China ‘Zooming Ahead’ As World’s Mightiest & Meanest Air Force; But Why Has PLAAF Shied Away From Aerial Battle With India?

Scars of the 1962 debacle against China remain in our thought, and most Indians believe that ‘The Dragon’ might swallow India if it decides to do so. This template remains fixated in Indian minds courtesy of our strategists, who project China as a superpower vis-à-vis India.

One of the most critical and pertinent questions that these strategists do not address is the fact as to why the Chinese Army withdrew after having reached strategically important Tezpur in North-East India.

The answer is elementary – non-existent logistics infrastructure.

China illegally occupies 37,185 sq km, called Aksai Chin. In addition, Pakistan ceded 5187 sq km to China for building the Karakoram highway. China claims the entire Arunachal as well as territory in and around Tawang.

But these remain as claims only. Yet another essential aspect is the non-participation of the Chinese military during the 1965 and 1971 wars with Pakistan. Likewise, China maintained a clear distance during the 1999 Kargil conflict.

If China is as powerful as is projected/deemed by numerous strategists, including from the military, why is it that China avoids escalation of hostilities? Be it the Sum Darang Cho incident nearly four decades ago or the Galwan clash recently, China does not allow further escalation.

The verbal war continues. The Indo-China border issue is complex and unlikely to be resolved soon. Hence, the instability in relations and uneasy peace will continue.

Chinese Limitations

China is severely handicapped by its inability to bring its Air Power to neutralize the highly offensive posture of the IAF. Due to distance, the Chinese Air Force (PLAAF) cannot access the Indo-China border from its airfields in mainland China.

PLAAF has tried to build nearly a dozen airfields in Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). PLAAF capability from these airfields will remain extremely limited due to the elevation of airfields in TAR, which is at least three kilometers or more.

Peoples Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF)

Chinese Theater Command concept has placed Chinese Air Power elements under the command of the Army, hence the nomenclature. China has five Theater Commands. China’s Western Theater Command controls operations in Xinjiang, TAR, and the border with India.

Regarding the number of aircraft, the Chinese Air Force is our neighborhood’s largest Air Power segment. The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) is the third largest in the world. When we look at PLAAF capability in India, we examine PLAAF operational capability ex Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR).

J-10C fighter jets of the PLAAF (via Twitter)

To evaluate PLAAF capability ex TAR, understanding regional geography and terrain is essential. Out of seven military Regions (MR) of the Chinese military, two are opposite India.

LANZHOU (MR) is opposite the Ladakh sector, and CHENGDU (MR) is opposite the northeastern region. The MRs are further subdivided into Military Districts (MDs). MDs facing us are:

  • Chengdu MR. Two MDs in this region are YUNAN (opposite Myanmar) and Xizang (opposite Assam, Sikkim, and Arunachal).
  • Lanzhou MR. South Xinjiang MD (opposite UP, HP, and Ladakh). East Xinjiang faces us, adjoining Ladakh.

PLAAF Airfields

There are 15 operational bases in these two regions from where PLAAF can launch air operations. If the airfields located in probable Tactical Battle Areas (TBA) are considered, the number reduces to five. These airfields are:-

  • Khotan (Lanzhou MR)
  • Hoping
  • Kongka Dzong (Chengdu MR)
  • Donshoon
  • Pangta

Except for Khotan, the other four airfields are at an average location of around 4000 meters. Khotan, at 1400 meters, is nearly at the same elevation as Srinagar. Pilots who have operated from Srinagar would understand the problems better.

Simply stated, an airplane and human being is identically affected by altitude. Both start puffing and panting with an increase in altitude. The load-carrying capacity drops markedly.

Due to high actual air speed at an altitude corresponding to the same indicated airspeed, landing and take-off runs are excessively long.

The remaining ten airfields in the region are Kashgar, Kunming, Paoshan, Jekundo, Chengdu, Petun, Mangshi, Nagchuka I & II, and Kantse.

PLAAF continues to depend upon obsolete/obsolescent aeroplanes viz Q-5, IL- 28, J-8, Tu-16 etc. The modern fleet comprises a mix of Su-27/30, JF-17, and J-20. Even a Su-30 will reach the TBA with minimal load due to the distances involved.

Q-5, IL-28, and J-8 are ineffective regarding action and load-carrying capacity radii. Tu-16 can be used with a sufficient load, but its employment in hilly terrain is highly doubtful.

Radar cover at medium and high levels is satisfactory despite vintage radars being operated. However, the low-level cover is virtually non-existent/ineffective due to terrain and fewer radars.

Most of the airfields have dedicated radar located at the base. The first-generation air defense weapons are the only protection available. The deployment of low-level SAMs is limited.

File: J-20 fighter jet/Twitter

Airlift Capability

The Airlift capability of PLAAF is extremely limited due to the exponential reduction in load-carrying capacity at high altitudes. For instance, an IL 76 of the IAF can carry 40 tons from Chandigarh to Leh.

But on the return trip Leh-Chandigarh, it will barely carry less than half the load, may be lesser. Likewise, heli-lift capability reduces exponentially.

Even as a concept using helicopters for large-scale troop/equipment transfer within TAR is well nigh impossible; for instance, a Mi-17, which can lift around 2000kg at sea level, will carry a mere few hundred kg at PLAAF airfields. The capability to airdrop a fully equipped battalion-size force is unachievable.

Enhancement Of Capability With Force Multipliers

Force multipliers viz mid-air refuellers, airborne warning, and control systems, if used by PLAAF, will enhance their capability by a few notches but will remain well below the force levels required to cause any substantive attrition.


For eight months in a year (September to April), operations will be severely affected due to extremely low temperatures, icy strong surface winds, and extensive ice accumulation over the runway.

Few airfields, particularly in Chengdu MR, are affected by extensive fog. Sustained day/night operations are virtually impossible.

PLAAF Capability Ex TAR At A Glance

  • The only effective strike element is Su-27/30, JF-17s, and yet-to-be-operationally proven J-20.
  • Airfield infrastructure cannot support large-scale and sustained operations.
  • Extremely limited night operations are possible.
  • Tactical Battle Areas can be approached from very few directions due to terrain.
  • The nearest Indian airfields viz Bareilly, Gorakhpur, Bagdogra, Hashimara, Jorhat, Gauhati, Tezpur, Chabua, Mohanbari, and nearly a dozen Advance Landing Grounds will be around 4-500 km in most cases.
  • Strike elements of IAF will lift off with maximum load as all of these are at Sea Level, unlike PLAAF airfields.
  • Air Defense infrastructure is minimal and is in pockets. The chances of successful interception of the IAF strike element in TBA is virtually NIL. However, strike elements targeting PLAAF airfields will/may face air defense aircraft.
  • The Airlift capability of the PLAAF is grossly inadequate for any large-scale transfer of troops/equipment by air.

PLAAF capability ex TAR is severely limited and would remain so, irrespective of acquiring and employing more modern aircraft, which might be in their inventory by 2030. PLAAF elements based in mainland China will have no substantive effect on overall PLAAF performance ex TAR.

PLAAF operating out of TAR poses no worthwhile threat to our land forces, provided the IAF is free to use. Chinese land forces can/will be decimated in the TBA, and nuclear China is beyond the scope of this paper. The conventional tipped SSMs will also have little or no effect, even if used by PLAAF.

Chinese Options

China appreciates that the balance of conventional power due to terrain considerations and the inability of PLAAF to support Chinese Army operations and neutralize IAF capability, the Indian military will have the edge.

To ensure that ‘Galwan’ is not repeated, the Indian military must occupy the highest cold desert in strength around the year.

Indeed if our diplomacy fails and PLAAF operates out of bases in Myanmar and Bangladesh, our problems will increase exponentially.

China is an intelligent adversary. Facts are:

  • China understands that it cannot win a conventional war with India due to the inability of the PLAAF to support PLA operations by neutralizing IAF.
  • There are no winners in a nuclear exchange.
  • China has never supported Pakistan during any skirmish/war with India militarily.
  • China is aiming to attain superpower status ahead of the USA. Involvement in regional conflict is not China’s primary objective.
  • Border/territorial dispute claims and counter-claims by China and India will remain part of our diplomatic maneuvers.
  • If we change our policy from NFU to NBFU, unstable peace with China will be guaranteed.


  • Gp Cpt TP Srivastava (Retd) is an ex-NDA who flew MiG-21 and 29. He is a qualified flying instructor. He commanded the MiG-21 squadron. He is a directing staff at DSSC Wellington and chief instructor at the College of Air Warfare. VIEWS PERSONAL OF AUTHOR
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