An in-depth analysis of Chinese Airpower in Tibet and what we need to counter this growing threat. There are a total of 14 airfields of concern. However increasing air refuelling capability in future will increase their numbers. PLAAF can deploy around 16 squadrons in these airfields. Lt Gen Liu Yazhou, considered Douhet of China, said PLAAF’S first task is to gain command of air fighting in a local war under high tech conditions. Out of 1,600 plus combat aircraft with China, around 400 aircraft are 4th generation. H‑6 will carry air launched cruise missile of 1,400 km plus range. In Tibet area its airfields lie within 300 to 1,000 km from IAF bases. Most of the airfields are at high elevation. The high altitude of TAR will reduce bomb load to around one third that of sea level. But today’s PGMs have reduced the required bomb load for target destruction significantly. Air refuelling and high performance of Su-27, Su-30 and J‑10 will offset altitude disadvantage to quite an extent. Its old bombers carrying long range cruise missile will be still effective.
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This article examines what role the PLAAF is likely to play in the unfortunate event of another Sino-Indian conflict. Both China and India are continental size nations. This geographical realty, the past non-aggressive history of both and the contemporary views on wars to occupy other’s territory rule out war for territorial conquest. This rules out the possibility of a total unlimited war, so characteristic of WW I and WW II.
The terrain adjoining border areas in Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) is at an average elevation of about 14–15,000 feet above mean sea level. It is a cold desert devoid of major habitation and any industries. It is not a target rich area for air strikes. The road–rail network is far more extensive in Tibet compared to Indian side. Generally Chinese military posts look down at Indian posts located at lower altitudes. The Indian side is marked by steep climb towards the border and prone to frequent landslides. The logistics build-up and / or troop’s relocation from one area to another is highly time consuming and seasonal due to climatic compulsions. The border is 4,000 km plus. Nepal and Bhutan situated as buffer states over nearly 1,500 km border results in problem in surveillance and detection should Chinese decide to invade from these areas as attack avenues.
High altitude acclimatisation, a necessity for both sides, is easier for Chinese. Because the TAR itself is on high plateau. On Indian side post acclimatisation, troops are restricted to that area only. Movement to another area entails coming down, moving laterally and climbing up again. It is a cycle of acclimatise, de-acclimatise and again acclimatise. It is a slow process requiring weeks. This severely restricts freedom to move troops quickly from one area to another. Napoleonic movements are out of question. This means that in order to defend everywhere we need dedicated troops in each area. To attempt this on a border extending over 4,000 kms will need phenomenal number of troops — a near impossibility.
Control of the air is the fundamental requirement to defeat Chinese misadventure. In addition the AWACS cover in TAR will provide immense safety to our strike aircraft from PLAAF fighters, keeping attrition within acceptable limit. If we do not keep attrition under control then again we would lose the war
The targets on Chinese side, destruction of which could cause pain, are located far away from the border. The heartland of China, east and South-east China starts at an average distance of 1,000–1,500 km from our airfields. The heartland is around 2,500–3,000 km. They are far too distant for air power to destroy as it exists today in the IAF.
Conventional warfare requires 3:1 numerical superiority for the attacker in plains. Highly contested, obstacle ridden plains require a ratio of around 5:1. In mountains this ratio shoots up to 10:1. If required China can bring in 30 divisions in TAR. They can relocate much faster at places of attack. If India decides to go on an offensive imagine the forces required?
Appreciating the compulsion of topographical disadvantage, the then Army Commander in 1960, Lt Gen Thorat had suggested his strategy. His pragmatic plan proposed purposeful escalation of war wherein Chinese would advance down the mountains in to Assam plains. These plains would then be used as killing grounds by our forces after interdicting Chinese supply.
Likely war objectives
The border dispute can be used as an excuse to start a war as the strategic competition between China and India hots up in the future. Should this happen what are likely to be the war objectives? China’s aim would be to put India in a secondary status. A military defeat along with economic and industrial disruption would be the obvious aim. Large scale territorial occupation most unlikely. To make military defeat convincing cutting off North-east India at Chumbi Valley-Silliguri corridor would be ideal. North-east India could be restored to India after imposing humiliating terms in Ladakh region. In worst case China may not revert Arunachal.
India’s objective would be to defend its territory and to defeat China’s aggression. Command of air would be sought by both sides fiercely to ensure freedom for ground forces movement. Both sides would avoid major escalation of war due to nuclear backdrop. But here Chinese nuclear superiority would tilt balance and flexibility in their side. If India was to adopt Mao’s strategy of 50s, then she can avoid nuclear blackmail. In a speech at Moscow in 1957, Mao stated that China was willing to lose half its population to atomic attacks i.e. 300 million Chinese. It’s no great loss as China can again produce new citizens. But it will not succumb to Atomic Paper Tigers. In more recent times starting from Deng Xiaoping himself and later by Lt Gen Liu Yazhou, considered Douhet of China, PLAAF’S first task is to gain command of air fighting in a local war under high-tech conditions.