While developments in Chinese airpower capabilities generally interests European and US military planners, People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s (PLAAF) aircraft operations especially in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) concerns the Indian security establishment. The PLAAF which has five airfields for full-fledged fighter operations in the TAR, added a sixth one earlier this year. These are primarily civilian airports that are now being enhanced to take on military operations.
Accordingly, increased Chinese fighter aircraft operations earlier this year at the Kashgar airfield, located 600 km north of Srinagar, has the potential to threaten Indian security interests considering the centre of gravity of the India-China boundary dispute is Tibet. Moreover, China now articulates its territorial claims on Arunachal Pradesh with greater assertion.
PLAAF’s fighter aircraft operations in the TAR were minimal over several decades. China’s primary focus has been and continues to be, in its eastern region and targets Taiwan, South China Sea and the West Pacific. Its strategic objective is to reduce, if not eliminate, US influence in the region. China has, in recent years, largely surmounted its technological challenges, particularly in air, space and naval capabilities. This enables Beijing to demonstrate its power projection more confidently.
Tibet continues to be the soft underbelly of China’s security interests. Its strategy to deal with this issue has been through rapid development of infrastructure in the TAR. It aids Beijing in two ways: firstly, it has created an extensive and modern infrastructure that would enable rapid deployment of its forces in any eventuality; secondly, all infrastructure developments naturally are accompanied by economic development of the region.
This, China hopes, would ultimately subdue and dissipate the resistance of the Tibetans overtime. The dual objective of infrastructure development now results in the next stage of strategic developments in TAR that exposes a clear shift in China’s strategy vis-à-vis India.
For over a decade, PLAAF has been on a drive to replace its obsolete 1950s Soviet design aircraft. It has downsized its numbers from 5,300 aircraft to about 2000 aircraft. Of these, the proportion of 4.5-generation fighter aircraft such as the J-10, Su-27/ Su-30MKK, and the J-11 is increasing rapidly, approaching 50 per cent of the fleet strength. The high altitudes of the TAR airfields impose severe limitations on flying fighter aircraft there. But this began to change with the induction of Su-27s and J-10s, accompanied by combat force multipliers such as air-to-air refuelling, Airborne Warning ACS, precision weapons, sensors, air-to-air missiles and advanced air defence systems centred around S-300s and S-400s.
Till 2010, PLAAF operations from TAR airfields did not exceed anything more than four or six aircraft detachments during good weather conditions and for not over two weeks. These were hardly noticeable.
However, this began to change from 2011 onwards. Detachment sizes began to increase to a minimum of six to eight aircraft and simultaneously in two airfields. The period of operations increased to three months which indicates a planned acclimatisation of its aircrew and airmen for high altitude operations.
From 2012, PLAAF operations have increased in frequency which culminates in winter operations during 2014 and a jump of over 300 per cent to about 1400 sorties. In 2012, PLAAF carried out weapon firing trials at high altitude ranges in the TAR for the first time in an integrated exercise. Today, two regiments of 24 aircraft, J-10s and J-11s, operate virtually on a permanent basis from the TAR airfields.
Modernisation of the PLAAF and the transformation in Chinese operational strategy are heavily influenced by their belief about the centrality of air and space capabilities. In tune with their ‘limited war under informatised conditions’, the Chinese have invested heavily in their air and space capabilities. Their operational philosophy in TAR focuses on strong air defence to create local air dominance, support to ground forces primarily for integrated airborne assault operations, and a strong strike capability centred on the Second Artillery.
Launch of satellites
Success of this strategy depends on a strong ‘Information, Surveillance, Reconnaissance’ capability. China’s aggressive launch of satellites in the last decade and its capabilities in multi-dimensional surveillance technologies, control over its own navigation and positioning satellite architecture, gives it significant control over its situational awareness.
India has advantages in terms of better airbase infrastructure, quality of aircraft with its highly trained aircrew and manpower, well integrated force multipliers, and the advantage of a favourable geography. However, its air bases remain vulnerable to the Second Artillery. The Chinese have explicitly articulated their operational doctrine where their first line of attack in any conflict would be the use of conventional missiles of the Second Artillery and the PLAAF’s Land Attack Cruise Missiles. The objective is to neutralise enemy airpower right at the start.
India’s ground based air defence has serious gaps and even induction of air defence Surface to Air Missiles will not address this vulnerability. The answer lies in creation of a similar conventional missile force, as an integral part of the IAF’s air defence structure, which would deter the Second Artillery. This could be based on Agni-3s and Brahmos missile systems, with the induction of LACMs when they materialise.
With the scheduled visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to China, considerable pressure would be mounted by the Chinese to leverage significant concessions from India on the boundary dispute. While the burgeoning economic and trade relations can help resolve the dispute, the Chinese have clearly indicated by their actions on the border that they would not make concessions that can diminish their current strategic advantage. New Delhi will need to keep in mind that negotiations can become meaningful only from positions of strength and deterrence.
(Air Marshal (rtd) M Matheswaran AVSM VM PhD, was the Deputy Chief of Integrated Defence Staff for Policy, Plans and Force Development, and Senior Air Staff Officer of Eastern Air Command headquartered at Shillong)