Countering the Dragon in the Skies
Lt Gen (Dr) V K Saxena (Retd), PVSM, AVSM, VSM, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

This is a linked brief with the previous work titled ‘Power Behind Arrogance’ carried on the VIF portal on 23 Jun 2020.1 The previous article dealt with the analysis of the air and missile arsenal of China. It analysed how the Chinese air threatmay unfold in a conflict scenario,duly impactedby thecompulsionsof terrain, altitude and weather in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR).

The present article looks at the coin from the other side. In that, it analyses how the Chinese air and missile threat is likely to be countered with the combined might of air and air defence resources of India.

Salient Points of the Chinese Air Threat

While the threat due to the Chinese air and missile arsenal has been analysed in detail in the linked brief, salient points are reiterated to bring continuity in this research work.

  1. By way of combat aircrafts, Chinese have some 2000(+) machines capable of launching a viable air war. These aircrafts can perform multiple functions which may include reconnaissance, deep strike, interception, long range strategic bombing, air-to-air and air-to-ground combat and more.
  2. The main combat aircraft types that are likely to be used to prosecute the air threat include J 7 fighters (388), J 11 and J 16 air superiority multi-role fighters (J 11-346, J 16-128+), J 10 strike aircrafts (235), SU 30 and SU 35 air superiority aircrafts capable of air-to-air and air-to-surface deep interdiction missions (76+24= 100), JH-7 fighter bombers(70), H6 strategic bombers (120), J-8 interceptors(96) and Q5 (strike aircraft - 118) 2.
  3. The latest to enter service in Dec 2019 is J 20 fifth-generation air superiority fighter aircraft34. Another recent addition has been the Russian Su-35 aircraft, along with its advanced IRBIS-E passive electronically scanned array radar. 5
  4. The fleet is basically of 3rd/4th generation except for J 20 and SU 35 which belong to 5th generation. ( 3rd - J 8, J7,Q5 H6, 4th- J 11, JF17, JH -7, SU 27, 4th+ after upgrade- J 10, SU 30 MKK)6
  5. The above combat power is duly backed by other resources. These include the Airborne Early Warning and Control Systems or AWACS (KJ 2000 - 5, KJ 200-11, and KJ 500-13), a large number of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) with coverage across low-med and high altitude. These UAS can operate alone or in conjunction with manned platforms in joint teaming operations (GJ 1, GJ2, Skyhawk, and Wing Loong). In addition there are attack helicopters (WZ9, WZ 10, Z 11), Beyond Visual Range Air-to-air Missiles or BVRAAMs (PL 12, PL-15 etc.),Anti-radiation Missiles or ARMs (KH 31P, YJ-91) and cruise missiles (DH-10, YJ-62,SS-N-22/27B).
  6. Most of the combat platforms are capable of carrying smart, intelligent and precision guided munitions (PGMs) and laser-guided and satellite-guided bombs. 7
  7. In addition to the aerial threat vehicles, the other threat from China is from its ballistic missiles. The Chinese arsenal includes ballistic missiles with ranges from 550 km to 14000 km. While all can carry conventional weapons, quite a few are capable of carrying nuclear warheads (platform wise details covered in the linked brief-Power Behind Arrogance)
Severe Limitations

As to the prosecution of air threat, especially from TAR it is stated that while all the capabilities may stand at one side, on the other stands the huge handicap imposed by terrain and altitude. In essence the following:-

  1. In TAR most of the airfields are at altitudes of more than 12000 ft (Xigatse -12408 ft m, Gonggar-Lhasa-11710ft, Shiquane -16,500 ft, Hoping altitude 12,497 ft, Bangda 14219 ft, Gargunsa -altitude 14,022 ft et al)8.
  2. In operating from these airfields the jet engines cannot generate full thrust due to lack of oxygen. Consequently, their payload carrying capacity (fuel and munitions) reduces by 30-50%. This shows up in the aircrafts achieving lesser combat radii, as well as, showing up at the target end with lesser munitions.
  3. To partly address the above issue, though China has air-to-air refuelling (AAR) resources, it is a cumbersome and time consuming process and cannot be an easily adopted for each and every combat mission (resources- 10 H6 class tankers, 3 tankers based on IL 78 besides Y20 heavy lift transport aircraft converted to tanker role) 9.
  4. Another handicap that China faces in operating from TAR airfields is mutual support. The airfields located in far flung locations are not mutually supporting. (Details covered in the linked brief- Power behind Arrogance).10
  5. Some experts opine that instead of suffering altitude and terrain handicap, China could launch its air threat fleet from air bases opposite Arunachal Pradesh, East Assam and near Burma border (Hoping, Pangta, Shiquanhe, Bayixincum, and two new ones coming up at Shannan and Xigaste general altitude 12000+ ft), or from air bases up in the north in Gilgit-Baltistan area (Gilgit– elevation 4796 ft, runway 1.6 km, Skardu- elevation 7316 ft , runway 3.6 km).
  6. Firstly, even the above stated airfields are at sufficient altitude so as to inflict the handicap as stated above (albeit partly) and Gilgit is a very small facility. Secondly, nothing can be said as to Yes or No about the above option. Air power is a highly flexible arm, it can be deployed and re-deployed dynamically anywhere at short notice. The point to remember is that air resources deployed farther north or farther east with respect to TAR will continue to lose their combat radii in reaching the core Indian targets in the critical mass of India. TAR provides the shortest routes of ingress with maximum combat radii and payload. The deployment of air threat vehicles is likely to be poised accordingly. However there is nothing rigid about it.
  7. Another handicap relates to the development of infrastructure at the forward airfields in TAR. Due to the severe altitude and terrain restrictions, most of the airfields are without blast pens. This makes the aircrafts parked at these airfields highly vulnerable to Counter Air Operations (CAO) by Indian Air Force (IAF).

Given all the positives and negatives stated above, the prosecution of the Chinese air threat in conjunction or in furtherance of the ground battle may unfold like this:-

  1. A pre-emptive strike possibly in a surprise mode ( though that is least feasible in today’s scenario) taking on such targets as IAF aircrafts on airbases, key installations, rear area strategic assets, command control and communication centres, missile bases, key sensor establishments and more.
  2. Post pre-emptive (if that was possible) , pull back immediately to put up a strong air defence guard ( aircrafts, missiles and ground based AD weapons to face the IAF CAO strikes.
  3. Continue to wage offensive strike operations to keep key IAF airfields non-operational (non-ops) for critical periods of time. Try to achieve and maintain a local favourable air situation (FAS) in the area so that ground battle can go on unhindered. Achieving air superiority will only be a dream in today’s scenario where the adversary is a force like the IAF.
  4. Undertake offensive air support operations as demanded by the ground battle.
  5. The ballistic missile threat is likely to be prosecuted interwoven with the air threat trying to take out pre-chosen targets. This may unfold as strikes on seats of power, communication centres, core-sector infrastructure, strategic stores fuelling war-waging potential and more.

The above is possibly a worst-case scenario. The others could only be better. For instance IAF going in for a debilitating pre-emptive strike, non-achievement of FAS by China, heavy attrition to PLAAF by own air and air defences etc.

Countering the Chinese Air Threat

This is the likely broad dimension of the air threat that needs to be countered by the combined might of IAF air arsenal and the Ground Based air Defence Weapon Systems (in short called GBADWS) of the Army and the IAF. The operations of the naval air and air defence fleet keeping watch on the maritime borders are not covered.

Some details as gleaned from the open source are as under:-11

  1. IAF has multiple combat platforms which along with their support structures will pose a formidable challenge.
  2. SU 30 MKI of the IAF is an air superiority fighter also capable of strike missions on ground targets. The upgraded version of this aircraft (Super Sukhoi) is even more lethal by way of its longer range missiles, a powerful electronic warfare suit and state-of-the-art avionics.
  3. Mig 29 is a multi-role and air superiority fighter further revamped with a comprehensive upgrade as to its sensor and shooter capabilities.12.
  4. Mirage 2000H, the multi-role fourth generation fighter comprehensively upgraded with latest radars and missiles both air-to-air and air to ground.13
  5. MiG 21 in its upgraded version Bison is still a formidable fighter (of Wg Cdr Abhinandan Vartman’s fame).14
  6. Tejas Light Combat Aircraft or LCA has been inducted with many a worthwhile features which are better than the Chinese JF 17 for its weight class.15
  7. Another combat asset of the IAF with unmatched deep-penetration strike capability is Jaguar. The aircraft stands revamped after a comprehensive upgrade.1617
  8. In addition to the above Rafael multi-role (also called omni-role) aircrafts are on order. Five of these have already been inducted. Rafael will be a very formidable platform in its class. It compares favourably to J 20 on several counts, like combat radius, speed, agility and manoeuvrability.18
  9. Alongside the combat platforms will be the attack helicopters of the IAF duly supported by the transport and utility helicopter fleet.
  10. The Ground based air defence weapons of the Services consisting of guns and missiles covering the complete range and altitude bracket from very short to medium to long ranges will be deployed on the selected and prioritised Vulnerable Areas / Points (VAs/VPs) to take on the Chinese air threat.
  11. The surveillance resources on board combat aircrafts, AWACs and on ground, duly integrated will provide a comprehensive ‘look see’ capability across the borders.
  12. Battle Management and Control systems integrated seamlessly across service platforms will be able to effectively control the air defence battle, as well as, offensive air support operations and the crucial functions of air space management.
  13. For countering the Chinese Ballistic Missile threat, indigenous BMD resources will be deployed on key assets duly integrated in the overall air defence grid at the national level.
  14. Since Air is a flexible arm, no air assets will be rigidly fixed to air bases. Own air power, like any other, will be applied in flexible and a dynamic manner.
  15. Our airfields have a definite advantage of being at a comparatively lower altitude than the Chinese airfields in TAR giving IAF an advantage of higher payloads and longer reaches.
  16. Defence Acquisition Council on 02 July 2020 has given its acceptance for the induction of 21MiG29s and 12 SU30s from Russia at a cost of 38000 Crores. Both these machines are formidable platforms against adversary’s aircrafts. 19

Finally, it can easily be said that India is well poised and fully geared up to counter the dragon in the sky.

Endnotes
  1. “Power behind arrogance,” at www.vifindia.org.Accessed on 23 Jun 2020.
  2. ibid. Accessed on 06 Jul 2020.
  3. “Chengdu J 20 multi-role stealthy fighter aircraft,” at www.airforce-technology.com.Accessed on 06 Jul 2020.
  4. “Stealthier stealth?Seventh upgraded Chinese stealth fighter,” at http://www.popsci.com.Accessed on 06 Jul 2020.
  5. “Air defence of India, the big picture view”, at www. airpowerasia.com/2020/06/17/air-defence-of-india-the-big-picture-view. Accessed on 10 Jul 2020.
  6. “Air power across Himalayas….” At www.files.ethz.ch.Accessed on 10 Jul 2020.
  7. Indian Defence Review Vol 30.4 (Oct-Dec 15).Accessed on 10 Jul 2020.
  8. 14 ibid. Accessed on 16 Jul 2020.
  9. 25 ibid. Accessed on 17 Jul 2020.
  10. 1 ibid. Accessed on 17 Jul 2020.
  11. “Military Balance2019” Accessed on 17 Jul 2020.
  12. “MiG 29 UPG- India’s lightweight multi-role fighter aircraft,” at www.defenceupdate.in. . Accessed on 07 Jul 2020.
  13. “Mirage 2000 aircraft to be upgraded,” at www.economictimes.indiatimes.com.Accessed on 17 Jul 2020.
  14. “MiG 21 Bison upgrade programme,” at www.bharat-rakshak.com. Accessed on 18 Jul 2020.
  15. “Flying bullets fly again,” at www.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/blogs/voices/flying-bullets-fly-again/. Accessed on 18 Jul 2020.
  16. 5 ibid. Accessed on 18 Jul 20
  17. “No new engines for jaguars, phase out starts in 2023,”www.the hindu.com. Accessed on 18 Jul 2020.
  18. “IAF ready for a long haul…” at www.timesofindia.indiatimes.com.Accessed on 20 Jul 2020.
  19. “We can take on any Chinese threat without a problem,” at www.rediff.com. Accessed on 20 Jul 2020.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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