Is Indian Air Force Ready To Ward Off China’s PLAAF In Northeast?

China’s old claim on parts of Arunachal would be the driving factor towards continuance of hostilities in northeast.

Updated
Opinion
5 min read
Images of China’s PLAAF’s Hongdu L-15 aircraft (L) and the Indian Air Force’s Tejas aircraft (R) used for representational purposes.
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If India and China were to go to a full-fledged war, a rather long shot under present circumstances, India’s northeastern sector would definitely be in for some hardcore action. China’s old claim on parts of Arunachal Pradesh would be the driving factor towards the continuance of hostilities in this sector.

Given the geography of the area, it would mainly be a mountainous warfare with the armies at it ‘tooth for nail’. The air forces, given the impermanent nature of their action and effect thereof, would largely be fighting a supporting role – softening up the enemy, cutting the supply lines, denying enemy fighters the chance to attack, and pounding the enemy army in the tactical battlefield area (TBA).

How Effective Would the Chinese Rocket Force Be?

This question is often asked whenever warfare between the two countries is discussed, and rightly so, given the mammoth assets that the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) holds. The surface-to-surface ballistic missile (SSBM) force of China is indeed huge. However, its efficacy in conventional warfare is greatly suppressed, especially so when the Indian Air Force (IAF) has adequate bases all over to scatter its assets.

It’s not that the IAF would not have to worry about the‘Dragon’s rockets’, but it definitely is not a ‘no win’ situation. 

The total requirement for putting out an entire airbase, for a specified time, using only SSBMs, is substantially high. However, it is safe to say that the IAF has adequate depth and diversity to nullify the effect of SSBM rain.

Snapshot
  • The surface-to-surface ballistic missile (SSBM) force of China is indeed huge.
  • However, its efficacy in conventional warfare is greatly suppressed, especially so when the Indian Air Force (IAF) has adequate bases all over to scatter its assets.
  • It’s not that the IAF would not have to worry about China’s rockets, but it definitely is not a ‘no win’ situation.
  • The total requirement for putting out an entire airbase, for a specified time, using only SSBMs, is substantially high.
  • However, it is safe to say that the IAF has adequate depth and diversity to nullify the effect of SSBM rain.

Force Comparison: PLAAF Vs IAF

Much has already been said on various forums, about the comparable aircraft strength of both air forces, but what actually needs to be discussed here are the launching bases on both sides.

The PLAAF is at a huge disadvantage here. Hoping, Kongka Dzong, Pangta and Linzhi are the only credible ones for this sector. Most of these bases already pay altitude penalties apart from being bereft of the famed Chinese aircraft shelters. Airfields in the lower Chengdu district and the Ganzhou district can virtually be ruled out as a threat, due to their distances as well as the requirement to overfly Myanmar to reach India. Chengdu may be the only base worth its existence, but at a considerable distance.

The IAF bases, on the other hand, are plenty and well spread out, thanks to the colonial infrastructure for ‘hump operations’ and the government’s present ‘look east’ policy. 

Base-wise, the IAF ups the count – two to one, maybe even a little more, if the forward Advanced Landing Grounds (ALG) are taken into account.

The IAF has recently developed a fair number of them in the northeast.

We must also give it to the IAF – as regards its ability to move forces quickly – its present strategic move capability and performance is definitely the envy of most nations. Exploiting the plethora of bases with this capability, provides operational redundancy to a very large extent.

The other worry for the IAF would definitely be the PLAAF’s air defence setup.

It is layered, it is mobile and lethal – and it is known to defend its bases very effectively. Their arsenal of surface weapons to shoot down Indian raiders are multi-fold. The layers consist of the high rate of fire ‘ack ack’ guns as the inner most, followed by the entire HQ series of SAMs for various ranges, polishing off with the highly mobile and lethal S 300 / S 400 series – numbers being indicative of the max range of the systems in kms. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is also known to move around with a similar robust air defence system for the TBA, giving its army the edge over the opponent.

What Role Would the IAF Fighters Play?

First and foremost, the IAF must take full advantage of its abundance of bases and its strategic lift capability. Assets need to be dispersed to ensure that the PLAAF SSBMs don’t dent operations when the IAF decides to ‘give it back’.

Warfare in mountains is always tricky for airforces. Targeting the system and traditional methods of calculations take a huge beating when the ground around the aircraft keeps rising and falling. Of course, it does gives the pilot the benefit of terrain-masking.

The IAF, here, would mainly fight a defensive battle –– this in no way means that the ferocity of action would be reduced.

It basically means that the IAF raids on the enemy airfields would be lesser as compared to other campaigns; there are hardly any enemy airfields available in this sector to make raids worthwhile.

The IAF thereafter, needs to make sure that supplies to the enemy army are interrupted, it needs to make raids on lines connecting the front to inlands. Concurrent to this, the PLA needs to be battered and softened for the Indian Army to overwhelm. Let no doubt be there that the Chinese would also resort to similar missions, hence, the major effort of the IAF would go into shooting down the raiding PLAAF.

How Would the Transport & Helicopter Arm Contribute?

The lift-capability of the IAF plays a major role. Shifting forces between battlefield in quick time and redeploying before the enemy predicts, is the main advantage of having a formidable airlift capability.

The transport fleet would generally be shifting troops between nodal points, while the helicopters would be the ones to provide the end point connectivity and replacement rapidity. The IAF, for sometime now, has been very effectively practising these exercises in the northeast, wherein army troops are shifted between valleys in quick time to boost another action area.

Of course, the new Apaches would help in giving the troops on ground the firepower support from the air.

The northeast, for a very long time, was not paid due attention, but the change in the last few years has definitely given the IAF an edge over the PLAAF in this sector.

(Amit Ranjan Giri is a Wing Commander (Retd) of the Indian Air Force. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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