Two Front war – IAF’s Options and Strategy
Vol 11 Issue 1 Mar - Apr 2017
Assessment of current and future combat capabilities of the Indian Air Force
Wednesday, March 15, 2017
End of the Cold war by the early 1990s and rise of China realigned the Power centres. The geo-strategic Centre of Gravity shifted from trans-Atlantic to Asia-Pacific. China’s desire to dominate Asia and in turn the world has implications for India. This is more so because India has serious unresolved boundary disputes with both China and Pakistan. Both of India’s neighbours have not only deployed nuclear weapons, but Pakistan has a clearly enunciated ‘first-use’ nuclear policy against India. In order to deter India, in the early years of its existence, Pakistan chose to befriend China by ceding nearly 5,000 Sq. Km territory in Baltistan region of North Kashmir as early as 1963. On its part, China also helped Pakistan build military strength to be able to counter India. It helped Pakistan build its military industrial complex and acquire technologies for its nuclear weapons and missile program. More recently, China has unfolded a US$ 46 billion investment plan to build the China Pakistan Economic Corridor that will connect Xinjiang region of West China to the China-built-and-operated Gwadar port near the Gulf of Hormuz.
Peoples Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF)
PLAAF is the second largest air force in the world with 330,000 personnel and nearly 2,800 main stream aircraft including 1,900 combat aircraft, 600 of which are state-of-the-art. In the last two decades, it has made great strides in developing airpower capability, albeit, it remains a work in progress.
The introduction of fourth-generation fighters, bombers, unmanned aircraft and advanced cruise missiles has transformed it from a defensive force to one that can project Chinese power throughout Asia and its eastern Pacific sea board. Its current modern combat aircraft holdings include 73 Su-30 MKK, 75 Su-27, 24 J-16, 205 J-11, and 250 J-10 fighters. They operate 120 H-6 bombers, and 16 Ilyushin IL-76, 69 Shaanxi Y-8/Y-9 transport aircraft among others. China developed the KJ 2000 AEW&C with radar and avionics mounted on IL-76 aircraft. China has also developed the KJ-200 by installing a simplified system on board 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 6, 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 4 Tupelov Tu-154 ELINT aircraft are for support roles. 10 Xian H-6 are the main aerial refuellers along with a few IL-78. PLAAF has nearly 150 helicopters include Z-9, Z-18, Mi-8/Mi-17, and Eurocopter AS332 Super Puma.
PLAAF purchased the Russian S-300 surface-to-air missiles (SA-10 and SA-20) and produced the comparable indigenous HQ-9. PLAAF has about 192 modern launchers along with 490 legacy launchers. 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 1500 km range, and part of these is air launched. It has the R-27semi-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. Many PLAAF fighters carry beyond-visual-range air-to-air missiles and precision guided munitions. At least 600 combat aircraft are close to par with modern Western fighters. Once inducted, Y-20 will be help strategic airlift rapidly to China’s far western territories and offshore locations such as the southern Hainan Island. The Y-20 would also be a key player in any Taiwan invasion. China is reportedly working on a stealth bomber designated H-18. China is all set to capitalize on geographic strengths and had budgeted US$ 25 billion for defence research in 2014.
Pakistan Air Force (PAF)
The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) is the 7th largest Air Force in the world and the largest in the Islamic world with 450 combat and over 300 other support aircraft. For long the PAF fleet consisted of the Chinese variants of MiG-19 and MiG-21s. They also had large numbers of American F-86 Sabres and F-104 Starfighters. They later acquired over a 100 Mirage-3 and 5 variants. The first batch of F-16s joined in 1983. Many countries like 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% components on the aircraft are from US suppliers. PAF’s combat aircraft are of 4 different types, which are planned to be reduced to 3 multirole types, namely the F-16, JF-17 and FC-20 by 2025.
There are 22 front-line squadrons. PAF has nearly 100 F-16 Fighting Falcons. The F-16A/B fleet has been upgraded with modification kits by Turkish Aerospace Industries starting 2010. The package includes the APG-69 radar, a Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System, data-link Link-16, new communications, and targeting and electronic warfare systems. In effect gradually all aircraft would come up to Block 52+ level.
The PAF is to induct two squadrons of Chinese Chengdu FC-20 aircraft which is an advanced PAF-specific variant of the Chengdu J-10. 36 are already ordered and the fleet may one day grow to 150 fighters. PAF currently has around 55 JF-17 Thunder aircraft. 150 are on order. One day this figure is likely to go up to 300. Pakistan has been in talks with China to acquire 30 to 40, JF-31 Stealth fighters. Russia and Pakistan are talking about possible purchase of the Sukhoi Su-35 air-superiority multi-role fighter.
The C-130 Hercules is PAF’s primary tactical transport aircraft since the early 1960s. Currently 5 C-130B and 11 C-130E are in service. Four CASA CN-235 transport aircraft are on VIP duties along with three Boeing 707s of PIA. PAF has four IL-78 aerial refuellers. PAF 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. PAF operates 10 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. 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 armed unmanned combat aerial vehicle named Burraq based on Falco 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 2500 km. China has also built a turnkey ballistic missile manufacturing facility near Rawalpindi.
Indian Air Force (IAF)
As per International Institute for Strategic Studies, IAF has around 1700 aircraft and approximately 900 of which are combat aircraft. The aircraft are a mix of foreign countries and indigenously built. Around 250 air-superiority, Su-30 MKI are in service and final number on order as on date is 314. Three squadrons each of upgraded MiG-29UPG are the second line of air-superiority aircraft. There are three squadrons of Mirage 2000-5 Mk II standard. One squadron of LCA Mk I under delivery and 4 Squadrons of LCA MK IA are on order and likely to join by 2024. 5 Squadrons of SEPECAT Jaguar being up graded to DARIN III standard and 2 Squadrons of MiG-27UPG form the dedicated strike force. 2018 onwards all MiG-21 squadrons other than the five squadrons of upgraded MiG-21 Bison will be phased out. 36 Dassault Rafale aircraft will begin inducting in 2019. Intentions to induct F-17 Block 70 or Gripen JAS 39 E/F class 200 single-engine fighters to be built in India have been announced. Order(s) for these may be placed around 2021.
The HAL-Sukhoi FGFA is still a work-in-progress and may induct earliest by 2022. Similarly HAL-DRDO AMCA is still on drawing boards and planned for induction around 2028. The first DRDO AEW&C Embraer ERJ 145 has just been inducted. 20 more are planned. IAF continues to operate the three EL/W-2000 Phalcon AEW&Cs and two more are on order. IAF has 7 IL-78 aerial tankers. The strategic lift capability includes 10 C-17 Globemaster IIIs and 17 IL-76. 5 C-130-J are for special operations and 7 more are on order. Nearly a 100 AN-32 are the medium lift fleet. They also have the para-drop and bombing role.
The 56 HS-748 Avro are being replaced by Airbus C295W to be built jointly with Tatas in India. IAF operates nearly 150 Mi-17 variants and around 100 Dhruv ALH and Chetak/Cheetah combinations. Two squadrons of Mi-25/35 attack helicopters will be replaced by Apache Longbow AH-64E by 2019. Similarly 15 Chinook Ch-47 F heavy-lift helicopters will induct by 2019. IAI Heron and Searcher UAVs and Harpy UCAVs form the unmanned fleet. Israeli SPYDER is the low-level quick reaction surface-to-air missile system with medium range. These are complimented by the indigenous Akash air defence missile system and the existing S-125 Pechora and OSA-AK systems. IAF also has the Prithvi-II short-range ballistic missiles.
Indo-Pakistan War Scenario
Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and IAF have had two full-fledged wars in 1965 and 1971. Both these wars ended in favour of IAF. For very long IAF has maintained a numerical edge over PAF of 3:1. With depletion of IAF’s combat squadrons, this edge is currently down to around 1.8:1. IAF has clear technological superiority. Once the current acquisition cycle is over, and IAF gets back to the authorised 42 squadrons, the edge should re-build. PAF is currently heavily committed on the Western border fighting home-grown terrorists who have begun to bite them. PAF is also an inherently air defence oriented force. As in the past, in a pure Indo-Pak war scenario PAF will be kept head-down by 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 IAF will be much better placed based on its larger weapon inventory and superior platforms.
China-India War Scenario
IAF faces seven Chinese airbases (Kashgar, Hotan, Gongar, Pangta, Linchi, Hoping, and Gar Gunsa) in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). Many more airfields in the Chengdu Military region would require PLAAF to over fly Myanmar. Most of the airfields in Tibet region have now been logistically well connected with eastern and central China. However these are all at relatively higher altitude and therefore have limitations on aircraft load carriage.
India has a chain of airfields from Leh and Nyoma in Ladakh to Chabua in the East. Important airfields for China Operations will include Srinagar, Ambala, Sarsawa, Bareilly, Gorakhpur, Bagdogra, Hashimara, and Tezpur among others. Most of IAF airfields are in the plains and will not have load carriage restrictions. India has also upgraded many Advance 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.
With world focus shifted towards Asia-Pacific, a Sino-Indian conflict in the near term would at best be localised. Unlike 1962, IAF today is a potent force and will inflict heavy losses in case of conflict. Also with Trump administration becoming conservative in trade policies and European economies shrinking, India remains an important market for China with over US $ 100 billion trade. They will not like to ‘hurt’ the goose that gives the golden egg.
Two Front War
China-Pak tie-up gives India a potential two-front theatre in the event of war with either country. In case of a localised war across LoC between India and Pakistan, China is likely to restrict itself to military supplies and diplomatic pressure. India is now a closer ally of USA and the Americans and Russians will prevent China from entering into a full war. On the other hand if there were to be Sino-Indian war, say limited to Arunachal, known for mis-adventures, Pakistan army may jump into the fray to avenge their repeated defeats. In such a
scenario India will have to balance its forces on both fronts. With the Current strength, the IAF will find it tough to take on both PLAAF and PAF. IAF requires at least 50 combat squadrons for a possible two front war.
Way Forward – India
The priority for IAF is to quickly rebuild the numbers to the authorised 42 squadrons. With the current allotments of around US$ 19 billion for Capital funding every year and with huge existing capital liabilities on existing schemes, funds for new acquisitions are too few. This year’s defence budget is mere 1.65 percent of the GDP. This needs to go up to 2.5 percent.
In a two-front war IAF will require to double the number AEW&Cs to at least 10. Also for inter theatre move of IAF and Indian Army assets, more heavy lift aircraft of C-17 and IL-76 class will be required, as will be more air fuellers. More heavy lift helicopters will be required for inter-valley movement of army assets.
IAF’s acquisition plans are gradually unfolding but have long way to go. After India has full nuclear capability in place, it should also make it clear that in case of two-front war it will have no choice but to exercise such an option.