China/India — PLAAF Against India — Attrition Through Tibet?

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.