Military & Aerospace

The Indian Air Force in a Two-Front War
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Issue Vol. 33.2 Apr-Jun 2018 | Date : 18 Feb , 2019

China has been aggressively modernising its Armed Forces with the aim to match the United States (US) for ultimate world dominance. China’s defence budget is nearly four times that of India’s. It also allocates huge amounts for defence research and development. Unlike in 1962, India is no ‘Push-Over’; China would face heavy losses in case of any war with India. In case of a Sino-Indian war, Pakistan could open a front against India, especially with the aim to wrest Kashmir. On the other hand, in case of an Indo-Pak war, China will assist Pakistan with military supplies and international support. It will also try to threaten India so that the latter is forced to retain a large number of troops and assets on the India-China border. In both these scenarios, India would de facto have to be ready for a two-front war.

The geo-strategic centre of gravity has shifted from trans-Atlantic to the Asia-Pacific. China’s desire to dominate Asia and in turn, the world, has implications for India. This is more so because India has serious unresolved boundary disputes with both its neighbours China and Pakistan who not only have deployed nuclear weapons, but Pakistan has a clearly enunciated ‘first-use’ nuclear policy against India. In order to deter India, in the early years of its existence, Pakistan chose to befriend China by ceding nearly 5,000 sq km of territory in the Baltistan region of North Kashmir in 1963. China also helped Pakistan build military strength to be able to counter India. It helped Pakistan build its military industrial complex and acquire technologies for its nuclear weapons and missile programme. China has a strategic interest in using Pakistani territory to reach the Middle East and Africa for trade and geo-strategic positioning. It has therefore lent $46 billion at low interest rate as investment to build the China Pakistan Economic Corridor that connects Xinjiang region in West China to the China-built-and-operated Gwadar port near Gulf of Hormuz.

Simultaneously, China is investing in the Indian Ocean littoral countries to achieve a foot-hold and influence on the pretext of securing sea lanes and in turn disallowing influence to India its only major Asian competitor. The recent Chinese infrastructure build up in the strategically critical Doklam plateau near the India-China-Bhutan tri-junction, has serious military implications for India. Pakistan has not only stepped up insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir, it openly boasts of collusive support from China in case of a war with India.

The message is clear that China can offer aerospace equipment to other nations and has the desire to surpass the US …

Two-Front War Scenarios

Both China and India are rapidly growing in economic strength and positioning themselves as global powers of the future. China has border disputes with several countries including India, Bhutan, Pakistan, Myanmar, Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Kazakhstan and Russia. China has always tried to arm-twist its neighbours to settle boundary disputes in its own favour. Like India, China has a policy of No First Use (NFU) of nuclear weapons. Border incidents between India and China are on the rise. There is a high possibility of a localised showdown. The main flashpoints are Arunachal Pradesh and Doklam area where China has a conventional force superiority.

China has been aggressively modernising its Armed Forces with the aim to match the United States (US) for ultimate world dominance. China’s defence budget is nearly four times that of India’s. It also allocates huge amounts for defence research and development. Unlike in 1962, India is no ‘Push-Over’; China would face heavy losses in case of any war with India. In case of a Sino-Indian war, Pakistan could open a front against India, especially with the aim to wrest Kashmir. On the other hand, in case of an Indo-Pak war, China will assist Pakistan with military supplies and international support. It will also try to threaten India so that the latter is forced to retain large number of troops and assets on the India-China border. In both these scenarios, India would de facto have to be ready for a two-front war.

Chinese Military Aircraft Industry

The state-owned Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) in 2017 was ranked 162nd in the Fortune Global 500 list. They have state-of-the-art aircraft manufacturing programmes in every department of military aviation including fighters, large transport, attack and utility helicopters, AEW&C, UAVs and missiles. Shenyang J-31, a twin-engine, mid-size fighter with AESA radar and stealth features first flew in October 2012. Like the F-35, the J-31 has two internal weapon bays that can each carry two medium range missiles. The Chinese stealth fighter aircraft Chengdu J-20 made its public debut in 2016. Some have likened the new fighter to Lockheed Martin’s F-22 Raptor, a big step forward in Chinese combat capability and a desire to close the technology gap.

The Y-20, China’s first heavy jet transport, the hotly anticipated AG-600 seaplane, the largest of its kind in the world, the Xian H-6K bomber and the new Changhe Z-10K attack helicopter, are other major programmes. China also wants to resurrect the 250-tonne, the world’s largest, Ukrainian transport aircraft An-225. The Chinese UAV market is projected to grow from the current $1.8 billion to $7.5 billion by 2025. AVIC employs over 535,000 engineers and workers. Growing domestic capability has enabled China to reduce its dependence on arms imports, which fell by 58 per cent since 2007. Since 2001, China’s arms exports have increased by 95 per cent, making it the world’s sixth most important arms exporter. The message is clear that China can offer aerospace equipment to other nations and has the desire to surpass the US.

The PAF is the seventh largest air force in the world and the largest in the Islamic world with 450 combat and over 300 other support aircraft…

People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF)

The PLAAF is the second largest air force in the world with 330,000 personnel and nearly 2,900 aircraft, including 1,270 fighter aircraft. In the last two decades, it has made significant progress in developing airpower capability albeit it still remains work-in-progress. The introduction of fourth-generation fighters, bombers, unmanned aircraft and advanced cruise missiles, has transformed it from a defensive force to one that can project military power throughout Asia and its Eastern Pacific seaboard. Its current modern combat aircraft holdings include Su-30 MKK, Su-27, J-16, J-11 and J-10 fighters. China had ordered 24 Su-35s, ten of which have been delivered by January 2018. Chinese stealth fighter J-20 has reportedly entered service in early 2018. The first flight of the production variant of Shenyang J-31 Fifth Generation Multi-Purpose Medium Stealth Fighter is expected in 2019. The PLAAF operates 120 H-6 bombers and 16 Ilyushin IL-76, 65 Shaanxi Y-8/Y-9 transport aircraft among others.

China developed the KJ2000 AEW&C with radar and avionics mounted on IL-76 aircraft. China has also developed the KJ-200 by installing a simplified system onboard the Shaanxi Y-8. Plans are to modify a Boeing 737-800 to host the radar. The KJ-3000, a newer variant with next generation radar, is already under development. In 2015, a new Chinese KJ-500 AEW&C based on Y-9 turboprop airframe (An-12 copy) entered service and will eventually replace the eleven KJ-200s in service. Shaanxi Y-9/Y-8 based 20 electronic warfare aircraft and four Tupelov Tu-154 ELINT aircraft are for support roles. Ten Xian H-6 are the main aerial tankers along with a few IL-78. The PLAAF has nearly 150 helicopters including Z-9, Z-18, Mi-8/Mi-17 and Eurocopter AS332 Super Puma. The PLAAF purchased the Russian S-300 Surface-to-Air Missiles (SA-10 and SA-20) and produced comparable indigenous HQ-9. The PLAAF has about 192 modern launchers along with 490 legacy launchers. Newer bomber variant H-6K can carry six DH-10 cruise missiles or eight long-range air-to-air missiles to take on airborne early warning aircraft such as the E-3 AWACS.

Currently, China has up to 500 DH-10 missiles with a 1,500km range and part of these is air launched. It has the R-27 semi-active radar/infrared; the short-range infrared guided R-73; the active radar homing R-77 and the indigenous variant PL-12 air-to-air missiles. Many PLAAF fighters carry beyond-visual-range air-to-air missiles and precision guided munitions. At least 600 combat aircraft are nearly on par with modern Western fighters. Once inducted, the Y-20 will help extend strategic airlift capability to China’s far Western territories and offshore locations such as the Southern Hainan Island. The Y-20 would also be a key player in the invasion of Taiwan. China is reportedly working on a stealth bomber designated H-18.

As in the past, in a pure Indo-Pak War scenario, the PAF will be kept head-down by the IAF and is likely to get a drubbing…

Pakistan Air Force (PAF)

The PAF is the seventh largest air force in the world and the largest in the Islamic world with 450 combat and over 300 other support aircraft. For long, the PAF fleet consisted of the Chinese variants of MiG-19 and Mig-21s. They also had large numbers of American F-86 Sabres and F-104 Starfighters. Today the PAF has 22 frontline squadrons with around 150 Mirage-3 and its five variants and nearly 100 F-16 Fighting Falcons. The F-16A/B fleet has been upgraded with modification kits by Turkish Aerospace Industries. The package includes the APG-69 radar, a Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System, data-link Link-16, new communications, targeting and electronic warfare systems to Block 52+ level. PAF is inducting two squadrons of Chinese Chengdu FC-20 aircraft which is an advanced PAF-specific variant of the Chengdu J-10. The fleet may one day grow to 150 fighters. The PAF currently has around 70 JF-17 Thunder aircraft and 150 are on order. This figure is likely to go up to 300. PAF’s combat aircraft currently are of four different types, which are planned to be reduced to three multi-role types, namely the F-16, JF-17 and FC-20 by 2025. Pakistan has been in talks with China to acquire 30 to 40, JF-31 Stealth fighters. Russia and Pakistan have also been talking about the possible purchase of the Sukhoi Su-35 air-superiority multi-role fighter.

The PAF has five C-130B and 11 C-130E Hercules as primary tactical transport aircraft, and four IL-78 aerial tankers. The PAF operates four Saab 2000 Erieye AEW&C aircraft and also has four Chinese ZDK-03 AEW&C aircraft which is a PAF-specific version of the KJ-200 incorporating a Chinese AESA radar similar to the Erieye mounted on the Shaanxi Y-8 transport aircraft. The PAF operates ten batteries of MBDA Spada 2000 low to medium altitude air defence system with an intercept range of 20km. Pakistan has tested the new SPADA 2000 Plus system and may place orders for it. The PAF still has a few batteries of old SA-2 high altitude air defence system. Pakistan has recently developed an armed Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle named Burraq based on Falco drone technology from Selex Galileo of Italy. Pakistan has Chinese design-based short and medium-range ballistic missiles including the Shaheen series with range up to 2,750km. China has also built a turnkey ballistic missile manufacturing facility near Rawalpindi. The PAF has two dedicated units of JF-17 Thunder believed to be the preferred vehicle for delivery of nuclear weapons. The PAF F-16s are also capable of carrying nuclear weapons. The PAF possesses the Hatf VIII (Ra’ad) air-launched cruise missile (range 350km) and can carry a nuclear warhead with a yield of between 10kt to 35kt.

Indian Defence Aviation Industry

Defence Public Sector Undertakings (DPSU) and Ordnance Factories (OF) hold near monopoly over defence production in India. They follow slow bureaucratic pace with low accountability and are afflicted with problems of slow decision-making, inefficient labour laws and lack of modern technology. With the Indian economy booming in the last decade, and geo-politically the West more open to sharing defence technology, India sees another window to get its act together on defence production. While the private sector will adjust to the evolving industry-friendly policies, DPSUs such as Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) need to cash-in on the new opportunity. HAL has manufactured a large number of fighters, transport aircraft and helicopters under license from Russian and Western defence companies, including the SU-30 MKI. HAL has revenues of $2.7 billion. Nearly 40 per cent of HAL’s revenues come from international deals to manufacture aircraft engines, spare parts and other aircraft materials. It has a huge land bank and assets worth $10 billion and currently employs 32,100 people.

The IAF is now at an all-time low of 31 fighter squadrons vis-a-vis the authorised 42 and has approximately 750 combat aircraft…

Light Combat Aircraft Tejas

The ADA-HAL flagship programme is still progressing at slow pace and has performance gaps to fill. Jointly with Sukhoi, HAL is developing the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA), a derivative of the Sukhoi PAK FA. With Russia asking for an additional $6.5 billion for IAF-specific D&D work, there are serious hold-ups and induction timelines are highly uncertain. The FGFA was to begin replacing MiG-27s and later MiG-29s. The HAL and ADA have also started design work on a fifth generation stealth multi-role Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), a 20 tonne-class aircraft that will one day replace the SEPECAT Jaguar and Dassault Mirage 2000 fighters. The IAF requires around 250 AMCAs which are planned for induction in 2028.

The DRDO’s Centre for Airborne Systems (CABS) has been developing Embraer EMB-145 regional jet based AEW&C, first of the two has been handed over to IAF, and the second is nearly ready. The DRDO is still working on performance short-comings. The DRDO has also developed a Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) UAV named ‘Rustom’ to replace/supplement the Heron UAVs in service. They are also developing the Autonomous Unmanned Research Aircraft (AURA), an Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV) which will be a tactical stealth aircraft built largely with composites and capable of delivering laser-guided strike weapons. The twin-engine Kamov Ka-226T, Light Utility Helicopter (LUH) will be built in India through an Indo-Russian joint venture.

The Indian Air Force (IAF)

The IAF is now at an all-time low of 31 fighter squadrons vis-a-vis the authorised 42 and has approximately 750 combat aircraft. Around 260 air-superiority Su-30 MKI, out of the 314 ordered, have been delivered. There are three squadrons each of upgraded MiG-29UPG and Mirage 2000-5 Mk II standard. One squadron of LCA Mk I is under delivery, one more squadron is on order, and four squadrons of LCA MK IA are on order and likely to begin induction around 2020. Five squadrons of SEPECAT Jaguar are being upgraded to DARIN III standard and two squadrons of MiG-27UPG form the dedicated strike force. 2018 onwards all MiG-21 squadrons other than the five squadrons of upgraded MiG-21 Bison will be phased out. 36 Dassault Rafale aircraft will begin inducting in 2019.

To make good fighter aircraft and knowing the low capital account funding, the IAF had proposed to acquire 200 ‘to-be-built in India’, single-engine fighters, through global tender. The Request for Information (RFI) is still to be issued. Government has now asked the IAF to remove the single-engine restriction, thus opening the field and sending confusing signals. Are we back to MMRCA competitors? In that case, why not just buy more Rafale jets? The IAF continues to operate the three EL/W-2000 Phalcon AEW&Cs and the order for two more is held up as reportedly Russians have jacked up the price by three times.

The ADA-HAL flagship programme is still progressing at slow pace and has performance gaps to fill…

The IAF has seven IL-78 aerial tankers. The third attempt for acquiring six more tankers has just been initiated. Meanwhile, the DRDO is developing an Airbus A-330 based indigenous AWACS. In view of the uncertainties and delays, the IAF has asked it to have a dual role – that of an aerial refueller. The strategic lift capability includes ten C-17 Globemaster IIIs (one more on order) and 17 IL-76. Five C-130-J are for Special Operations and six more have been delivered. Nearly a hundred An-32 constitute the medium-lift fleet that is employed in the para-drop and bombing role. The 56 HS-748 Avro would be replaced by Airbus C295W, 40 of which will be built jointly with Tatas in India.

The IAF operates nearly 150 Mi-17 variants and around 100 Dhruv ALH and Chetak/Cheetah combinations. Two squadrons of Mi-25/35 attack helicopters will be replaced by the Apache Longbow AH-64E by 2019. Similarly, 15 Chinook Ch-47 F heavy-lift helicopters will be inducted by 2019. The IAI Heron and Searcher UAVs and Harpy UCAVs form the unmanned fleet. The Israeli SPYDER is the low-level quick reaction Surface-to-Air Missile system with medium range. These are complemented by the indigenous Akash air defence missile system and the existing S-125 Pechora and OSA-AK systems. The process for acquiring five units of Russian S-400 Triumf Air Defence system is underway. The IAF also has the Prithvi-II short-range ballistic missiles.

Indo-Pakistan War Scenario

India and Pakistan have had two full-fledged wars in 1965 and 1971. Both these wars ended in favour of the former. For very long, the IAF has maintained a numerical edge over the PAF of near 3:1. With depletion of numbers in the IAF’s combat squadrons, this edge is currently down to around 1.4:1. The strength of the combat squadrons will soon go below 30 squadrons. Once the IAF gets back to the authorised 42 squadrons, the edge should be built up to 2:1. But at the current rate, the IAF is unlikely to get the 42 squadrons till 2035. The PAF is currently heavily committed on the Western border fighting home-grown terrorists who have begun to bite them.

The PAF is also an inherently air-defence oriented force. As in the past, in a pure Indo-Pak War scenario, the PAF will be kept head-down by the IAF and is likely to get a drubbing. In the shadow of nuclear stand-off, a full-fledged war is less likely. In a limited war as a follow-up to a trigger incident or a surgical strike, the IAF will be much better placed on account of its larger weapon inventory and superior platforms. Pakistan keeps threatening the use of nuclear weapons in case of any major offensive by India. It is time for India to call this bluff. There is a considerable scope for conventional offensive action short of the nuclear threshold.

The Army Generals who rule Pakistan have great personal wealth at stake to force full-scale self-annihilation by nuclear weapons. China has made significant investments in Pakistan in terms of China-Pakistan-Economic-Corridor. Pakistan is the key to China’s access to the Middle East and Africa. It will therefore try and defend its time-tested friend Pakistan in case of an Indo-Pak war.

China-India War Scenario

The IAF faces seven Chinese airbases (Kashgar, Hotan, Gongkar, Pangta, Linchi, Hoping, and Gar Gunsa) in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). Many more airfields in the Chengdu Military region would require the PLAAF to over-fly Myanmar to strike targets in India. Most of the airfields in Tibet region have now been logistically well connected with Eastern and Central China. However, these are all at relatively higher altitude and therefore put limitations on aircraft load carriage. India has a chain of airfields from Leh in Ladakh to Chabua in the East. Important airfields for operations against China will include Srinagar, Ambala, Sarsawa, Bareilly, Gorakhpur, Bagdogra, Hashimara, Chabua and Tezpur among others. Most of the IAF airfields are in the plains and will not have load carriage restrictions.

Pakistan is the key to China’s access to the Middle East and Africa…

India has also upgraded several Advance Landing Grounds (ALG) and can now operate larger aircraft even in adverse weather conditions in the North East region. The two sides can be considered evenly matched on this count. With world focus shifting towards the Asia-Pacific and the reclaiming of Taiwan being the number one priority for China, Sino-Indian conflict can at best be localised. Unlike its condition in 1962, the IAF today is a potent force and will inflict heavy losses in the event of a conflict. Also, with the Trump administration becoming conservative in its trade policies and European economies shrinking, India remains an important market for China with trade worth close to $80 billion. China may not like to ‘hurt’ the goose that lays the golden egg.

Two-Front War

A China-Pak tie-up creates a potential two-theatre-front in the event of war with either country. They have commonality and inter-operability of equipment. In case of a localised war across the LoC between India and Pakistan, China will support Pakistan with military supplies, coercion and military threat to force a split of Indian forces on two fronts and put international diplomatic pressure. India is now a close ally of the US and the Americans and Russians will prevent China from entering into a full-scale war.

On the other hand, if there was to be a Sino-Indian war, say limited to Arunachal, known for misadventures, the Pakistani Army may jump into the fray to avenge their repeated defeats. In all scenarios, India will have to balance its forces on both fronts. With its current strength, the IAF will find it tough to take on both the PLAAF and the PAF. The IAF requires at least 50 combat squadrons for a possible two-front war. Also, the IAF needs to double the number AWACS to 15 and have similar number of smaller DRDO AEW&C aircraft. India will also need to augment its heavy-lift capability with aircraft of C-17 and IL-76 class for across sector movements and also charter cargo aircraft from Indian operators. The IAF will require more air refuellers as well as more heavy lift helicopters for inter-valley movement of the Indian Army assets. The IAF’s acquisitions are very slow and have a long way to go.

The first priority for the IAF is to quickly rebuild the strength of the combat fleet to the authorised 42 squadrons. With the current capital budget allotment of around $5.5 billion for the IAF and with huge existing capital liabilities on existing schemes, funds for new acquisitions are inadequate. This year’s defence budget is a mere 1.57 per cent of the GDP. This figure has been steadily declining in percentage terms as the economy expands. Military experts contend it should be over 2.5 per cent to bridge the gap with China, leave alone tackling the ‘collusive threat’ from Pakistan and China. With the dollar strengthening, in effective terms the money available for imports hardly sees an increase. The two-front war is a serious possibility and the political leadership needs to be conscious of this and pay greater attention to defence preparedness. Meanwhile, the Indian government is working towards building closer relations with ASEAN nations, all of whom are affected by a hegemonic, rise of China. The US, Australia and Japan are closing in with India to stem Chinese expansion.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Air Marshal Anil Chopra

Air Marshal Anil Chopra, commanded a Mirage Squadron, two operational air bases and the IAF’s Flight Test Centre ASTE

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2 thoughts on “The Indian Air Force in a Two-Front War

  1. The air Marshal like so many of our military leaders is wrong to just compare numbers. The anti aircraft missile technology has made simple plane sorties risky and quite obsolete. We need not worry about Pakistan simply because we do not have a certain number of planes. As for China, there is no scenario under which China will deploy its entire air force against us.Their lower model planes will be shot out in no time by anti aircraft missiles. Most of our older planes will suffer the same fate at their hands. If we are smart and have kept up with the times, The next war will be fought with missiles first, Planes and ships after that, and with land forces and artillery afterwards – in that order.

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