Military & Aerospace

The IAF in a Two-Front War
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In April 2018, the Indian Air Force (IAF) practiced two-front war scenarios in its mega exercise ‘Ex Gagan Shakti’. “A two-front war is a real scenario; we are not a war-mongering nation but there are certain thresholds that should not be crossed,” said General Bipin Rawat, the then-Chief of Army Staff, and present Chief of Defence Staff. This was in July 2018. The Government of India has repeatedly stated in the Parliament about proactively taking back Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK), the Gilgit-Baltistan territories and the regions of Ladakh that are now occupied by China. On October 09, 2019, when India’s Minister of Defence Rajnath Singh was officially taking over the first Rafale jet in France, a headline in the Times of Islamabad said, “Indian military prepares for two-front war against Pakistan and China.”

Having had territorial disputes with India, both China and Pakistan have chosen to be strategic partners. Given the possibility of collusion between India’s two military adversaries, India has to factor in, and prepare for such an eventuality. Most analysts believe that there are three possible scenarios. Firstly, Pakistan takes advantage of an India-China conflict. Secondly, China looks at a window of opportunity to wrest its territorial claims in an India-Pakistan military engagement. And finally, China and Pakistan collude to launch a coordinated attack on India. Most feel that the first is the only probable case where Pakistan tries to gain ground in Kashmir. A militarily stronger China would not want Pakistan to step in.

The end of the Cold War and the rise of China re-aligned power equations in the world. The geo-strategic Centre of Gravity has shifted from the trans-Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific. A rising China is of great concern to the United States (US) who sees a challenger to its global dominance. The US would want a uni-polar world and a bi-polar Asia, but China is working towards a bi-polar world with uni-polar Asia. India has to fit in with this aspiration matrix. Both of India’s neighbours have not only deployed nuclear weapons, but Pakistan has also clearly enunciated a ‘first-use’ nuclear policy against India. Even if such a collusive attack on India does not take place, the Indian military needs to be fundamentally prepared for such a challenge. This will also act as a deterrent.

China continues to rapidly modernise and enhance its military capability through significant defence spending. At the same time, the military preparedness of the Indian armed forces continues to slide due low capital budgets and delayed acquisitions, rapidly shifting the force numbers and capability in China’s favour. India’s economy is roughly one-fifth of China’s. The Chinese defence budget is around 3.5 times that of India’s. Therefore, India must use international diplomacy to avoid a collusive war. Meanwhile, the Indian military must urgently carry out qualitative and quantitative improvements.

Aerospace Power – Key First Responder

China has taken a leaf from the book of American strategic thought, and is also convinced that “he who controls the aerospace, controls the planet.” It can thus be seen that China is concentrating power build up based on aerospace technologies. China is making huge investments in technologies and capabilities related to space, hypersonic flight, stealth aircraft, strategic bombers, airlift capability, long range missiles, aircraft carriers, unmanned systems, Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities among others. China is also investing heavily in game-changer technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), robotics, advanced materials, cyber and information warfare. China is spending in excess of $25 billion a year in Research and Development (R&D) in the domain of Defence. India has to factor in all this in its assessment.

China Pakistan Strategic Ties

As early as in 1963, 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 Baltistan region of North Kashmir and closed boundary disputes. Military assistance to Pakistan began in 1966; a strategic alliance was formed in 1972; and economic co-operation began in 1979. China also helped Pakistan build its military industrial complex and acquire technologies for its nuclear weapons and its missile programme. China is Pakistan’s largest supplier of arms and its second-largest trading partner. Recently, China began supporting Pakistan’s civil nuclear power sector. Military cooperation has deepened, with joint projects producing armaments ranging from fighter jets, tanks, missiles, frigates and submarines. Pakistani leaders often describe the relations between the two countries as, “…higher than the mountains, deeper than the oceans, stronger than steel, dearer than eyesight, sweeter than honey…” and so on. China has an ongoing $46 billion investment in building the strategically important China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that connects the Xinjiang region of West China to the China-built-and-operated Gwadar port near the Gulf of Hormuz.

Maintaining close relations with China is a central part of Pakistan’s foreign policy. China is considered a low cost insurance against India. Pakistan, alongside Cuba was the only other country to offer support to China after the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. China supports Pakistan’s stance on Kashmir, and Pakistan supports China on Xinjiang, Tibet and Taiwan. The Sino-Pak nexus against India has only strengthened with the implementation of transnational infrastructure projects such as the CPEC with significant presence of Chinese security personnel.

Peoples Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF)

With 330,000 personnel and nearly 2,800 mainstream aircraft, the PLAAF is the second largest air force in the world. It has 1,900 combat aircraft, 600 of which are state-of-the-art. In the last two decades, it has achieved great strides in developing airpower capability, albeit, it still remains a work-in-progress. The introduction of fourth-generation fighters, bombers, large transport aircraft, unmanned platforms, long range Air-to-Air Missiles (AAM) and advanced cruise missiles has transformed it from a defensive force to one that can project Chinese power throughout Asia and its Eastern Pacific seaboard. Its current modern combat aircraft holdings include 24 SU-35, 76 SU-30 MKK, 130 J-16, 350 J-11, and 500 J-10 fighters.

The PLAAF operates 120 H-6 bombers and 23 Ilyushin IL-76, 69 Shaanxi Y-8/Y-9 transport aircraft, among many 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. KJ-3000, a newer variant with next generation radar is already under development. On April 06, 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. There are also four export models of the same (ZDK-03) in Pakistan. Shaanxi Y-9/Y-8 based 20 electronic warfare aircraft and four Tupolev Tu-154 ELINT aircraft are for support roles. Around seven Y-20 strategic airlift aircraft have been inducted. Another 40 have already been ordered. China is reportedly working on a stealth bomber designated H-18. 10 Xian H-6 are the main Flight Refueling Aircraft (FRA) along with a few IL-78. The PLAAF has nearly 150 helicopters consisting of Z-9, Z-18, Mi-8/Mi-17, and Eurocopter AS332 Super Puma.

The PLAAF purchased the Russian S-300 Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAM) and produced comparable indigenous the HQ-9, and it has about 192 modern launchers along with 490 legacy launchers. China subsequently acquired six batteries of more advanced S-400 SAM systems. 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 1,500-kilometre 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 (AAM). The PL-15 AAM has indigenous Active Electronically Scanned Antenna (AESA) radar, and a range of around 180 km. It entered service in 2016, and is carried on most modern fighters. Reports suggest that another variant PL-21 may have a range of over 400km.

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. The PAF has around 75 F-16 variants with Block 52 being most modern, 150 Mirage-III and V variants, 135 Chinese J-7PG interceptors and 120 JF-17 fighters (20 Block II and 50 Block III are on order). Countries such as Russia and France denied modern aircraft to Pakistan so as not to antagonise their bigger customer India. JAS-39 Gripen was denied because nearly 20 percent components on the aircraft are from US suppliers. The PAF’s main combat fleet in the long run will be F-16s and JF-17s. There are currently 20 front-line squadrons operating from 13 flying bases. The numbers will soon go up to 22. PAF’s F-16A/B fleet has been upgraded with modification kits by Turkish Aerospace Industries starting 2010. The package included the APG-69 radar, a Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System, data-link Link-16, new communications, targeting and electronic warfare systems to Block 52-plus level. Pakistan has been in talks with China to acquire more modern fighters including 30 to 40 J-31 Stealth fighters. Russia and Pakistan are talking about possible purchase of Sukhoi Su-35 air-superiority multi-role fighter.

The PAF has five C-130B and 11 C-130E tactical transport aircraft in service. Four CASA CN-235 transport aircraft are on VIP duties along with three Boeing 707s of Pakistan International Airlines. The PAF has four IL-78 FRA and it operates four Saab 2000 Erieye AEW&C aircraft. It 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. Pakistan has modified a few C-130s for day/night ISR operations. The PAF operates ten batteries of MBDA Spada 2000 low-to-medium altitude air defence systems with intercept range of 20 km. Pakistan has tested the new SPADA 2000 Plus system and may order more. The PAF still has a few batteries of old SA-2 high altitude air defence system. Chinese FT-2000 anti-radiation variant of the HQ-9 long range air defence system was expected to be chosen. Pakistan has recently developed an armed Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle named ‘Burraq’ based on Falcon drone technology from Selex Galileo of Italy. China has supplied Pakistan with nuclear technology and assistance, including perhaps the blueprint for Pakistan’s nuclear bomb. Pakistan has Chinese design-based short and medium-range ballistic missiles, including the Shaheen series with range up to 2,500 km. China has also built a turnkey ballistic missile manufacturing facility near Rawalpindi.

Indian Air Force (IAF)

As per International Institute for Strategic Studies, the IAF has around 1,700 aircraft and approximately 900 of which are combat aircraft. The aircraft are from a mix of foreign countries and indigenously built. Around 250 air-superiority Su-30 MKIs are in service and final number on order as on date is 272. Three squadrons each of upgraded MiG-29UPG are the second line of air-superiority aircraft. The IAF is likely to acquire 21 more MiG-29s and upgrade them. There are three squadrons of Mirage 2000-5 Mk II standard. One squadron of LCA Mk I and another would start receiving aircraft soon. 83 (four Squadrons) LCA MK IA are being ordered and are likely to start joining by 2023. Five Squadrons of SEPECAT Jaguar are being upgraded to DARIN III standard to form the dedicated strike force. The five squadrons of upgraded MiG-21 Bison will stretch till 2024 with gradually depleting numbers.

36 Dassault Rafale jets will begin inducting in May 2020. The RFP for 114 MMRCA-class fighters, that are partially to be built in India, is expected to be released by mid 2020. Order for these may be placed not earlier than 2023. The HAL-DRDO Tejas Mark 2 or Medium Weight Fighter (MWF) is planned to be single engine, 17.5-tonne class aircraft designed to replace 4th Generation fighters such as the Jaguar, Mirage 2000 and MiG-29. The same is still at design stage, with a target of first flight around 2025. The HAL-DRDO Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) is still on the drawing board. Its first flight is likely around 2028 and induction around 2035.

Two DRDO AEW&C Embraer ERJ 145s have been inducted. The IAF continues to operate the three EL/W-2000 Phalcon AEW&Cs and two more are on order. The IAF has seven IL-78 aerial tankers. Its strategic lift capability includes 11 C-17 Globemaster IIIs and 17 IL-76. 12 C-130-J are for Special Operations. Nearly a 100 An-32 are the medium lift fleet. They also have the para-drop and bombing role. The 56 HS-748 Avros are meant to be replaced by Airbus C295W to be built jointly with Tatas in India. This order is awaited.

The IAF operates nearly 240 Mi-17 variants and around 100 Dhruv ALH and Chetak/Cheetah combinations. Two squadrons of Mi-25/35 attack helicopters are already being replaced by 22 Apache Longbow AH-64Es which are under induction. Similarly, 15 Chinook Ch-47F heavy-lift helicopters are under induction. IAI Heron and Searcher UAVs and Harpy UCAVs form the unmanned fleet. A significant number of Israeli Harop loitering munitions anti-radiation autonomous drones have been ordered. 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 PAF has over 500 AMRAAM AIM-120C-5 missiles since 2010, and it has a BVR edge over the IAF’s Russian missile inventory of R-77 and R-27 variants. This came as a stark reality during the air engagement on February 27, 2019. Induction of the French Meteor missile (150 Km+ range) with the Rafale will outperform the 120-km range AIM-120. The missiles being bought in large numbers will also arm the Mirage 2000 later.

The IAF-PAF War Scenario

The PAF and the IAF have fought full-fledged wars in 1965 and 1971; both these wars ended in favour of the IAF. The PAF did not take part in the Kargil War. The IAF could carry out an unopposed successful deep air strike at Jaba Top near Balakot in Pakistan in February 2019. The IAF prevented the PAF from crossing the LoC during the brief riposte the following day. Also, all the 11 stand-off weapons dropped by the PAF did not hit their target. The IAF did feel the need for longer range AAMs and encrypted radios. For long, the IAF has maintained a numerical edge over the PAF of 3:1. With depletion of the IAF’s combat squadrons, this edge is currently down to around 1.5:1. The IAF has clear technological superiority. Once the IAF gets back to the authorised 42 squadrons, the edge could stablise at around 2.0. The PAF is inherently an 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 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 based on its larger weapon inventory and superior platforms.

China-India War Scenario

China has 14 airbases in the Lanzhou and Chengdu regions, which are opposite India. Of the 14, the key bases are Hoping, Bangda, Shiquanhe, Bayixincun and Kongka. There are two airfields in Lhasa. An additional four are also being readied which can be made operational quickly. Many of these airfields are at an average altitude of around 4,000 metres and that affects the performance of aircraft. Aircraft would have to trade-off with fuel and payload. Additional airfields in the Chengdu Military region would require the PLAAF to over fly Myanmar. Most of the airfields in the Tibet region have now been logistically well connected with Eastern and Central China.

India has a chain of airfields from Leh and Nyoma 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. More civil airfields in the North East are being operationalised for use by the IAF. Most of the IAF airfields are in the plains and will not have load carriage restrictions. India has also upgraded several Advanced Landing Grounds (ALG) and can now operate larger aircraft even in adverse weather conditions in the North East mountains. The two sides can be called evenly matched on this count. China has a clear edge in the Surface-to-Surface Missiles (SSM) that they are likely to use to strike Indian airfields. The IAF is acquiring five batteries of the advanced S-400 SAM system. Also, the IAF’s inventory of other SAMs is gradually increasing.

With world focus shifted towards the Indo-Pacific and the reclaiming of Taiwan being the number one priority for China, Sino-Indian conflict can at best be localised. Unlike in 1962, the IAF today is a potent force and will inflict heavy losses in case of conflict. Also, with the Trump administration becoming conservative in trade policies and European economies shrinking, India remains an important market for China with over $100 billion in trade. They will not like to ‘hurt’ the goose that lays the golden egg. The recent Corona virus pandemic has affected China as well as all the countries adversely and it will take a while for every country to recover (economically and militarily) from this catastrophe.

A Two-Front War Scenario

The China-Pak tie-up gives India a potential two-front theatre in the event of war with either country. Another school of thought questions whether China and Pakistan will ever push a nuclear India into the corner of a two-front war. In the event of a localised war across the LoC between India and Pakistan, China is likely to restrict to military supplies and diplomatic pressure. India now being a closer ally of the US, the Americans as well as the Russians will prevent China from entering into a full scale war. On the other hand, if there were to be Sino-India conflict, say – limited to Arunachal, then the Pakistan Army, known for its misadventures, may jump into the fray to avenge its repeated defeats. In such a scenario, India will have to balance its forces on both fronts. With its current strength, the IAF will find it difficult to take on both the PLAAF and the PAF simultaneously. The IAF requires at least 50 combat squadrons for a possible two-front war.

China Focused Infrastructure

Till very recently, all major airbases, radars and other assets were looking West towards Pakistan. Same was the case with the Indian Army and the Indian Navy. Most Eastern airbases were bare runways with no ballast protection shelters or a few Operational Readiness Platforms (ORP) at best. They were mostly used for fighter training and air maintenance operations. Emerging economic strength, self-confidence, and doctrinal maturity allowed the IAF to look beyond borders and reach out into the seas beyond Indian Island territories. China’s focus on building air power also made India rethink its air strategy.

The Kargil conflict helped the IAF understand the dimensions of fighting an air war at Himalayan heights. It was clear that the application of airpower has to be precise and proportionate. The Kargil review report also helped the IAF receive a larger proportion of the capital acquisitions budget, and also gain access to strategic assets and combat enablers such as the AWACS, Flight Refuelling Aircraft (FRA), heavy-lift aircraft, UAVs and Electronic Warfare equipment. The IAF has now deployed frontline fighter aircraft such as SU-30 MKI and the second Rafale squadron will be in the East. The C-130 Special Operations aircraft, Chinook and the Apache have bases in the Eastern sector and one Rafale squadron is slated to be deployed in the East. India has also to defend itself against a possible sizeable Chinese Surface-to-Surface Missile (SSM) attack. Inductions of new SAMs including the S-400 will help.

The Way Forward – IAF

India cannot match China’s numerical strength, but the IAF would provide a sufficiently strong ‘deterrent force’. If the IAF continues to deplete in numbers at the current rate, it could hit a low of around 26 fighter squadrons, making fighting a two-front war a near impossibility. In 2018, the then Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal BS Dhanoa had mentioned, “Our numbers are not adequate to fully execute an air campaign in a two-front scenario.” The first priority for the IAF is to quickly rebuild the numbers to the authorised 42 squadrons.

The 2020 capital budget allotment of Rs 113,734 crore ($16 billion) is 29 percent short of the requirement. The IAF gets Rs 43,282 crore ($6 billion). Most of the allocation will go towards liabilities on existing schemes; funds for new acquisitions are too few. This year’s defence budget (less pensions) is mere 1.4 percent of the GDP. This needs to go up to 2.5 percent. In a two-front war, the IAF will require to double the number AEW&Cs to at least ten. The IAF also urgently requires more FRA and also has to invest much more in UAVs, UCAVs, AAMs and PGMs. One of India’s assets could be its new BrahMos cruise missile that can be used against multiple targets. The IAF now has credible “strategic reach” from the Persian Gulf to the Strait of Malacca, combining fighter aircraft with FRA and AWACS. In view of limited budgets and long wish-list, IAF planners would have to prioritise acquisition of critical systems to bridge the gap through capability-based planning.

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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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3 thoughts on “The IAF in a Two-Front War

  1. India must deploy its Rafales at a 3rd airbase also ….so they are not all bunched up together and have more flexibility. This 3rd base should be able to help the western as well as eastern front.

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