Military & Aerospace

How Prepared is the IAF for a War with China?
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Issue Vol. 37.3, Jul-Sep 2022 | Date : 23 Oct , 2022

Both the Indian Air Force (IAF) and the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) have come a long way since their early beginnings in the 1950s. The IAF had British and French aircraft in the 1950s, but soon both China and India began setting up facilities for manufacturing military aircraft with the help of the Soviet Union. During the rapprochement years, China also managed to get some important technologies from the United States (US). Once China’s economy began booming in the 1980s, she could invest much larger sums in Research and Development. India too inducted several top-end Russian and Western platforms in the last two decades. China’s rising economy and global ambitions in recent years meant high defence budgets that gave a much bigger flip to air and sea power. “The air force is a strategic military service that has a vital position and plays a vital role in the overall situation of national security and military strategy,” said Xi Jinping in April 2014. Notwithstanding the continuous flood of information that the Chinese State controlled media is releasing about the new aerial platforms and technologies that are being developed by them, the IAF is fairly well placed against the PLAAF. One needs to remember that China is nearly 2.5 times the size if India. The major threat to China’s security as well as her strategic and tactical interests lies in the South China Sea (SCS) and the Western Pacific. China has to contend with a much more powerful US as also several free world countries that are grouping to take her on.

Emerging PLAAF

With the support of the indigenous industry which is producing all genres of aerial platforms, the PLAAF is fast acquiring top-end systems and weapons of global class and reach. There is much greater emphasis on modern technologies, including stealth, hypersonic, Artificial Intelligence (AI), cyber, electronic warfare and long range missiles. The PLAAF has also re-oriented its flying training and tactics, and there is much greater emphasis on realistic exercises. The PLAAF has made major changes in its operational doctrine based on global reach requirements. Air defence of critical assets, long-range offensive precision strikes, integrated battlefield support missions, Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR), information operations and strategic air-transport reach are on priority. Integration of air and space will support both offensive and defensive operations. The PLAAF is preparing for hybrid network-centric war and is trying to increase exposure to air exercises to compensate for low actual war exposure. 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.

Air Assets of the PLAAF

The PLAAF is the largest air force in the region and the third largest in the world, with nearly 1,700 combat aircraft of which, nearly 800 are fourth-generation plus. Nearly 50 fifth-generation J-20 stealth fighters have been inducted. Development of the J-31, the second stealth combat aircraft is being hastened. The PLAAF operates nearly 750 J-7 variants, 100 J-8s, 465 J-10s, 225 J-11 air superiority fighter variants, 52 Russian Su-27s, 73 Russian Su-30 MKK multi-role combat aircraft, 24 Russian Su-35S and 176 H-6 jet bomber variants. The extended-range H-6K variant can carry six air-launched Cruise missiles. The PLAAF also has 20 IL-76 jet transport aircraft and around 90 smaller propeller transport aircraft apart from three IL-78 MD/TD Russian jet aerial tankers and eight Tu-154M Jet patrol/ELINT aircraft. The AEW&C aircraft include four propeller KJ-200 and five KJ-500 and four KJ-2000 jets.

The PLAAF has a variety of indigenous and Russian helicopters of Z-8/9/10 and Mi-17 class. Meanwhile, newer Z-18 and Z-20 are under induction. The PLA has a much larger rotary wing force. The PLAAF has approximately 59 fighter/ground attack brigades with operational theatre commands. Each Brigade reportedly has 24 aircraft. Each bomber regiment has 18 aircraft. The PLAAF also has a large number of indigenous Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) of global standards. Many of these are now Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAV) as these carry armaments.

The PLAAF is developing new long-range stealth bomber, the H-20, to strike regional and global targets. It will probably reach initial operational capability no sooner than 2025. China has inducted around 20 Y-20 large transport aircraft that can lift up to 66 tonne. The new variants are planned to support airborne command and control, logistics, para-drop, aerial refuelling and strategic reconnaissance operations. The PLA Navy (PLAN) has two operational aircraft carriers and nearly 600 aircraft. Two more carriers are under construction and two that are larger, are on the drawing board. China, thus, has significant air power.

Chinese Aerial Weapons

China is developing a large number of aerial precision munitions. These include, IR/TV guided Air-to-Surface Missiles (ASM) and Anti-Radiation Missiles (ARM), laser and satellite guided bombs. The Beyond Visual Range (BVR) Air-to-Air missiles (AAM) include the latest PL-12 and PL-21. The PL-15, very long range AAM is equipped with an Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar. China has around 500 DH-10 land attack cruise missiles with a 1,500-km range and part of these is air-launched. The PLAAF has several advanced long-range SAM systems that include Russian S-300, S-400 and domestically produced HQ-9.

PLAAF Facing Indian Border

The PLAAF’s air assets deployed across the Indian border in the Himalayas include one fighter brigade each of J-11AB, J-7, J-7E, and J-16 aircraft. There is a transport regiment each of Y-8/Y-9 and Y-7 aircraft. There is a regiment of helicopters and one SAM brigade at Lhasa. Deeper at Urumqi Base, there is a fighter brigade each of J-8H, J-11A/B and JH-7A. Su-30s, J-10s and J-20 have been operating detachments in the area. Fighters carry out regular exercises in the sector. The airfields are being upgraded with hardened shelters and ability to host more assets. Nearly eleven airfields in Tibet and Xinjiang can be used for operations against India.

PLAAF Operational Training and Exercises

The PLAAF believes in long range offensive precision-strikes using enablers such as Flight Refuelling Aircraft (FRA) and AWACS. There will be coordination with People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF). The PLAAF has multi-layered air defence systems. China’s extensive constellation of surveillance satellites with short revisit cycles greatly support surveillance and targeting. The PLAAF gives greater importance to information, electronic and cyber warfare. The PLAAF also coordinates closely with PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF). The PLAAF’s regular exercises include large force engagements with the PLA and the PLA Navy. Their exercises in Tibet have increased. The PLAAF has annual Shaheen series exercises with Pakistan Air Force (PAF). With 60 percent of PAF being of Chinese origin, these exercises improve interoperability that will be useful for coordinated fighting against India.

Current Capabilities of the IAF

The IAF currently has around 32 fighter squadrons against an authorised strength of 42 squadrons. These include two of Rafale, 12 Su 30MKI, four MiG 21 Bison, three each of MiG 29 and Mirage 2000, six of Jaguar and two of the LCA. The Rafale aircraft is clearly superior to China’s J-10, J-11 and Su-27 fighter jets. Armed with long-range Meteor and MICA Beyond Visual Range (BVR) air-to-air missiles, the Rafale fighters are expected to pose a significant threat to Chinese aerial assets. The SCALP cruise missile and Hammer glide bombs have very high accuracy. Rafale also has the best Electronic Warfare suite in the region. The Sukhoi Su-30MKI is the IAF’s primary air superiority fighter with capability to perform long range air-to-ground strike missions. The Mirage 2000 and the MiG 29 fleet of the IAF have all been upgraded. With 12 C-17 and C-130 each, 17 IL-76 and over 100 upgraded An-32 transport aircraft, the IAF has significant global reach and capability to airlift troops and cargo. Similarly, having inducted 15 Boeing Chinook heavy-lift and 22 Apache AH-64E attack helicopters, and with already a significant fleet of 240 Mi-17 series medium-lift helicopters and nearly 100 ALH variants and smaller Chetak/Cheetah fleets, the IAF is in a good position for rotary wing assets. The IAF has only three large AWACS aircraft and three indigenous DRDO developed AEW&C aircraft. Similarly, the IAF has only six IL-78 Flight Refuelling Aircraft (FRA). Both these fleet need augmentation for a continental size country such as India which has also to cover the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

India has a good chain of integrated radars to support network centric offensive and defensive operations. The IAF’s legacy surface-to-air missile systems such as the SAM-3 Pechora and SAM 8 OSA-AK are being upgraded. With the induction of a large number of indigenous Akash AD systems and the five Russian S-400 systems under induction, the AD coverage will be significant. To cover the large Chinese border, more systems are being inducted. With induction of the MICA, Meteor, Astra, SCALP, BrahMos and Hammer, among others, the IAF has a significant aerial weapons inventory. The future is unmanned. Artificial Intelligence supported autonomous systems will fly independently or in conjunction with each other in a swarm or with manned aircraft as a team. The IAF has Israeli Heron and Searcher Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) and Harpy and Harop Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAV). Orders for American Predator MQ-9 Reaper drones are expected. India needs to develop and acquire many more.

Strategic Reach of the IAF

The IAF is looking at acquiring the reach from the Persian Gulf to the Straits of Malacca and the island territories up to Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, using long range aircraft supported by FRA and AWACS. More of these are being acquired. More airfields are becoming operational in the Southern peninsula and in Andaman and Nicobar Islands. This along with in-flight refueling will add to the reach. The Lakshadweep islands are also being developed strategically. The IAF is carrying out regular exercises to increase interoperability with the major air forces of the world.

Operational Capabilities of the IAF across the Himalayas

The IAF is very well placed with nearly 25 airfields close to the Northern borders of the country that are capable of launching operations against China that effectively has four airfields close to Eastern Ladakh and around seven in Tibet. China is trying to upgrade infrastructure but has the disadvantage of very high altitude. The IAF will be able to launch much larger number of missions. For long, India’s infrastructure and military assets were Pakistan-border centric. This is fast changing, for both infrastructure build-up and assets positioning towards China. While border roads and connectivity are being improved, the IAF has upgraded its Advanced Landing Grounds (ALG) near the border with China. All IAF airfields are getting hardened aircraft and equipment shelters. The IAF now has significant number of Su-30 MKI squadrons facing China. Also, the new acquisitions such as the Rafale, C-130 J, Chinook and Apache helicopters have also been located in the Eastern sector. The same is also applicable to air defence systems and weapons positioning.

Air Action Across the Himalayas

Air campaigns can be executed simultaneously against different spread out target systems. China’s war plans are to launch an initial barrage of surface attack missiles to knock of critical Indian infrastructure including airfields. India would have to defend against such an attack with air defence weapons. India would then have to achieve local sectoral air superiority. It must be remembered that the effect of neutralising just two Chinese airfields in each sector would have much more severe implications for them than if the same were to happen for India. India should thus concentrate on neutralising PLAAF airfields using surface and air-launched missiles and build inventories accordingly.

Interdiction will pay high dividends in the mountains. Destroying a few bridges could throttle logistics chains and supplies. Creating weapons-triggered landslides could block roads. Attacks against convoys on the very few roads available would create bottle-necks. Air can provide both kinetic and non-kinetic options with pin-point accuracy. It will influence outcomes and actions of the surface forces. It can simultaneously produce physical as well as psychological effects. Both, the fighter aircraft and attack helicopters will be employed for this. UCAVs would be used for interdiction, battlefield strikes and anti-tank and anti-personal operations. The transport and helicopter fleet of the IAF would also provide the capability to airlift of troops and military hardware inter and intra sector. Inter-valley transfers maybe required in changing battle situations. The IAF has significant reach and capability on this count.

The radar cover has terrain related constraints in the mountains. However, there are also vantage points for their positioning. Yet, much greater dependence would have to be on AWACS. Numbers will have to go up. China has recently been experimenting with aerostat balloons for radar cover in the region. India has been using aerostats for many years and needs to re-assess its employment in Ladakh. Meanwhile, the IAF will use satellites and UAVs for ISR. Drones will also be a great asset for surveillance. India needs to invest more in autonomous aerial systems. Artificial Intelligence supported autonomous systems will fly independently or in conjunction with each other in a swarm or with manned aircraft as a team.

The IAF will have to continue to transform from just being platform-based to being capability-based. Effects based, network-centric operations would be employed. The side that better employs electronic warfare and cyber means and tools will have advantage. Securing own networks and denying the same to adversary will be important. Air and space platforms will greatly support cyber and electronic warfare operations much deeper into the enemy territory.

The Two Front Threat

India has serious boundary issues with both China and Pakistan and has fought wars with them. Today, China and Pakistan have a deep strategic friendship. Nearly 60 percent of the PAF is made up of Chinese aircraft. The JF-17 ‘Thunder’ is the starship joint programme and the PAF already has 130 of these. Eventually, it could have nearly 300. China has recently transferred 25 J-10CE aircraft to the PAF. The PAF does jet training on Chinese design K-8 trainers; their AEW&C and FRA are of Chinese origin. They have commonality in armaments. The PLAAF and the PAF regularly carry out flying training exercises called the Shaheen series. Their interoperability levels are high. Both have territorial interests in Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh. In case of Sino-Indian conflict, Pakistan could allow the use of its airbases by the PLAAF. It could also open another front. The Indian military will have to factor in this aspect in their operational plans. The IAF will surely require larger numbers of combat aircraft for this scenario.

Rebuilding IAF Numbers

The IAF is likely to have around 38 fighter squadrons by 2030 and the target is to get to 42 squadrons by 2038. The end state could be 14 squadrons of Su-30 MKI, two each of Mirage 2000 and MiG 29, 12 squadrons of LCA variants, two of Rafale, six of the new fighters to be acquired and four of Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA). Effectively, the IAF may have to stretch the life of the Mirage and MiG 29 fleets. These figures are achievable as long as timely decisions are taken and there are no serious development delays in AMCA. The IAF must also target to have eight large and ten smaller AWACS, at least 12 FRA aircraft by 2030. The IAF requires additional UCAVs including the indigenously developed DRDO’s TAPAS BH-201 and “Ghatak”. To reequip the ten deficient fighter squadrons and nearly 12 more to retire by 2035 will require significant funding. Capital budget would have to increase.

The Way Ahead for the IAF   

While the IAF has been modernising steadily, more needs to be done. The IAF must get back to the authorised force levels of 42 squadrons. Some often suggest that since Rafale and Su-30 MKI can achieve much greater effect than the older MiG 21s, why should the IAF continue to seek 42 squadrons? The argument is flawed. India’s adversaries are already moving forward to acquire fifth-generation fighters. They are not cutting down numbers. The type of aircraft and weapon platforms must be comparable to the adversary. The IAF also urgently needs additional AEW&C and FRA. The IAF needs to invest more in combat UAVs. India has also to defend itself against a possible sizeable Chinese Surface-to-Surface Missile (SSM) attack. The IAF will need more Air Defence SAM systems of the S-400 and there is a need to accelerate inductions of larger numbers of indigenous Air Defence systems. It is important to have a larger stock of ammunition and missiles. SSMs and cruise missiles are going to be important. India has a good missile programme. The Prithvi, Agni, BrahMos, Akash and Astra missiles are a success and the development of newer variants must be hastened.

India needs to invest more in game-changer technologies. These include cyber and electronic warfare, artificial intelligence, unmanned systems, hypersonic, among others. Hypersonic flight and weapons will be difficult to engage. They will act as force multipliers against high-value targets. There is a lot of action in Directed Energy Weapons (DEWs). Lasers that can burn incoming missile electronics or dazzle electro-optical sensors need to be inducted. For India to have significant air power, it must also master aircraft engine and AESA radar technologies. Joint venture route is the best to imbibe high-end technologies. We need very long range weapons, including aerial missiles with around 400 kilometers range. Similarly, air-launched cruise missiles with a range of around 1,500 kilometres need to be inducted.

There is a backlog of modernisation. The obsolescence sets in much faster for aerial systems. To stem the increasing gap with China, India perhaps needs to increase its defence allocations from current 2.15 percent of GDP to around 2.5 percent. The IAF is well-trained and operationally well exposed and has the clear advantage in terms of the number of missions it can launch across the Himalayas. The IAF can well match the PLAAF, but once the numbers increase, the IAF will be much better placed. The time to act is now.

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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

Commanded a Mirage Squadron, two operational air bases and the IAF’s Flight Test Centre ASTE

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