During the past decade, India’s defence preparedness has steadily and inexorably deteriorated despite constant clamour by the defence forces for modernisation and upgradation to meet assigned roles and tasks. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s anti-India stance and Chinese aggressive actions and iterations have neither helped to push away the trepidation of possible military conflagration with either one individually, nor done anything to liquidate the possibility of a two-front war. A combined and collusive threat from China and Pakistan would overstretch the Indian military machinery and, given the inordinately delayed modernisation in certain domains, could well be a recipe for an ignominious debacle reminiscent of the 1962 India-China War.
The PAF may be expected to be not far behind the leading edge of technology in the next five years…
In the past five years or so, the challenge of being militarily engaged by China and Pakistan simultaneously has exercised government and public attention visibly. On the other hand, since long, the three Services have always considered a ‘two-front war’ not just a possibility but highly probable. In February this year, the Indian Air Force (IAF) told a Parliamentary panel what the latter probably knew anyway – that it would be difficult for the IAF to manage a ‘two-front war’ although it had plans for doing so. As expected, the media played up this iteration by the IAF as ‘dropping a bomb’ and ‘an alarming admission’. No follower of military affairs is surprised though.
During the past decade, India’s defence preparedness has steadily and inexorably deteriorated despite the persistent clamour by the defence forces for modernisation and upgradation to meet assigned roles and tasks. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s anti-India stance and Chinese aggressive actions and iterations have neither helped to push away the trepidation of possible military conflagration with either one individually, nor done anything to liquidate the possibility of a two-front war. A combined and collusive threat from China and Pakistan would overstretch the Indian military machinery and, given the inordinately delayed modernisation in certain domains, could well be a recipe for an ignominious debacle reminiscent of the 1962 India-China War. The distended aerial battlefield encompassing the Western, Northern and Eastern perimeters of our extensive borders, and the air defence of our vast territorial expanse could burden the IAF to a spine shattering level. In addressing the issue of preparedness of the IAF for a two front war, it is important at the outset to study the contending air forces.
Pakistan Air Force (PAF)
The PAF is a professional service with pride in its past and current capabilities. It believes that in 1965 and 1971, it came out superior to the IAF. It has a good exposure to modern aircraft and tactics through its relations with the West, especially the US. After the Pressler Amendment, the US placed sanctions and an arms embargo on Pakistan, forcing it to look towards Europe and China. The latter has been a willing supplier of aircraft and equipment to the PAF which currently has 22 combat squadrons comprising about 465 combat aircraft (around 50 JF-17s, 75 F-16s, 75 Mirage IIIs, 80 Mirage Vs and 185 F-7s).
The JF-17 is a Chinese design (co-produced in Pakistan Aeronautical Complex, Kamra in Pakistan, and Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group, China) and is claimed to be a fourth generation, multi-role aircraft. The PAF plans to acquire a total of 250 to replace its Mirage IIIs and F-7s; some of these would be Block 2 aircraft with 4.5 generation features while some more would be Block 3 (entry into service 2016) which are expected to have fifth generation characteristics. The PAF is also said to have placed an order for 36 Chinese J-10 (4.5 generation) aircraft. The J-10 is expected to be inducted as the FC-20, an advanced PAF-specific variant of the Chengdu J-10. These aircraft are expected to be delivered by 2015 and, according to some reports, the FC-20 fleet may eventually be increased to 150 fighters. In addition, PAF is on the lookout for surplus F-16s from air forces using them and has recently acquired a squadron worth from Jordan. Thus, as far as combat aircraft are concerned, the PAF may be expected to be not far behind the leading edge of technology in the next five years or so.
Recent development of several airfields in Tibet and adjoining Lanzhou and Chengdu MACs are of special concern to India…
To keep up with the IAF, the PAF is also in the process of acquiring Beyond Visual Range Air-to-Air Missiles (BVR AAM) for its fighter fleet. This is a lethal capability represented by the American AIM 120-C Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM) to arm the F-16C. Another BVR AAM, the Chinese PL-12 is expected to arm the JF-17 in the future. The PAF is also acquiring four Airborne Early Warning (AEW) platforms – Swedish SAAB-2000 aircraft equipped with the ERIEYE phased array radar. In addition, it is acquiring four Y-8 AEW platforms from China. These acquisitions will enhance the PAF’s air surveillance envelope, enable combat aircraft to operate more effectively in both defensive and offensive missions against India and improve survivability of ground-based air defence network (based on the Crotale missile system).
It may be mentioned here that one can come across sporadic writing in Pakistani media expressing a hope that PAF would attain superiority over the IAF in the hazy future.
Peoples’ Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF)
The PLAAF, officially formed in 1949, remained insignificant for the first three decades of its existence. Deng Xiaoping’s Four Modernisations strategy in 1978 brought in defence modernisation and set the PLAAF on a path to turn into a modernised air force with a strategic role and reach, capable of projection of air power through classic offensive missions. Currently, the PLAAF has a total strength of 398,000 personnel and is organised into an air command each in the seven Military Area Commands (MACs) located at Shenyang, Beijing, Lanzhou, Jinan, Nanjing, Guangzhou and Chengdu.
Recent development of several airfields in Tibet and adjoining Lanzhou and Chengdu MACs are of special concern to India. In addition, it commands one airborne corps (representing strategic airlift). To meet perceived strategic offensive and defensive operational needs, the PLAAF is strengthening the development of a combat force structure that focuses on reconnaissance and early warning, air strike, air and missile defence, and strategic projection. It is concentrating on new generation fighters and ground-to-air missiles and radar systems, improving its early warning capability, command and communications networks, and raising its strategic early warning, strategic deterrence and long distance air strike capabilities.
At the beginning of 2000, the PLAAF had more than 3,500 combat aircraft; most were J-6/J-7 types (equivalent of MiG 19/21 respectively). Thereafter, it got Su-27 SK/UBK, Su-30 MKK and Su-30 MKK2 aircraft from Russia which were a quantum jump over the earlier holdings. From 2002 onwards, China produced J-10s and J-11s, which could be classified as fourth generation aircraft. It is now on a focused course to have an essentially fourth generation air force with the J-10/J-11 in air superiority roles complementing the Su-27/Su-30 fleet, JF-17 in interceptor role and the J-20/J-31 as stealth multi-role types.
The IAF aims to achieve an effective strength of 42 squadrons by 2022…
The J-20, based on the F-22 Raptor, first flew in January 2011 while the J-31, China’s second modern aircraft based on the F-35, was flight tested in October 2012.The J-20 and the J-31, talked of as fifth generation aircraft, are expected to join the PLAAF between 2017 and the end of this decade. The extent of second generation characteristics that these aircraft actually emerge with is yet to be seen as Chinese technological levels in the power plant and leading edge stealth technology appear to be far behind the US.
The power plant problem has partly been solved through buying more Su-35 from Russia. Deliveries of 24 Su-35s and an unknown number of spare engines are expected to start in 2015, while the J-20 is slated to be operational in 2017. Some experts feel that the J-20 would finally be powered by the Su-35 engine (117S engine, a derivative of the Russian AL31 which is the engine on one of the J-20 prototypes). If that be the case, the J-20 would be a formidable aircraft. Meanwhile, current holding of PLAAF is about 1,265 (around 200 J-10 variants, 125 J-11s, 40 Su-27s, 180 J-8s, 370 J-7s, 70 JH-7s, 100 Su-30s, 120 Q-51 ground attack aircraft and 60 H-6 bombers) . Thus, the combat aircraft strength is nearly double that of the IAF.
In keeping with the strategic perceptions of the PLAAF, China has ordered 70 IL-76 transport aircraft and 30 IL-78 air-to-air refuellers. In addition, China continues to upgrade its H-6 bomber fleet (originally adapted from the late 1950s Soviet Tu-16 design) with a new variant that possesses greater range and is armed with a long-range cruise missile. China has converted some of its old H-6 bombers (essentially Russian Tu-16s) to the air-to-air refuelling role for many of its indigenous aircraft, increasing their combat range. China is also developing an AWACS capability on the IL-76 airframe while the Y-8 is being modified for Airborne Early Warning (AEW) and Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) roles. China’s aviation industry is developing a large transport aircraft (referred to as the Y-20) to supplement China’s small fleet of strategic airlift assets, which currently consists of a limited number of Russian-made IL-76 aircraft.