Changing Contours of Air Threat and its Implications in our Scenario
Lt Gen (Dr) V K Saxena (Retd), PVSM, AVSM, VSM

“Air power may either end war or end civilisation”.1 - Winston Churchill, House of Commons, 1933

Since the raison d’etre for the existence of air defence, be it on land, sea or in the air, is to counter the air threat from the adversary, an assessment of the same in terms of quality and quantum must, therefore, become the ab-initio of all deliberations concerning the air defence.

The Cause-Effect Relationship

The term 'air threat' essentially implies the cumulative potential danger which the adversary holds as his capability to cause damage and destruction to our vulnerabilities through the use of aerial threat vehicles and munitions in furtherance of, or in support of his war effort on land and sea. This danger is basically assessed in two dimensions. First is the qualitative dimension which includes the lethality, severity and technological advancement of the adversary's air threat vehicles. Whereas, the second is the quantitative dimension that relates to the numbers which constitute the air threat punch. Accordingly, the defender aims to put together such resources on land, sea and air that can counter the threat defined as above. Thus, the air threat on one side and the air defence means on the other are tied to each other in an eternal cause-effect relationship.

The Two Verticals of Metamorphosis

The multi-dimensional growth of the air threat over time has mainly taken place along two major verticals. The first of these is the multiplicity of air threat vehicles. In that, the erstwhile duo of aircrafts and helicopters as main threat vehicles, are today joined by a multidimensional strike punch consisting of attack helicopters (AHs), unmanned aerial systems/vehicles (UAS/UAVs), Tactical Ballistic Missiles, Cruise Missiles, Precision Guided Munitions (PGMs), Anti Radiation Missiles (ARMs) and the now emerging soft-kill offensive weapons. The other vertical is the spatial growth of the threat in all its three dimensions of range, reach (implying altitude) and hours of applicability. Starting from early 1970’s, when the air threat was prosecuted mainly in the visual domain of the defenders using mostly short range guns and a small arsenal of unguided rockets and missiles, today the capability is to strike deep with precision and accuracy from long ranges standing off hundreds of miles away from the defenders visual domain; also to strike with multiple vehicles any time of the day or night, remain nearly invisible to defenders' radars, employ the unmanned with its multiple combat virtues and hit both with hard and soft kill munitions.

Manifestation of Metamorphosis over Threat vehicles

The revamping-transformation of the air threat over time as stated above is spread over the multiple threat vehicles, most prominently on today’s aircrafts. These 4th and 5th generation war machines are truly multi-role, structurally lighter, detection resistant, carry an array of on board sensors with a packaged electronic warfare (EW) suit for survivability and sustainability, and are armed to the teeth with smart and intelligent munitions including the PGMs. The AHs have become all weather with avionics providing the technological muscle for nap-of-the-earth operations. The unmanned revolution has taken over with its unmatched capability of all weather, all terrain operations with incredible endurance and no crew fatigue. Multiplicative affects are being achieved by manned and unmanned teaming (MUMT) and the missiles, both in the surface-to-surface (SSM) and Air to Surface (ASM) modes are scaling new dimensions in range, reach and kill probabilities. The soft kill weapons are emerging in three domains, viz, laser, charged particle beams (CPBs) and high power microwaves (HPM).

A brief analysis of air threat from Pakistan and China follows.


The mission of Pakistan Air Force (PAF) is to provide in synergy with the other Services the most efficient, assured and cost effective aerial defence of Pakistan.2 PAF has an inventory of some 450 combat aircrafts organised into 20 front line squadrons. It operates four main types of combat aircrafts, namely, the French Mirage V attack aircrafts (90), Mirage III interceptors (90), the Chinese J-7 fighters (39), JF 17 multirole aircrafts (86) and the US F-16 multirole strike aircrafts (76). It is reported that by 2025, PAF will only operate two multirole aircrafts namely F-16 and JF-173. Over a period of time, the old and obsolete aircrafts (A5, F6, Super F7, FT7P,) have been phased out. The F-16s have undergone major upgrades to include NATO compatible Link 16 communications, GPS/INS flying, weapon upgrades to include high speed ARMs, PGMs, Stand Off weapons and wind corrected munitions dispensers. JF-17 has been operationalised with high grade weaponry, night flying capability and electronic warfare package. Similarly, Mirages have been put through systems and weapon pack upgrades.

Talking of attack helicopters (AHs), PAF has a fleet of AH 1F Huey Cobras (2 squadrons), 32 helicopters and the Chinese K-8 (one squadron 28 numbers). AH IFs have seen upgrades involving Forward Looking Infra Red (FLIR) night sights and TOW missiles. Besides AHs, PAF operates a small fleet of UAS to include ASN 105, 106 from China, Snipe and Streak from UK and Luna from Germany. In September 2015, Pakistan became the ninth nation in the world to develop and use an armed UAS named Burraq. It is armed with Barq, an ASM with pin-point precision.

Under the Armed Forces Development programme (AFFDP 2006-2019), PAF, besides procuring some modern combat aircraft from the US and China, has also acquired several cutting edge systems. These include PGMs for J-17 aircraft (LS-6 and LS-6P and SD-10A Beyond Visual Range Missiles). Other known PGMs and ASMs with PAF are Shrike Anti Radiation Missiles (ARM), laser guided bombs (LGBs), Maverick missile and AS 30 ASM useable with Mirages (III&V) and F 16 aircrafts. As regards the cruise missile, Nasr (HATF IX) is a solid fuelled tactical ballistic missile developed as short range (60 km) high accuracy low yield battle field deterrent. On 19 Sep 2017, PAF announced that it will acquire three new Saab 2000 Erieye Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) aircrafts. This will join the three existing Erieye and four Y-8600 based ZDK-03 AEW&Cs, taking a total of such aircraft to 10 by the end of the decade4. The first of these aircrafts is likely to be delivered by December 2017 and the balance two by December 2018. This will provide a tangible enhancement in the airborne surveillance and targeting capability of PAF. It has also been reported that Pakistan is in talks with China to acquire 30-40 J F31 stealth fighters. This will add a totally new qualitative dimension to its strike capability.

In the unmanned category, while the Burrack represents the front edge, UAVs from China (ASN 105A, ASN 206, B2B,) UK (snipe Mk II), Germany (Luna), Italy (Falcon), South Africa (Seeker) besides the indigenous (Bravo, Ababeel, Baaz, AWC Mk I & II, Vision I, Shaper, Vector, Huma 1 and Thunder) constitute the unmanned fleet .

Some implications from the PAF capability, which needs be factored into our quality and quantum calculation of air defence resources on a tri -service format, is covered below:-

• 20 combat squadrons of PAF comprising of 17 strikes, four multi-role and three air defence aircraft squadrons.
• There has been a continuous qualitative up gradation wherein the dead weight of old and vintage aircrafts are being done away with sharp focussing the fleet to four major front line strike aircraft types (F-16 series, Mirage III/V, J7/JF17).
• There has been a continuous attempt to re-vamp the threat beyond aircraft in terms of AH, Cruise Missiles, ARMs, SSMs, UAS, and PGMs.
• A limited ni/AW attack capability and a tangible mix of EW capability stands inducted in front line aircrafts.
• Limited induction of AWACs and AAR capability provide the force multiplier effect.
• The front edge of the strike force now features the stealth threat which needs to be addressed by the defenders.
• The known radii-of-action of the front line combat aircrafts provides the capability to PAF to strike up to India's hinterland making our rear areas strategic assets vulnerable.


In keeping with China's high growth trajectory, the Peoples Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) has followed an impressive growth profile. From a near antiquated status in around 1990-91, PLAAF is more operationally able today than any time in its past. As a part a major revamp of its air power, its earlier inventory of some 5000+ aircrafts that included some 2000 obsolete aircrafts stands right-sized to about 3000 aircrafts (2755-30105), in which the combat edge is held by J-7 (fighter-388), JH-7 (fighter bomber-70), H6 (strategic bomber-120), Su 30 (air superiority fighter- 76), J-8 (Interceptor 96), J-10 (multi role fighter- 237), J-11 (air superiority fighter- 196), Q5 (strike aircraft- 118) aircrafts.

Taking pride in flying the first prototype of its latest Stealth Fighter (J-20) in January 2011, ostentatiously at a time when the US Secretary of Defence, Mr Robert Gates was in Beijing, the PLAAF is steadily modernising. Predictions on future PLAAF fleet indicate that it will consist of large quantities of Chengdu J-10 and Shenyang J-11 as mainstay platforms and JH-7A as the PLAAF’s backbone precision strike fighter. J-20 is likely to enter PLAAF around 2018. 6,7

The mainframe of future transport fleet is likely to be anchored around Y-9 medium range transport aircraft duly supported by the IL fleet. The AH inventory is likely to be populated by WZ-10, WZ-9 and Z-11. The AWACS fleet is likely to have refined variants of KJ-2000 and KJ-200 and a reported (50, unconfirmed) numbers of similar platforms are likely to be imported from Russia. Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) is reported to be working on six developmental combat aircraft programmes. These include the significantly enhanced Chengdu J-10B multirole fighter, Shenyang J-11B5 heavyweight strike fighter, Shenyang J-15 carrier- borne fighter and Chengdu J-20 fifth generation fighter demonstrator. There is at least one more fifth generation fighter project yet to be publically reported. Besides this, continuing enhancement of current frontline types such as the JH 7A and H-6 bomber family is in progress8.

PLAAF has a very strong muscle in UAVs. Besides the existing inventory of UAVs (Xianglong, WZ-9, Yi Long, CH-3, Anjian, etc) some additional inputs are as under:-

• Chinese UAV experiments have shown impressive levels of innovation by building and flying unmanned vehicles of every conceivable design and genre. These include stealthy UAVs, morphing UAVs, annular wing Vertical Take off and Landing (VTOL) UAVs, micro-UAVs, unmanned airships, flying wings, modified light aircraft and sailplanes, UFO-style flying discs and even orinthopters (utilising flapping wings). Innovators both professionals as well as, greenhorns/ debutants have been allowed to run free and explore almost every UAV configuration.

• Two other features are very visible in Chinese UAV development, namely, arming of the UAVs and equipping them with enabling sensor payloads. China has followed a logical process in arming its UAVs by first adapting existing air-to-surface weapons and then developing purpose-built small light weight munitions. In each case, the weapons involved are relatively new. Weapon-vehicle matching has been thoughtful. Some examples are Wing-Loong and CASIC UAV.

Besides the conventional payloads, the PLAAF is emphatically present in the field of smart, intelligent and precision ammunition with surgical strike capability. Way back in 2007, China developed a powered smart bomb (KD-88) having an IR TV guidance system. The estimated range is about 110 km with a capability to hit small targets9. The other state-of-the art arsenal in use are the supersonic Russian and Chinese made ARMs (KH 31P, YJ-91) for operational use with SU-30, JH 7A and J-11; LASER- guided and satellite-guided bombs (on board Q-5 aircraft). 10 It is now estimated that almost all the modern aircrafts of PLAAF today are capable of carrying the PGMs.11

Chinese Build up in Western Theatre Command

In February 2016, the erstwhile seven Military Regions (MRs) of China have been reorganised into theatre Commands (Eastern, Southern, Western, Northern and Central). Western Theatre Command (WTC) is opposite India. This Command has been created by merging the erstwhile Chengdu and Lanzhou MRs. In WTC what is of special significance is the build up in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) that directly adjoins India. Tibet Military Command (TMC) under WTC is responsible for operations in India12. As regards PLAAF, there are three Fighter Divisions (6, 33 and 37) one Bomber Division (36) and one Transport Division (4) in the WTC.

Apart from a nuclear missile base in Quinghai province which clearly targets India, China has built five fully operational air bases [Gongar, Pangta, Linchi, Hoping and Gar Gunsa) and an exclusive rail network and over 58000 km of roads in TAR13. In 2015, another full-fledged air base at Kashgar located 600 Km north of Srinagar was operationalised. Open source reported in April 2017 about the construction of Nyingtri airport close to borders of India and Myanmar. This civilian airfield is reported to be capable of dual use. Construction of new airfields and upgradation of Advance Landing Ground (ALG) is a continuous process in TAR14. The limitations of high altitude operations with combat aircrafts of yesteryears stands diluted to a large extent with the induction of modern aircrafts of the likes of SU-27 and J-10. To add to this, are the other 'enablers' like air-to-air refuelers, AEW aircrafts and a strong ground based air defence/ Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) cover centred around S-300/400 and a hierarchy of air defence missiles.

While weapon by weapon analysis of the Chinese air threat across the entire spectrum is beyond the scope of this paper, what needs to be done by the defenders in countering the said threat is covered below:

• Capability to carry out effective surveillance of the TAR region with sensor efforts integrated across ground/shore/space mediums resulting in a comprehensive air situation picture.
• A seamless Air defence Battle Management System anchored on auto/real-time data transmission on satellite media with due redundancy.
• Wherewithal and capability to carry out all weather Counter air Operations (CAO), interdiction and Counter Surface Force Operations (CSFO) operations across the border both in pro-active/pre-emptive, as well as, retaliatory mode.
• Building a degree of survivability in air defence command, control and communication centres both electronically, as well as, through equipment redundancy.
• Building an integrated family of ground, air and shore-based Air Defence Weapon Systems to ensure continuous and successive punishment to the air threat right through its ingress into own territory.

For ground based air defence, the above capability must result in the following:-

• Modernised and technologically-enabled gun-missile deployments to cover the entire range-height spectrum from long range to terminal weapons along with their sensors and associated support systems.
• Capability to take on contemporary, as well as, futuristic threat from PLAAF in including stand-off threat and the threat of a slew of smart/intelligent weapons and PGMs.
• Futuristic kill capability in the form of directed energy (laser, charged particle beam, high power microwave) weapons and fielding a counter for stealth aircrafts, ARMs and cruise missiles. and building BMD capabilities at the national level to take on the threat of SSMs.


1.>quotes>airpower. Accessed on 22Aug 17.
2. Pakistan Air Force - Official Website at Accessed on 30 Aug 17.
3. Pakistan Air Force Sqadrons at Accessed on 31 Aug 17.
4. Pakistan will acquire three new Saab Erieye AEWC&S at https://www.>2017/05/21 accessed on 19 Sep 17.
5. Peoples Liberation Army Airforce at https://www. en.m. . accessed on 10 Oct 17.
6. Chengdu J 20.
7. stealthier stealth? Seventh upgraded chinese stealth fighter.
8. IHS Janes’ International Defence Review, vol-45, Feb 2012.pp 45.
9. www.strategy air w/20070516.aspx.
10. Roger Cliff, John Fei, Jeff Hagen . " Shaking the Heaven and Splitting the Earth' Chinese Air Force.
11. Indian Defence Review Vol 30.4 (Oct-Dec 15).

12. https:// Western Theatre Command at accessed on 13 Oct 17

13. https://www.times of

14. China's Infrastructure development in Tibet evaluating trend lines at Accessed on 14 Oct 17.

(Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the VIF)

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An excellent analysis.


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