The Standoff at Ladakh continues. The Chinese side has gained ground. Indian Media is reporting heavy reinforcements deployed by the Indian side. Chinese media hasn’t reported much but open sources suggest that the Chinese already have presence in the area. The Chinese advances in the Ladakh region have stunned the Indian political leadership which was confident after revoking Article 370 from their constitution that denies Kashmir it’s status as disputed territory, after revocation of Article 370 Kashmir is now constituted as union territory of Indian that is direct violation of many treaties and UN mandate regarding the longest standing dispute pending with the United Nations.
Many experts believe such move by the Chinese is aimed reinstatement of status of Kashmir as disputed territory as China is indispensable party. Moreover China’s economic interest in Gilgit Baltistan region needs to be protected, Gilgit Baltistan is Pakistani territory but being adjacent to Indian controlled Kashmir makes Chinese interests there vulnerable, hence ensuring security and eliminating any possibility of Indian intervention in the region is to be eliminated. By revoking article 370 India showed its aggressive intend to attack the Pakistani side of Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan. Both China and Pakistan have common interests in the region.
Air power of both sides
People’s Liberation Army has placed large number of its troops and armoured fighting vehicles to the contested region, large formations of PLA are placed on rear as reserves. Indian Army has mobilised large formations in attempt to mirror the deployments. Indian Airforce’s transport fleet is playing its role in mobilising armoured vehicles and other equipment to the north. IAF C-17s, An-32s and IL-76s have undertaken sorties to transport anti-aircraft guns, artillery pieces, tanks, armoured vehicles among other heavy and light equipment to conflict zone.
People’s Liberation Army Airforce’s premiere Base of Operations in the region is Ngar Gunsa Airport which is located at 14,000 feet above sea level. PLAAF’s heavy flankers cannot operate out of this with full mission load that includes fuel and armaments. IAF looks satisfied and feels a little ease as PLAAF’s operational capability out of Ngar Gunsa is limited but this short coming can easily be solved with little tactics and employment of aerial refueling. Even without that still PLAAF planes can operate in the area with air to air weapons to face any IAF intrusion in the area.
Emergency Acquisitions by IAF
In case the situation takes least likely but most violent turn, both ground forces start engaging each other and both airforces are called in to action both sides have capable planes to wedge against each other. Since Chinese side is dug into fighting positions in case IAF has to play combat role it will have to conduct precision strikes. IAF has stand-off attack capabilities but not long ranged enough to keep striker birds away from PLAAF BVR Missiles and Surface to Air Missiles. IAF will either have to secure local air superiority by shooting PLAAF birds or execute a surgical strike without engaging PLAAF in air to air combat. However both seem near impossible for IAF as PLA already has tons of air defence measures and PLAAF is also vigilant on scene.
Indian Airforce is making emergency purchases of 12 Su-30MKI heavy combat jets, and 21 Mig-29 Airframes are being acquired from Russia. Defence Acquisition Committee approved 1.44 billion dollars for the purchase of 12 Su-30MKI aircrafts from Hindustan Aeronautics Limited which has licensed production facility of Su-30MKIs at Nasthik in Maharashtra. For the cost of 992 million dollars 21 Surplus Mig-29 airframes would be acquired from Russia along with UPG upgrade kits.
It is being widely believed that these acquisitions are being done in lieu of recent tensions with China, but these acquisitions were on the table since very long. Su-30MKI Acquisitions are there to cover up losses of airframes in accidents. 11 Su-30MKIs have been lost to accidents and 1 is claimed to have been shot down by Pakistan Airforce in 2019 February Clash. Mig-29 Acquisitions are there as supplementary numbers to cover up gaps caused by fleet obsolesce. United States has urged India to rethink over its planned acquisition of Russian fighter jets, a move that risks potential sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).
It’s widely reported by Indian side that an allied country has provided India with a state of the art surface to air missile system. Believed to be Israel providing India with David Sling SAM system. But however it seems impossible as India has no experience of operating David Sling SAM and for obvious political Reasons Israel can’t deploy it’s personnels against China.
New Challenges for IAF
As per the IAF itself the minimum required number of Squadrons for the Indian Airforce is 42 however as of now number of operational Squadrons available with IAF is as low as 23. Even those 23 Squadrons are struggling to maintain / keeping optimum number of their jets available for operational duties. IAF’s Ark Rival Pakistan Airforce maintains a large fleet, 5 Multirole Squadrons of F-16s, 5 Multirole Squadrons of JF-17s and 6 Tactical Attack Squadrons consisting Mirage ROSE aircrafts are positioned by PAF to take on any contingency with India. Indian Airforce has been made well conversant with capabilities that PAF can put up against them. To keep PAF at by huge operational commitments are required from IAF on its western border against PAF.
India’s long awaited Rafales are scheduled to arrive on 27th July 2020, ground infrastructure has been set up at Amballa Airforce Station of IAF, but Rafales won’t be pushed into operational flying in disputed region unless IAF is politically pressured to do so. Rafales would take some time before taking full operational duties in IAF.
In present conditions and in near future IAF cannot play any significant role in turning tables in favour of India. The Capabilities PLAAF possess as of now and which are in rapid process of acquisition have outpaced the Indian Airforce. Pakistan Airforce has budgetary constraints but seem to be making the most out of what they have.
PAF was considered as the primary rival of IAF but recent Standoff is clearly showing PLAAF is also an adversary to be taken care of. China and Pakistan are strategic partners and are willing to protect each other’s interest by combine effort. So IAF now has two major rivals to counter and huge fleet obsolesce to cover up and large numbers to fill up. As well as IAF also needs to work on its tactical approach in which domain it is far behind it’s Ark rival PAF.
Induction of Rafale and Tejas are good signs but they are not enough to meet IAF’s requirements. Rafale will introduce many weapons and will improve standoff capabilities but their number is limited and requirements are far greater. However even these limited numbers have opened doors for IAF to join in many international exercises and learn allot more things and Improve existing ones, this a great opportunity for IAF which seems to be lacking innovation and suitable tactical enhancements.
Introduction of Astra BVR Missile is also a good sign but it is yet to be seen how well it performs. MMRCA 2.0 is whole another chapter, it’s desperate requirement but there are multiple obstructing factors that first need to be addressed. IAF’s only focus on its western border Pakistan centric planning has left it vulnerable now when threat is coming from north also. PLAAF is new guest to the party. Now it’s PLAAF PAF vs IAF. IAF’s own miscalculation, Miss handling, lack of long term planning and fore seeing has now come to haunt them.
These errors were mainly caused by political interventions in acquisition process, leadership crisis in IAF and root level mismanagement. I personally have very optimistic expectations from ACM RKS Bhadauria but at the same time I have my concerns on political interventions in IAF’s operational matters. IAF has allot to go through, in simple words IAF only half now (23 Sqns) it has to complete itself (42 Sqns).
A lot to learn in terms of tactics and strategies as well. IAF needs to learn how to improve its engineering capabilities. Also to improve its maintenance standards by improving training of maintenance crews and ground staff. All goals can only be achieved once not only IAF but all branches of Indian military are free from political interference. An Ideal IAF’s ultimate goal is to compliment India’s political goals in the region and the world.