Air war over Aksai Chin: How China is at a great disadvantage
Year of Rat 2020 has not been good for the world, especially for China, a country with a Middle Kingdom mindset. I would prefer calling China as Panda rather than a Dragon. Dragon is a wrong epithet for a country which behaves in a cowardly fashion with its neighbours.
Towards the end of 2019, China unleashed Wuhan Virus aka COVID-19 upon the world. It led to huge loss of life, loss of livelihood and stress on economy in most countries. In a desperate attempt to draw away the limelight on this atrocity on the world China does what most autocratic government do, ‘go to war’ with nations, least foment trouble to take away the focus from Chinese created COVID-19.
The killing of 20 Indian soldiers of Indian Army including the Commanding Officer was one such lame attempt by the Panda. Visit of PM Narendra Modi to Leh in this aspect is an important step. Apart from the fact that it motivates the forces there, it is also a political signalling to China and the World that India is no longer going to take it as it did in the past, meekly. Panda has a big army and Air Force with a lot of reverse engineered fighters. Claims of their capability is albeit questionable. If panda decides to engage with India how can Indian Air Force swing and probably finish the battle in few days is what we are going to see.
Terrain is going to play a major role in the war with Panda. Both for Army to Army engagements and for Air operations. Let’s see the aspects of terrain that is going to shape the battle in favour of India. Let‘s see each attribute separately.
Army to Army Contact: Panda is going to fight India at high altitudes on surface. Area of contact is going to range from 10,000 feet to 14,000 feet. To put things in perspective, normally, human beings would need additional oxygen above 10,000 feet unless he/she is acclimatized, which is a process that can take anywhere from 7-20 days depending upon the final altitude. This is not a major disadvantage for him as it is for us, because Panda’s soldiers would travel to these regions over higher altitude acclimatizing in the process.
What is really going to bake his cookie is when he uproots forces from east which is at sea level and inducts them into high altitude through air. Acclimatization timing for these soldiers is going to be so high that war would be over by then. This also means China cannot induct fresh forces from plains when his force level depletes due Air Interdiction by IAF and by India Army action. This needs to be understood by the readers clearly.
Air Bases available for Chinese Army Air Force Operations: Unlike Indian Air Force, Chinese Air Force is called PLAAF (People’s Liberation Army Air Force), yes, it’s Air Force is subservient to its Army. At higher levels it is the Army General who is going to decide how the air arm will be applied, strategically. This could well prove to be the Achilles heels for PLAAF. To add to its woes is the lack of airbase in this region. I have drawn two circles with the centre at area of force application near Aksai Chin. I have not marked Indian bases though for obvious reasons, while it is no secret.
500 km radius: At 500 km radius, which is more or less the radius that is viable for Air operations using fighters without air-air refuelling giving an over target time of 15 minutes to an hour depending on the engagement at the place of force application, in our case area near Galwan Valley. As you can see in the 500 km circle, China has only two air bases namely Hotan and Ngari Kunsa. Hotan is a proper military airfield (with no Hardened Aircraft Shelter, waiting to be cleaned up by IAF) while Ngari Kunsa is at 14,000 feet with minimal facility for Fighter Operations.
1000 km radius: I have also drawn a 1000 km radius circle from the area of force application. At a thousand km radius Kasi, Kashgar gets added to Chinese potential. Korla & Xicun which are bases either side of Bosten lake and Urumqi Air Base are situated at 1300 to 1500 km.
Indian Potential at these Distances: At these distances Indian potential is disproportionality high. In fact, the entire IAF’s might be brought to bear on Panda. For example, from these ranges IAF could launch from Srinagar, Udampur, Leh, Daulat Baig Oldie, Nyoma, Chusul, Pathankot, Adampur, Halwara, Bhatinda, Sirsa, Chandigarh, Ambala, Amritsar, Jammu, Jodpur, Jaisalmer, Utarlai, Hindon, Barielly, Agra, Gwalior etc. They all are situated at much lower altitudes which offers realisation of full potential of the aeroplanes operating from it with an exception of Airfields in Ladakh & Srinagar.
On Station time: IAF operating from above mentioned bases can take off from lower altitude with full loadout while China suffers badly due to hot and high conditions. IAF can take off from rear bases, operate over the area for at least 2X to 6X time than China and recover to a nearer base, refuel and be on business in a matter of 45 mins. While PLAAF aeroplanes need to go back 500 to 1000 km for refuelling.
Hot and High: Every degree temperature increase at high altitude airfields matters. It puts a lot of restriction on the aeroplanes. An airbus class of aeroplane can land there with full load, however at high temperature cannot take off with ¼ of the load it landed with. That is why you will see all flights to Leh or for that matter to Ngari Kunsa on the Chinese side finishes before 10.00 AM.
Use of Air to Air Refuelers: Some so called experts are Gung ho about Chinese Air-Air refuellers. To burst their bubble Air-Air refuellers are not panacea to the problem of fewer bases that Chinese has in this region. Air to Air refuellers are of two types ‘Drogue and Probe’ and ‘Boom and Socket’. Boom and Socket is used only by Americans (it has remarkably high fuel transfer rate). Drogue and Probe is what rest of the world uses. Issues with this type is the fuel transfer rate is just enough to refuel 5-7 aeroplanes because China needs to launch with full fuel from a lower altitude airfield and travel a long distance to give fuel to thirsty fighters over ‘Takla Makan’ regions. Time taken for the refueler to travel, refuelling time, protection required for the refueller itself (Lest it is shot out of the sky by Indian Fighters) etc makes Air – Air refuelling options for Chinese a near impossible feat. By no means I am saying they will not do it. They will, for some special missions. But they cannot do it for day to day operations.
Chinese Army: Sitting Ducks: I make this statement with utmost responsibility. No Army operations can happen without Air Defence cover. Only Air defence cover that Chinese army can have its integral Surface to Air Missiles (SAMs). SAMs have their own issues, starting with issues of range, requirement of radar (which are susceptible to jamming) and Army’s inability to operate outside the Air Defence envelope provided by their SAMs. Do not count S-400 as integral AD weapon. S-400 is a mammoth system which can be moved but cannot be hidden. If moved forward it will be taken out by Mirage 2000 using Crystal Maze or Su-30 with Brahmos or from a Surface launched Brahmos. Chinese Army will be severely constrained in movement and operations. Once their Air Defence weapons are addressed by IAF through SEAD / DEAD (Suppression / Destruction of Enemy Air Defence) PLA will be sitting ducks for IAF to pick and target. Adding to their woes is approach to Galwan valley which provides no natural protection (it’s an open desert), making interdiction by IAF fighters and attack helicopters even easier.
Chinese Rocket Force: This used to be called Second Artillery, an independent force which has more of Surface to Surface missiles (SSM) than Rockets in them. It is called Rocket force because in Mandarin Rocket & SSM are called rockets. Imagine two things, firstly firing an SSM against any country. Target country cannot know whether it is nuclear tipped or not. Therefore, target country is free to respond the way it perceives. Taking worst case scenario, nothing stops India retaliating with its IRBM. Will China take that chance? Secondly, conventionally tipped these SSMs are what I call ‘Non Return Fighter Aeroplane’. They are as costly as a fighter aeroplane carrying a 500 kg bomb (Su 30 carries 8 tons of bombs) and they are one time use only. Will a Chinese general press the button unless he is damn sure of the target? Will he fire against a target that can move (Like aeroplanes / army forces on ground)? Will he fire against a target on whom accurate intel is not available? All these making mountain out of a mole hill by arm chair enthusiasts can’t be far from reality. These doomsday chiliasts need to study more and look at things logically.
What will be the Outcome for China?
Answer to this question is quite simple, it will be a one long graveyard from Galwan to Kashgar and Lhasa. China cannot afford fighting with India in the area that it has shown its tentacles. Xi Jinping is being advised by Generals who do not know Air War. He is being led down the garden path by generals with ambition. If push comes to shove and if the war happens, I hope they commit massive force in this region for IAF to do target practice and decimate them even before it encounters our army.
(Group Captain MJA Vinod was in charge of operations for Northeast during his tenure as CATSPAW - Command Air Tasking And Strike Planning for Aerial Warfare - in Shillong, Meghalaya. He was also conferred with Vishisht Sewa Medal by the President of India for establishing CATSPAW. He served four tenures in Northeast from Sikkim sector to the Eastern most base. He is an MPhil and a PhD scholar in international relations and strategic studies. Views expressed are personal)