Three-year deadlock: air power remains main deterrent against China

By Praveer Purohit

Three years ago, during the months of April and May, as the world struggled with COVID, thousands of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers surreptitiously entered a large swath of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh. Like the Kargil burglaries, we were initially taken by surprise. However, once the size of the Chinese invaders was discerned, the Indian response was swift and sure. A counter-build of Indian troops to match the Chinese necessitated a rebalancing of our forces from the western borders to eastern Ladakh. Amidst the crisis in ensuring a swift, vigorous and effective Indian response, the most critical role of air power has probably been largely unknown and unsung.

An important metric for dealing with a crisis is responsiveness. It is this inherent quality of air power that came to the fore again. The IAF transport aircraft, namely the C-17, C-130J, IL-76 and An-32 responded enthusiastically and with their intrepid crew flew men, material and war assets to Leh. These operations were incessant, high risk and yet the IAF held its own. Most roads were still closed. Thanks to the IAF, India’s rapid build-up of the counter took both friend and foe by surprise. Military history buffs will remember that this wasn’t the first time the IAF (and the Air Force) had acted in such a way. The mobility and responsiveness of Air Force over Indian skies was featured in the pre-independence Hump Airlift. After independence, air force was the savior in many wars and warlike situations. These included the airlift to Srinagar in October 1947, the construction of an airlift to Poonch in December 1947 and Leh in May 1948, the landing of AMX-13 tanks at Chushul in 1962, the construction of an airlift to Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO ) in 1962, the Tangail paradrop drop & heli-lift over Meghna in the 1971 war, heli-lifting over an Indian Army brigade in vantage points during the Sumdorong Chu crisis, Operation Cactus and Operation Pawan. In most of these situations, tactical air operations resulted in strategic effects. If there had been no air force, the map of India might have looked different.

Coming back to the current crisis in Ladakh, the rapid introduction of troops by air has been followed by rapid deployment of numerous assets of the IAF ranging from fighters, helicopters, radars, air defense systems to combat activators. Troop maintenance was in a ‘hub and spoke’ model with larger C-17 and IL-76 flying material, cargo, rations and ammunition to Leh, from where the Chinooks, Mi-17, Dhruv and Cheetals flew them onwards to Leh . the ‘hot spots’. Even as these operations continued unabated, the battle fleet and newly hired Apache helicopters kept their powder dry. Extensive high-altitude work-up ensured they were ready to take the air war far into enemy airspace while ensuring their own integrity. In a tense environment where the ground forces were locked in an ‘eyeball to eyeball’ engagement, the IAF had obtained accurate target intelligence thanks to combat activators and space-based assets. The P-8I of the Indian Navy also played an important role in this. Combining the information gathered from various sources, refining the sensor-to-shooter process and ensuring proper cyber/electronic defenses kept the IAF planners and operations room staff extremely busy. It also ensured that the IAF was ready to conduct full-spectrum operations and that too in a short period of time. Or as it is called in aviation: “Before the Chinese could say Jack Robinson”!

Now imagine that you are the Chinese western theater commander. Seeing your opponent (in this case the IAF) balanced that well would turn the initial gung-ho attitude into one of utter disbelief. One of your staff officers would then tell you that the IAF has a long and checkered history of high-altitude operations. Another officer would add that the IAF’s deployment indicated that it was not an ‘air show’ but purely business. A smarter would then starkly remark that PLA would take unacceptable damage if the IAF fired furiously. In short, a euphemism for Chinese people who suffer ‘loss of face’. When you have realized this, choose the smart option: avoid conflict and build your own air force at the same time. This is exactly what the Chinese did.

The Indian Air Force has averted a setback in the Ladakh crisis for the first time. At the same time, it provided effective kinetic options if the situation deteriorated. Once realization dawned on the Chinese and talks began to defuse the situation, the Indian side was able to negotiate safely with confidence in our ability to inflict severe penalties if necessary. On a strategic and political level, the favorable asymmetry of air power bolstered our diplomatic efforts.

Shocked by the IAF’s response, the PLAAF has launched a frenzied effort to create and upgrade infrastructure essential to conducting high-speed air operations. To be sure, the PLAAF also deployed its top-notch fighters, including the J-20, for varying lengths of time. Open-source satellite imagery has revealed the extensive construction of runways, aircraft shelters, heliports, radar and missile sites. Chinese countermeasures include launching missiles, flying unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and deploying its fighters forward. The favorable asymmetry enjoyed by the IAF at the start of the crisis has certainly diminished in three years’ time. This has increased the challenges for the IAF, but also added targeting options. Clever, systematic and persistent attacks can wreak havoc on the Chinese, leading to ‘loss of combat capability’ and ‘loss of face’. Generating a larger favorable asymmetry is therefore a sine qua non. Our air power ecosystem with components outside the IAF must rise to the challenge. Strengthening our production capacity, timely delivery by the aviation industry, quality and reliable supply chain, faster procurement cycles, sufficiency of funds and guaranteed support for the development of the IAF force structure are all important.

The Chinese like to play mind games. More offenses since 2013 along the LAC and our land-centric fixation gave them the psychological advantage. Our willingness and ability to inflict severe punitive damages through the space domain has changed Chinese calculations. The Indian Air Force manifested through the IAF created psychological dominance over the Chinese. There are many lessons to be learned from the confrontation in Ladakh. Those who stand out are the first, wars are won or lost in the mind. The psychological aspects of war therefore require more attention. Secondly, of all domains, Air Force (or Aerospace Force) has the greatest ability to cause devastating psychological paralysis/dissonance in the adversary. Finally, air power is and will remain the most powerful and effective deterrent against China. It must therefore be strengthened with adequate resources and strength maintained according to IAF doctrine.

About the author: He recently retired from the IAF as Group Captain. He has more than 5500 hours of flying experience, including in combat zones.

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policies of Financial Express Online. Reproduction of this content without permission is prohibited.

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