INDIA vs CHINA I Is China preparing for a conflict with India?
In any future war against India, China will deploy its People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) in Tibet to bring targets in India within range of its strike aircraft. But Tibet has very few airfields and till recently, these did not have bomb-proof shelters for safe parking of fighter aircraft. Perhaps this was due to China’s threat perception being more focused towards Taiwan, Japan, North Korea and now South China Sea. Apparently, China considered the chances of conflict with India to be low. But, recent press reports (Hindustan Times October 03, 2018) indicate that China has built “underground bomb proof shelters” to park fighter aircraft at Lhasa’s Gonggar/Kongka Dzong airfield. While this small news item did not receive the attention it deserved in the Indian media, it is a message to India that China is preparing for a conflict.
The Lhasa airfield came up in 1968 and for almost 50 years, the Chinese never thought of making blast-pens for their fighter aircraft. Now, suddenly they have realised their short-coming after the Doklam showdown in 2017, in which Chinese and Indian troops were engaged in a tense 72-day stand-off in the tri junction area of India, Bhutan and Tibet. The Doklam crisis seems to have rattled the Chinese; India stood its ground and did not waver despite China’s bellicose attempts at psychological warfare with provocative statements in state media which fell on deaf ears in India. The situation was finally resolved diplomatically with both sides deciding to disengage troops from the area.
PLAAF Fighter Fleet
Since the 1990s, the PLAAF has been modernising at a rapid pace and today has a strength of around 2,100 combat aircraft (including those of PLA Naval Aviation) against 759 (Military Balance 2017) of the IAF (includes 45 Mig-29s of Indian Navy). But numbers do not tell the full story. China may be having a large air force, but only a small fleet of these aircraft can be deployed against India due to the limited number of airfields in Tibet. Almost 30 per cent of the PLAAFs combat aircraft force is of old generation fighter/attack aircraft such as the J-7 (Mig-21) and J-8. These old aircraft will be replaced in the next few years with new fourth/fifth-generation aircraft. The PLAAF has a strength of around 600 fourth-generation fighter aircraft such as the J-10, SU-27, J-11/ SU-30 and this number is likely to increase in the coming years with the PLAAF soon becoming a majority fourth/fifth generation fighter fleet.
China has built a new stealth fighter called the J-20 which entered service in September 2017, and another stealth aircraft, the J-31 is under development. The J-20 is a single seat, twin-engine fifth-generation fighter. It is bigger and heavier than the American F-22 Raptor and the Russian PAK FA T-50/SU-57. Not many details are available about the J-20’s performance, but from open source information and imagery, a brief assessment can be made of its capabilities. The chined nose and flat lower fuselage can reduce the J-20’s frontal Radar Cross Section (RCS). The J-20’s design also includes front canards which increases its RCS. Canard design is used to improve manoeuvrability, but the disadvantage is that its moving surface increases the radar reflecting surface. It is for this reason that no stealth aircraft such as the F-22, F-35, or SU-57 has canards.
The J-20s first flight was with Russian AL-31 engines and they are now powered by indigenous WS-10B as a stop gap measure till the under-development and more powerful WS-15 engine is ready. The WS-10B is not powerful enough to provide supercruise capability whereas the WS-15 can. China tried to procure Russia’s supercruise capable Saturn 117S engines for the J-20 but the Russians were hesitant to offer them knowing the Chinese tendency to reverse engineer. China therefore, decided to buy 24 SU-35 fighter aircraft from Russia to give them access to the SU-35s Saturn 117S engines. China has received 14 SU-35s from Russia and the balance ten aircraft will be delivered by end-2018. The SU-35 is a single-seat, twin-engine air superiority Russian fighter aircraft. It is an advanced version of the SU-27SK and SU-30MKK models which China had previously procured from Russia.
The induction of SU-35 by China marks the first time that Russia has supplied China a more powerful fighter aircraft compared with what it has supplied to India. In the past, the opposite was the rule. For example, the Su-30MKK fighters Russia sold to China were no match for the Su-30MKIs supplied to India at about the same time. The Chinese planes had inferior radar and without the thrust vectoring engines that the Indian version had. This time, the situation has been reversed with the SU-35 having more powerful engines and more sophisticated radar, weapons and avionics compared to the SU-30 MKI
PLAAF Concept of Operations
The PLA has a large number of Air Defence (AD) weapons to provide cover not only for the armoured formations but also for the infantry, artillery and other elements of the PLA army in the TBA. The PLAAF has a robust Integrated Air Defence System (IADS) with mobile Surface to Air Missiles (SAMs), Anti-Aircraft Artillery (AAA) guns and army AD elements integrated into the system. The PLAAF’s concept for air defence of the Tactical Battle Area (TBA) is based on the Soviet model of deploying a multi-layered mix of different weapons of varying performance capabilities and features so that there is dense coverage from low level to high level and extending into enemy air space. The Soviet concept was to give full freedom to Ground-Based Air Defence Weapon Systems (GBADWS) in the TBA. Anti-aircraft guns with very high rate of fire such as the Schilka ZSU-23 were also deployed in this mix to tackle low level targets. The PLAAF will also follow a similar concept in the TBA, with a with dense mix of mobile HQ-9 class of advanced long-range SAMs for area defence, medium-range HQ-16 SAM, Tor M-1 short-range, quick reaction SAM, HQ-7, shoulder-fired IR guided SAMs and a high rate of fire AAA guns.
Keeping the limitations of airfields in Tibet in mind and their reliance on SAMs and AD guns, the PLAAF is likely to rely heavily on GBADWS to achieve air superiority and move its army formations under heavy air defence cover. The airfields in Tibet are likely to be deployed with small numbers of interceptor aircraft for area air defence of gaps in the missile cover. While the PLAAF may consider reliance on GBADWS to be a good strategy, the system will have its limitations. The mountainous terrain and undulations in the Tibetan plateau will constrain the effectiveness of AD and fire control radars due to line-of-sight limitations. The concept of using GBADWS to gain air superiority is not new. It was used by Egypt against Israel in the 1973 War with impressive initial gains but the final result was disastrous for Egypt.
In the India-China context, China is likely to use the PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) conventional ballistic and cruise missiles as the main weapon for long range precision strike against India. This will leave the TBA airspace free for GBADWS to operate with full freedom without fear of fratricide. Fighter aircraft are likely to be used selectively for counter air with proper coordination with the AD organisation. It will be a daunting task for the IAF to attack the PLAAF AD cover. To target the mobile SAM sites, the IAF will require 24-hour ISR on enemy targets. If this capability is not there, then the IAF needs to build up this capability now and train to attack targets in mountainous terrain. The IAF will have to invest heavily in DEAD/SEAD to neutralise PLA missile cover.
Indian strategists need to plan for suitable counter attack capabilities against the PLAAF tanker and fighter bases in the rear areas…
The construction of tunnels for fighter aircraft in Lhasa airfield is a signal for India to get its act together. The political slugfest on the pros and cons of the Rafale deal needs to be resolved so that the IAF gets the required number of fighters promptly to cover its depleting numbers. The main advantage, that the PLA has, is in its Rocket Force’s conventional capability. However, given the diversity of airfields available to the IAF, and the accuracy required to shut down these airfields for an adequate period of time, the PLARF does not have the numbers to pose a significant missile threat. The IAF has proved it during Exercise ‘Gaganshakti’ that it has the capability to absorb Chinese missile attacks and operate from alternate airfields.
The Indian armed forces need not match the numerical superiority of the PLA in terms of manpower and equipment. There is no need for India to get into an arms race with China and match its inventory weapon for weapon. India needs to concentrate on maintaining a technological asymmetry to deter China from any attempts at coercion or to resolve disputes by use of force.
Source:- Indian Defence Review