Indian vs Chinese Air Force: Is the Indian Air Force superior to the Chinese PLAF?
A full-scale or limited war between India and China, despite several rounds of intense negotiations, cannot be ruled out yet. Experts have consistently compared the Indian Army against the Chinese PLA troops.
With 1700+ combat aircraft, the Chinese air force (PLAAF) is ahead of India in numbers, but India has a strategic advantage in the current face off in Ladakh. Let us understand how.
The PLAAF is divided into 5 commands:
Eastern Theatre Command
Southern Theatre Command
Western Theatre Command
Northern Theatre Command
Central Theatre Command
These 5 commands have many squadrons & the fighter & bomber squadrons are depicted in yellow dots in the map below:
If you observe, China is literally huge. Even though they have 3000+ aircraft, all these are scattered & mostly concentrated on the Eastern side. This is due to the permanent dominance that China wishes to establish in the South China Sea, Yellow Sea & the East China Sea.
Also it is surrounded by military enemies from all sides. South Korea & Japan are U.S Allies & hence there is always a threat in the East China Sea in the eastern region. Waters near Taiwan & South China Sea is already heavily disputed.
Adding to that, U.S Navy has dispatched 3 of its Nimitz Class aircraft carriers against Chinese aggression in the South China Sea.
Hence in all these regions, China cannot afford to lower it’s guard and hence cannot mobilize it’s air force towards India.
Coming to the aircraft.
China has 1700+ combat capable aircraft. That means Fighters & Bombers. Close to 700 of these are H-6, J-7 (copy of MiG-21) & J-8 which are extremely old aircraft. These are not even upgraded variant like IAF’s MiG-21 Bison. Hence the combat capabilities of these aircraft are questionable.
With the bulk of Chinese combat squadron composed of these old aircraft, the geography of Chinese airbases look like this:
So it is left with about 1000 aircraft half of which is Su-30 or it’s licensed variant like the J-11 & J-16. These are no match against IAF’s 270+ Su-30MKI which is globally known as the most advanced variant of the Su-30.
The rest of the aircraft are JH-7 fighter-bomber & the J-10 Multirole combat aircraft, which are pretty decent aircraft in their league.
Further China operates the Su-35 which is the most fearsome aircraft in their inventory but this is based in the extreme south near the South China Sea & with 24 of these, it’s not a cause of worry for India. J-20 stealth fighter is another advanced fighter with China but as per open sources, it is not fully operational & pilots don’t have combat training on the aircraft.
If you see the map with placing the international borders & LAC at place you’ll notice how far are the Chinese airbases from the Indo-China border. China might have undisclosed airbases in Tibet or might operate it’s fighters from Tibet to confront India from a closer distance but when the actual fight starts, due to the immense distance between Tibet & mainland China, the PLAAF might face logistical issue.
What we know is China is using the Ngari Gunsa airport located at 14,000 feet in Tibet for fighter operations. This airbase is located approximately 200 km from Pangyong lake.
Here, the advantage gained by its location close to the Line of Actual Control is balanced by the reality that fighter jets deployed at such an altitude can only carry limited war-loads and fuels.
At an event of an actual aerial combat started between India & China, China would mobilize some of it’s Su-30MKK, Su-27SK, J-11 & J-16 to forward bases in Tibet but in my knowledge sustaining high availability of fighter operations on a daily basis is going to be a logistical nightmare for the PLAAF because of the large distance between these airfields & the mainland China region.
Also PLAAF might operate from POK. Pakistan would be happy to share it’s airbases in the region with China. But again Logistics is going to be an issue with China in case it chooses to engage IAF in the air.
At any given point of time, China would be able to utilize only 40% of it’s air force to engage with India thanks to it’s vast territory & ongoing issue in east & South China Sea.
Chinese Surface To Air Missiles – Biggest Threat?
Following heightened tensions at the border and with the current deployment of French Rafales by the IAF in the Ladakh region, PLAGF (PLA Ground Force) has deployed their HQ-9 long-range air defence systems along the de-facto border between India and China.
It has been reported that the PLA’s air defense infrastructure is being constructed roughly 50 km from the known clash points of the 2017 Doklam and 2020 clash points, with satellite images also revealing that Beijing is reportedly constructing a surface-to-air missile site as well as other infrastructure on the banks of the Mansarovar Lake in the India-Nepal-China tri-junction area.
Air Chief Marshal B. S Dhanoa, had earlier issued a warning when talking about the tense border situation that the “Chinese Air Threat is mainly from their Surface to Air Missile Systems” (and not by its fighter jets)
China boasts of one of the world’s largest inventories of advanced long-range surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems incorporated into SA-20 battalions which comprise of imported technology from Russia and indigenously-produced CSA-9 (HQ-9) which have been deployed along the LAC.
China also possesses the world’s most feared missile defense systems in the world – the Russian-made S-400. The S-400 missiles which many experts believe even pose a threat to the stealth F-35 jets due to their stealth-tracing capabilities and can intercept aerial targets from a range of 400 kilometers, ensuring a sturdy defensive wall against Indian fighters.
However, Dhanoa says that the firepower at the hands of the IAF through their newly acquired French Rafales and other aircraft can be used to penetrate the Chinese Air Defence Systems.
“If the IAF is successful in the destruction of enemy air defences and suppression of enemy air defences, then the Chinese fighters out in the open at Hotan airbase and at Gonggar airbase at Lhasa airport are fair targets. Some 70 Chinese aircraft are without protection at Hotan and some 26 aircraft may be parked inside a tunnel which the PLA were building at Lhasa airbase,” said Dhanoa
Coming to the story of India & IAF.
IAF has an estimated 270 fighters and 68 ground attack aircraft across its three China-facing commands. It is also expanding its network of Advanced Landing Grounds (ALGs), which constitute small air bases in forward locations to provide staging grounds and logistics hubs for aircraft strike missions.
In the Western Air Command, the IAF possesses around 75 fighters and 34 ground attack aircraft, besides 5 ALGs close to Chinese Tibetan areas. The Central Air Command features around 94 fighters, 34 ground attack aircraft, and one ALG.
The Eastern Air Command hosts around 101 fighters and 9 ALGs. Most importantly, the Indian Army and the IAF are stationed very close to China’s border, thus shortening their mobilization time and limiting the prospects of a successful Chinese cross-border advance.
The Chinese PLAAF, on the other hand, suffers from a numerical disparity to the IAF in the border region. Unlike the tripartite organizational division of Chinese ground forces facing India, the Western Theater Command has assumed control of all regional strike aircraft. In total, this amounts to around 157 fighters and a varied drone armoury.
The most significant PLAAF forward air bases and airfields near Indian border areas are located at Hotan, Lhasa/Gonggar, Ngari-Gunsa, and Xigaze and are vulnerable to a dedicated Indian offensive.
IAF pilots are superior in training as they train year round not only in the country but also in various joint exercises with many nations. This gives us the chance to learn & adapt to new tactics of aerial engagement. China hardly gets a chance to do that.
An Indian Pilot along with Su-30MKI is the most lethal man-machine combination in the entire world. Indian Su-30MKI has beaten RAF Typhoon as well as USAF F-15 Eagle in simulated combat. This speaks volumes of the capabilities & the skills of IAF pilots that they have acquired over years of rigorous training.
Indian pilots undergo about 250–300 hours of combat training annually where as Chinese pilots have about 100–150 hours of training.
Adding all these points, not underestimating the huge aircraft inventory of the Chinese air force & totally not deciding based on my nationality, I think IAF has an edge over the Chinese air force as far as the current Ladakh situation is considered.
Source:- Subhadeep Paul Quora