pradesh live. While India has never invoked British inheritance of Tibet to claim any extra-territorial rights in Tibet, China’s intent with respect to Arunachal Pradesh is iterated loudly, clearly and repeatedly.
Pentagon’s 2016 Annual Report to the US Congress on security and military developments in China flags the gradual enhancement of military presence along India-China border while stating that this development could be due to internal compulsions of tightening control over Tibet. Nonetheless, the fact that Chinese presence, cross-border transgressions and aggressiveness have increased steadily in recent years can only be interpreted as bad intent. The recent military and infrastructural development in Tibet need studied attention by India. The presence of PLAAF in Tibet would have been an unremarkable happenstance as India accepts that Tibet is a part of China but for the fact that Chinese intent renders it an extant threat.
Tibet Military Command
Early this year, China announced military reforms reorganising the erstwhile Military Regions (MRs) into five “theatre commands” exercising joint command over ground, naval and air force elements as well as PLA Rocket Forces (PLARF) erstwhile Second Artillery Corps and PLA Strategic Support Force, a new force. The theatre commands will report directly to the Central Military Commission (CMC). According to Pentagon’s report mentioned earlier, “These reforms aim to strengthen the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) control over the military, enhance the PLA’s ability to conduct joint operations and improve its ability to fight short-duration, high-intensity regional conflicts at greater distances from the Chinese mainland.” Tibet and Xinjiang are under the Western Theatre Command with its headquarters at Chengdu. In a development significant from India’s point of view, Tibet Military Command’s (TMC) authority level was raised to place it directly under the PLA ground forces. As Xi Jinping who is also the Chairman of the CMC put it, “Each theatre command needs to focus on combat…enhance joint operations and command training and seek to win the initiative in future wars.” This move is viewed as a step towards fortifying the border with India as also to empower it to undertake military combat missions in the future. Only India could be the object of any military assignment undertaken by the TMC.
Airports in Tibet
China has invested heavily in logistics and infrastructure development in Tibet which can be expected to support China’s military by facilitating rapid deployment. Besides the railway lines feeding into Tibet, a large number of airports have been developed in recent years. As far back as 2009, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) had reported that China was building/repairing 27 airstrips in Tibet with a potential for use against India. Gonggar airport has been in existence since the 1960s and has been constantly upgraded to a two-runway airport with largely civilian use serving Lhasa, the capital of TAR. The airport is around 200 km away from Arunachal Pradesh. Another airport is reportedly coming up in Lhasa. Ngari Gunsa is a civil/military airport in South-West TAR less than 50 km from the nearest Indian border in Uttarakhand. Shiagatse Peace airport is another civil/military facility which was opened to civil use only in 2010. Nagchu Dagring is another airport in Tibet.
The PLAAF is a daunting challenge which is rendered even more menacing by the fact that the PLAAF has around three times more combat aircraft than the IAF…
The airports in Tibet have unusually long runways due to the long take-off distances necessitated by their high elevations. The Lhasa Gonggar runway is 4,000 m long and the one at Shigatse is 5,000 m. Possibly, these inordinate lengths also cater for runway damage due to enemy action. Other airports on the Tibetan plateau that are of significance to India include Kangding, Hongyuan (Ngaba), Daocheng Yading, Jiuzhai Huanglong (in Sichuan province), Huatugou, Delingha, Golok, Yushu Batang in Qinghai province, Gannan Xiahe in Gansu province, Ddiqing Shangri La in Yunnan province, Hotan in Xinjiang province, Jiuzhai Huanglong, Panzhihua Baoanying, Guangyuan Panlong, Guanghan, Yibin Caiba, Luzhou Lantian, Xichang Qingshan, Nanchong Gaoping in Xinjiang province, Xining Caojiabao in Qinhai province, Dali, Lijiang Sanyi, Dahong Mangshi, Baoshan Yunduan, Lincang and Tengchong Tuofeng in Yunnan province, Qiemo and Kashgar (Kashi) in Xinjiang province. In the absence of any authenticated Chinese source, this list is taken from http://claudearpi.blogspot.in/2016/02/airport-infrastructure-on-tibetan.html.
According to one estimate, there are 14 major airbases in the Tibetan Plateau and 20 small airstrips from which the PLAAF could conduct air operations against India. Reportedly, PLAAF has established bases at Hoping, Pangta, Shiquanhe and Bayixincun in Central Tibet opposite Arunachal Pradesh. In 2015, a joint statement from the PLAAF and Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) had announced that the integration will include joint maintenance of airport support facilities, joint flight safety support and joint airport management, the objective being to “strengthen aviation safety and combat support capabilities.” The first two pilot projects in this direction were Gongkar Airport and Sunan Shuofang International Airport in Wuxi in Jiangsu province. Gongkar is often referred to by the Chinese media as the ‘airborne bridgehead’ into Tibet and is an all-weather airfield located at an altitude of 16,000 feet near the Tibetan capital Lhasa. Last year another joint meeting on the development of military-civil integration of dual-use airports of the PLAAF was held in Beijing on “Interim Provisions of Operation Security at Dual-use Airports of the PLA AF.” China’s 15th Airborne Corps has been exercising airborne induction into Tibet as a part of this initiative. Since 2014, the number of sorties flown into and over Tibet has increased steadily and alarmingly. Reportedly, Su-27 fighters have been deployed at Lhasa Gongkar.
It is not easy to execute air operations from within the TAR because of the unpredictable weather and the high elevation. There are severe limitations on the fuel and weapon payload carried from these airfields and air-to-air refuelling would become critical to launching reasonable payloads against target systems in India. Nonetheless, each of these airports, even when not integrated with PLAAF, has some extent of military role. Launching offensive operations against India is thus not a challenge, provided the PLAAF fields the requisite aircraft.
The PLAAF has always had a distinct edge over the IAF but it is now beginning to edge past in qualitative terms as well…
Through the last two decades, the PLAAF has undergone qualitative modernisation as also increased numbers through an indigenised aerospace industry. The PLAAF bought 76 Su-27SK/UBK fighters and 100 Su-30MKK/MK2 fighters from Russia starting in the 1990s and then built another 105 Su-27SK under licence. From the technology thus gained it built J-11B, which included more advanced Chinese avionics and radars than even Russian Su-30s. The range of the J-11Bs is more than 3,500 km and, with a top speed of Mach 2.35, it is more than a match for India’s Su-30MKI.
It is believed that in the near future, the PLAAF may get the latest Russian Su-35 fighters. Reports of Chinese interest in the Su-35 first surfaced in 2006 and again in 2008, at the Air Show China Expo. Formal negotiations started in 2011 with confirmations from the Russians in 2012 Zhuhai Air Show. The deal was finally signed in 2015 and signifies a major boost to the PLAAF not only in terms of technology but also in terms of power projection. With the Su-35 entering service in PLAAF, it will get an edge over India, as the Su-35 is much lighter than the twin-seat Su-30MKI, its Irbis-E PESA radar is also far more advanced than the N011M Bars PESA that is currently featured on the Su-30MKI. However, this will change after the Su-30MKI starts to receive its planned upgrade which will replace the Bars with the sophisticated Zhuk-AE AESA radar.
China is also working on its own fifth generation fighter programmes (J-20 and J-31) while its four-and-a-half generation fighter, J-11D, is also getting closer to operational status. Thus qualitatively, the PLAAF is a daunting challenge which is rendered even more menacing by the fact that the PLAAF has around three times more combat aircraft than the IAF.
A PLAAF Air Division is believed to have three Regiments, each with three Squadrons having three flights each with two to four aircraft each depending on role. A Division holds around 72 aircraft. The aircraft deployment in erstwhile Lanzhou and Chengdu MRs can be expected to be deployable in the airfields usable against India. Chengdu MR has two fighter divisions (with J-7H, J-7II, J-10A, Su-27SK and J-11 fighters) and a transport division, whereas Lanzhou MR has two fighter divisions (J-7H, J-7II, J-8F, J-8H, JH-7A, J-11 and J-11B) and a bomber division (H-6). The prefix ‘J’ denotes a fighter and ‘H’ denotes a bomber. Thus there could be around 300 fighters and 72 bombers that could be tasked against India. The fighters with better performance (Su-27, J-10 and J-11/ J-11B) can be expected to be somewhat effective from the high elevation airfields in Tibet while the others may be severely constrained operationally.
In recent months, the J-20 has been sighted at Daocheng Yading in Tibet giving rise to feverish hype in the Indian media but it may be three to four years before the J-20 fourth generation fighter is deployable in Tibet while the first J-31 production model is expected to fly only in 2019 and so will appear in Tibet even later. Last year, China disclosed its new generation H-6K strategic bomber (combat radius 3,500 km) equipped with the DH-20 land-attack cruise missile. Of deeper concern to India are reports of China’s iterations about the need for it to have a long range strategic bomber which the PLAAF defines as a strategic bomber capable of carrying more than ten tonne of load over a minimum range of 8,000 km without refuelling. Of more immediate interest to India are reports from Kanwa Asian Defence, that the J-10 and the J-11 both third generation fighters, have been visiting Tibet more frequently and in larger numbers than before especially at Lhasa Gonggar and Hotan which is just over 100 km from Aksai Chin.
India is in the process of setting up a Mountain Strike Corps which will be ready by 2021…
Since 2010, the PLAAF has been deploying Su-27SK/Su-27UBK/J-11A at the dual-use airports at Lhasa Gonggar opposite Sikkim and Northern West Bengal and Ngari facing Ladakh in Jammu and Kashmir, twice every year for two-week deployment periods. Last year’s series of annual PLAAF exercises in Tibet facing the Sino-Indian LAC held in late March 2016, saw the introduction of a solitary KJ-500 turboprop-powered Airborne Early Warning & Control (AEW&C) platform, plus the deployment of LY-80 MR-SAMs in place of the older HQ-12 ADK-12 KS-1D MR-SAMs. The KJ 2000, an AWACS platform based on the IL 76, has also been in use with PLAAF since 2004 and it is estimated that five or six aircraft are in use, one KJ-2000 aircraft was displayed at the China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition 2014 held in Zhuhai. An improved version, KJ 3000, with an improved radar, is also likely to be available soon.
In the transport field, last July, PLAAF inducted the Y-20 which has a maximum payload of 66 tonne that it can carry as far as 4,400 km. Xinhua news service quoted PLAAF spokesman Shen Jinke as saying that the Y-20’s entry into service “marks a crucial step for the air force improving its strategic power projection capability”. One disquieting fact is increasing efforts by both the PLAAF and the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) to rehearse joint air campaigns since 2011 under the ‘Shaheen’ series of joint exercises. In 2011, as part of Ex Shaheen-I, a PLAAF contingent with four Su-27UBKs deployed to Rafiqui air base in Shorkot, Pakistan. The fact that the 2015 version, Ex Shaheen-IPV, was held in TAR holds an ominous message for India.
Indian Air Force Preparedness
India has been monitoring China’s steady growth in military and civil infrastructure in Tibet and has been making necessary adjustments to its assessment of the threat in the Eastern region. A year ago, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha, the then Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), IAF, reportedly said that, “In TAR, operations by PLAAF has increased exponentially and the capability has been increasing throughout the year…We also have our assets, our infrastructure and are deploying our force. Therefore, there is no need to worry.” However, the shortfall of fighter aircraft continues to be alarming and the most optimistic projection for the current 33 Squadron strength to reach the sanctioned 42 Squadrons is 2027 at the earliest as projected by the CAS. The deal for 36 Rafale jets is a small consolation and in any case commencement of delivery is still a couple of years away with the last of the 36 aircraft expected only by 2024. However, it will come with the Meteor Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missile with a range of 100 km and SCALP, a long range air-to-ground missile with a range of 300 km, a definite advantage in any aerial skirmish with PLAAF. Moreover, the Rafale is nuclear capable and can reach substantial parts of Tibet.
Meanwhile, the total strength of Su-30MKIs is expected to reach the planned figure of 272 by 2019. India is currently negotiating an upgrade of the IAF’s Su-30MKI to a version dubbed Super Sukhoi, which will have the AL-41F turbofan engine currently being installed on the Su-35. India has reportedly deployed four Squadrons of Su-30 MKI fighters in Chabua and Tezpur obviously with China in mind. The ongoing activation of Advanced Landing Grounds (ALGs) in the East is another step in the right direction and signals the changing of Indian viewpoint about the PLAAF threat.
The Rafale and the Su-30MKI strength would be assuring, but the figures for the MiG variants is on a rapid decline and the gap would be filled by the Tejas which is yet to be operationalised. The availability of an operational Tejas Mk1A variant is not expected before 2022 while the Tejas Mk1 already delivered and being produced is not an operational aircraft. In any case, HAL is expected to produce only eight aircraft per year and that rate of production is slower than the expected attrition of the older aircraft. Although being talked about by the Defence Minister et al, a new choice of aircraft may take years to finalise as was the case with the MMRCA selection process which was finally shelved and an ad hoc decision to buy only 36 instead of the original requirement of 126 Rafale jets taken.
In addition to the deployment of fighter squadrons at the airports existing in the region, India is speeding up the upgrade and renovation of Advanced Landing Grounds (ALGs) especially in Arunachal Pradesh where the Chinese threat is most likely. Five ALGs (Mechuka, Ziro, Along, Walong and Pasighat), are operational and another two (Tuting and Tawang) are expected be ready by end-2016. Another ALG is proposed to be reconstructed at Vijaynagar but some delay is expected as the roads serving that area are inadequate to support the task. Su-30 MKIs could operationally use some of these ALGs as demonstrated on August 19 this year at Pasighat (just 100 km from the nearest Chinese territory). In September this year, a Su-30 MKI landed at Agartala, a civil airport. While the deployment of the Su-30 MKI and its exploration of the North East for maximum operational use are reassuring, the total strength we could deploy is still inadequate.
There is a definite need, besides whatever non-military strategies are employed to thwart China’s anti-India stance, to bring up the IAF strength to at least the 42 Squadrons…
The IAF is already using the Israeli Phalcon AWACS on the Russian IL-76 heavy-lift aircraft to detect aerial threats from jets or missiles even from a distance of 400 km. Fifteen more are expected to be added to the IAF’s inventory in coming years. An indigenous Airborne Early Warning and Control System (AEW&C) christened ‘Netra’ was handed over to the IAF during the ‘Aero India 2017’ in February this year, making India the fourth country after US, Russia and Israel to have developed the technology on their own. The AEW&C consists of a state-of-the-art active electronically scanned radar, secondary surveillance radar, electronic and communication counter measures, Line of Sight (LOS) and beyond-LOS data link, voice communication system and self-protection suite, built on an Embraer-145 platform and has a mid-air refueling capability to enhance surveillance time. According to AVM AK Tiwary (Retd), a total of 56 AWACS aircraft would be required to provide 24X7 coverage of the 4000 km long Eastern border. This number is unlikely to be ever reached due to the costs involved.
In August this year, India decided to deploy a BrahMos Missile Regiment in Arunachal Pradesh, causing a flutter in China with the PLA declaring it a threat to TAR and Yunnan. The missile’s 290 km range precludes targeting of central China. The message implicit in these deployments is not of intended aggression, but of necessary defence.
As far as target systems are concerned, the terrain across the border in China is at an average elevation of 14,700 feet AMSL and is largely a desert with hardly any population and no industrial complexes. The road and rail networks are the only worthwhile targets besides the airports themselves and, of course, military clusters. On the Indian side, airports and big cities are comparatively closer to the border and thus tilt the balance somewhat in terms of vulnerability vis a vis China in the context of targets offered for aerial strikes.
How Worrisome Is PLAAF?
Quantitatively, the PLAAF has always had a distinct edge over the IAF but it is now beginning to edge past in qualitative terms as well. Its third and fourth generation combat aircraft are incrementally adding to the might of the PLAAF which is also adding AWACS and air-to-air refuelling to its operational capability. However, China’s current focus does not appear to be a war with India; Taiwan and South China Sea appear to be a higher priority. The potential PLAAF has of projecting itself offensively and ominously against India at a time of its choosing is cause for concern. A protracted war is a distant probability; but “short border wars” are a part of the Chinese strategic narrative and theatre commands would be tasked with ‘deterring wars’ as also ‘winning battles’.
A typical scenario envisages China using its might for a quick territorial gain in Arunachal Pradesh. PLAAF strike aircraft, deployed in Tibet, could be employed to launch pre-emptive strategic strikes targeting Indian airfields and other target systems so as to enervate the IAF’s capability to contribute to the air campaign. Towards countering the IAF wherewithal, China is also building a number of new radar monitoring stations along the LAC in Arunachal and Sikkim sectors. It is also upgrading military infrastructure on a large scale in the TAR including nuclear missile deployments. The PLAAF in coordination with the Chinese Airborne Corps, have also been undertaking regular exercises in the proximity of the LAC. Strategically, Tibet is crucial for China’s security and hence the focus on this region for aggressive military deployments.
The threat of co-ordinated action by China and Pakistan is a distinct possibility and under such a scenario, the IAF would have to spread its assets on two fronts, a situation that would render the PLAAF threat from Tibet even more worrisome. How worrisome would that threat be? The IAF is now posturing in the East to counter the PLAAF presence in Tibet. While the apparition of a two-front war does haunt the Indian psyche, there are counter arguments to suggest that in the event of a Chinese aggression a la 1962, Pakistan may be held back by international pressure led by the US, to desist from opening up another front.
Moreover, the limitations on payloads and the distances strike aircraft would have to fly to reach targets in India would be such as to detract from the otherwise awe-inspiring PLAAF array of strike aircraft and weaponry. While India cannot match Chinese missile arsenal in numbers, there is still a potent capability for taking on PLAAF targets such as runways, aircraft and radar installations using Prithvi and BrahMos missiles, backed up by the longer range missiles. One hopes that, having learnt from the 1962 experience that non-use of air power was a grave error, India would have no inhibitions should China get into an aggressive mood again. While Su-30s have the potential to cause grievous damage to PLAAF and PLA targets on the ground, Mirage 2000 and MiG-29 fleet would provide adequate defence against the incoming PLAAF strikes. It is very difficult to predict the outcome of IAF’s performance vis a vis PLAAF’s in war due to the indeterminate factors that go into the use of air power but it would be safe to aver that, while the IAF may be subjected to grave injury in a confrontation with the PLAAF in Tibet, it may not be a humiliating experience.
Some sections of Chinese government-run media talk of the military deeming the PLAAF as a ‘strategic force’, a term previously used only in the context of China’s Second Artillery Corps (now PLARF). Concomitant with this perception is the general notion that strategic bombers would be able to carry Chinese attacks to the ‘Second Island Chain’ which, incidentally, includes islands in East Pacific, including Guam (Andersen Air Force Base) which is US territory and one of the four US forward bomber bases. More importantly for India, Chinese iterations on its ongoing territorial dispute, its frequent transgressions into India, its militarisation of Tibet including an extensive road network and railway line up to Lhasa with further sections being added, are all sobering thoughts which hold implicit warnings for India.
Tibet was the cause of the 1962 Chinese aggression against India and with the inscrutable Chinese, there is no way of accurately predicting whether and when a repeat action may happen. China’s record does nothing to allay apprehensions about the possibility of future conflicts on the Indo-Tibetan border, whether in simultaneity with a clash with Pakistan or by itself. Should that happen, the texture of operations may be quite different from that in 1962, with PLAAF aircraft deployed in Tibet playing a major role in airfield strikes, air defence and close air support to ground forces.
On the ground, India is in the process of setting up a Mountain Strike Corps which will be ready by 2021. While India has, in recent months, shifted its air power focus from a purely Pakistan-centric one to include China as a possible antagonist and has deployed Su-30 MKIs in the East, the PLAAF threat from Tibet looms menacingly. To answer the question we started with, PLAAF presence in Tibet is a cause for worry for India. While the probability of a conflict involving the full might of the PLAAF and the IAF appears low, the severity of consequences of such a conflict could be chastening for India. There is a definite need, besides whatever non-military strategies are employed to thwart China’s anti-India stance, to bring up the IAF strength to at least the 42 Squadrons it is currently authorised. Possibly, if that is done, PLAAF presence in Tibet may appear to be less worrisome.