OPED By Gp Cpt TP Srivastava
Scar of the 1962 debacle is still fresh in Indian minds, both civil and military. It was a war that ought not to have ended as it did. The primary and sole reason for this unqualified and unwarranted humiliation was entirely due to despicable decision-making by the political outfit.
In October 1962, the IAF was one of Asia’s most formidable air powers. But for fear of escalation, our political leadership willfully surrendered to a weak adversary who had no Air Power elements to support the Chinese Army on the ground.
The report on the 1962 debacle, famously known as the Henderson-Bhagat report, continues to languish in some cupboards of the government of India. It was taken out for referral only when the Subrahmanyam committee examined the 1999 Kargil War fiasco.
In the Chinese context, any offensive, both ground and air, must be viewed in the context of terrain for ground troops’ operations and the location of suitable airfields. Air Power will invariably spearhead any future conventional warfare anywhere. It must be candidly stated at this stage: “No future conflict can be won without Air Power. However, Air Power by itself cannot win any conventional war”.
Chinese Air Force is called the People’s Liberation Army – Air Force (PLAAF). A look at the map will indicate that no PLAAF element operating from mainland China can reach Indian targets in the Ladakh region and Arunachal Pradesh entirely due to the limited radius of action. Even with mid-air refueling, it would be operationally unviable, though theoretically feasible.
Chinese leadership decided to build nearly 18 airfields in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). Most airfields, barring a couple, are at an elevation of 3 km or more. Sustained operations from high-altitude airfields impose massive restrictions on operations in terms of weapon load, extended take-off, and landing run.
If PLAAF elements have to support ground operations, they must operate from airfields in TAR, which experience some of the most hostile weather for more than six months a year.
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 from November to February.
Few airfields, particularly in the Chengdu Military Region, are affected by extensive fog. Sustained day/night operations are virtually impossible. Maintenance activity in sub-zero temperatures is a nightmare.
Operational Airfields Of PLAAF
Chinese Military is governed by seven military regions (MRs) subdivided into Military Districts (MDs). Two MRs facing India are Lanzhou MR opposite Ladakh sector and Chengdu MR opposite Arunachal Pradesh (North Eastern region of India).
Lanzhou MR. Two MDs of Lanzhou MR face India. South Xinjiang MD is opposite UP, HP, and Ladakh. East Xinjiang MD faces Ladakh.
Chengdu MR. Two MDs of this MR are in Indian proximity. Yunan MD is opposite Myanmar, and Xizang MD is opposite Arunachal, Assam, and Sikkim.
PLAAF can operate from about 15 bases in TAR. However, because of the distance from TBA, only five PLAAF airfields can support air operations in the Tactical BATTLE Area (TBA). These airfields are:
- Lanzhou MR. Khotan and Hoping
- Chengdu MR. Kongka Dzong, Donshoon and Pangta
Of these five airfields, only Khotan is at a lower elevation of 1,400 meters (nearly the same as Srinagar). The remaining four airfields are above 3,500 meters. Other airfields are Chengdu, Jekundo, Kantse, Kashgar, Kunming, Mangshi, Nagchuka I&II, Paoshan and Petun.
The load-carrying capacity drops markedly at these altitudes. Due to the much higher True Air Speed while landing, there is massive pressure on breaks. For instance, a pair of main wheel tires might survive 50 landings at the sea-level airfield. However, at these airfields, it might survive only five.
PLAAF Capability Ex-TAR
- PLAAF inventory of fighters has inducted the latest platforms, namely J-20, etc. However, the workhorse of PLAAF remains Su-27/30 variants.
- Airfield infrastructure at most airfields cannot sustain large-scale operations.
- Snow and ice accretion on the runway poses a severe challenge to operations during winters. During warmer months, melting snow also causes impediments.
- The entire TBA is undulating hilly terrain, causing severe problems for tracking and targeting ground targets.
- Airlift Capability, both fixed wing and rotary wing, is also restricted.
- Radar cover at medium level might be available, but below 500 meters AGL, it is virtually non-existent due to terrain.
- PLAAF will likely deploy man-portable SAM systems in large numbers, particularly around operational bases. These would pose a formidable threat to IAF strike elements.
- Night operations are doubtful.
- IAF has more than a dozen operational bases facing China. Bareilly, Gorakhpur, Bagdogra, Hashimara, Jorhat, Gauhati, Tezpur, Chabua, Mohanbari, Jammu, Udhampur, Srinagar, Avantipur, Leh, Thoise, and nearly 15 Advance Landing Grounds (ALGs), which can support limited transport and helicopter operations.
- Although fewer in numbers, the throw weight of IAF fighters will match PLAAF because IAF fighters can and will lift off with maximum weapon load from near sea-level airfields.
Effectiveness Of PLAAF
Due to terrain factors, the PLAAF does not pose a substantive threat to our ground forces or the IAF infrastructure. Even in the future, irrespective of the type of flying machines acquired by PLAAF, it will not pose a severe challenge to the Indian military.
For this reason, China is unlikely to embark on a full-scale conventional weapon offensive against India. What is of significance is that China did not open another front during the 1965, 1971, and 1999 wars/skirmishes with Pakistan. China cannot sustain an offensive.
However, if diplomacy fails and China can operate from sea-level airfields of Myanmar and Bangladesh, PLAAF will pose a grave challenge. This could be a big security threat to India as New Delhi is not really prepared for a Chinese offensive from these regions.
China’s Naval Threat
Yulin Naval Base near Sanya in Hainan province is the closest naval base, nearly 3,500 km (as the crow flies) from India’s southernmost point. Hence, if China has to bring its Naval Armada, its fleet will follow a circuitous route. Its logistics support will be stretched and unlikely to support offensive operations.
Chinese Aircraft Carriers cannot operate in hostile air environments even if the CBGs decide to transit the Straits of Malacca. Hence, any formidable naval threat from China is ruled out. However, the Chinese submarine fleet will pose a danger to Indian ships.
Nuclear Weapon Option
Chinese nuclear arsenal is more potent and far more significant than India’s in terms of the number of warheads, cargo, and range. However, India is quite capable of formidable and effective retaliatory strikes. China is unlikely to exercise the nuclear option against India. However, it would remain a threat in the meantime.
Tenets of Chinese Governance
President Xi announced a 12-point precept of the Chinese governance model in February 2023, which is:
- Respecting the sovereignty of all countries. Universally recognized international law, including the purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter, must be strictly observed. All countries’ sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity must be effectively upheld. All nations, big or small, strong or weak, rich or poor, are equal members of the international community. All parties should jointly uphold the basic norms of international relations and defend global fairness and justice. Equal and uniform application of international law should be promoted, while double standards must be rejected.
- Abandoning the Cold War mentality. The security of a country should not be pursued at the expense of others. The security of a region should not be achieved by strengthening or expanding military blocs. All countries’ legitimate security interests and concerns must be addressed seriously and appropriately. There is no simple solution to a complex issue. All parties should, following the vision of common, comprehensive, cooperative, and sustainable security and bearing in mind the long-term peace and stability of the world, help forge a balanced, effective, and sustainable European security architecture. All parties should oppose pursuing one’s security at the cost of others’ security, prevent bloc confrontation, and work together for peace and stability on the Eurasian Continent.
- Ceasing hostilities. Conflict and war benefit no one. All parties must stay rational, exercise restraint, avoid fanning the flames and aggravating tensions, and prevent the crisis from deteriorating or spiraling out of control. All parties should support Russia and Ukraine in working in the same direction and resuming direct dialogue as quickly as possible to de-escalate the situation and ultimately reach a comprehensive ceasefire.
- Resuming peace talks. Dialogue and negotiation are the only viable solution to the Ukraine crisis. All efforts conducive to the peaceful settlement of the problem must be encouraged and supported. The international community should stay committed to the right approach of promoting talks for peace, helping parties in conflict open the door to a political settlement as soon as possible, and creating conditions and platforms for the resumption of negotiation. China will continue to play a constructive role in this regard.
- Resolving the humanitarian crisis. All measures conducive to easing the humanitarian crisis must be encouraged and supported. Humanitarian operations should follow the principles of neutrality and impartiality, and humanitarian issues should not be politicized. The safety of civilians must be effectively protected, and humanitarian corridors should be set up to evacuate civilians from conflict zones. Efforts are needed to increase humanitarian assistance to relevant areas, improve humanitarian conditions, and provide rapid, safe, and unimpeded humanitarian access to prevent a humanitarian crisis on a larger scale. The UN should be supported in coordinating and channeling humanitarian aid to conflict zones.
- Protecting civilians and prisoners of war (POWs). Parties to the conflict should strictly abide by international humanitarian law, avoid attacking civilians or civilian facilities, protect women, children, and other victims of the conflict, and respect the fundamental rights of POWs. China supports the exchange of POWs between Russia and Ukraine and calls on all parties to create more favorable conditions for this purpose.
- Keeping nuclear power plants safe. China opposes armed attacks against nuclear power plants or other peaceful nuclear facilities and calls on all parties to comply with international law, including the Convention on Nuclear Safety (CNS), and firmly avoid man-made nuclear accidents. China supports the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in playing a constructive role in promoting the safety and security of peaceful nuclear facilities.
- Reducing strategic risks. Nuclear weapons must not be used, and nuclear wars must not be fought. The threat or use of nuclear weapons should be opposed. Nuclear proliferation must be prevented, and nuclear crisis avoided. China opposes the research, development, and usage of chemical and biological weapons by any country under any circumstances.
- Facilitating grain exports. All parties need to implement the Black Sea Grain Initiative signed by Russia, Türkiye, Ukraine, and the UN fully and effectively in a balanced manner and support the UN in playing an essential role in this regard. The cooperation initiative on global food security proposed by China provides a feasible solution to the global food crisis.
- Stopping unilateral sanctions. Unilateral sanctions and maximum pressure cannot solve the issue; they only create new problems. China opposes unilateral sanctions unauthorized by the UN Security Council. Relevant countries should stop abusing unilateral sanctions and “long-arm jurisdiction” against other countries to do their share in de-escalating the Ukraine crisis and create conditions for developing countries to grow their economies and better the lives of their people.
- Keeping industrial and supply chains stable. All parties should earnestly maintain the existing world economic system and oppose using the world economy as a tool or weapon for political purposes. Joint efforts are needed to mitigate the spillovers of the crisis and prevent it from disrupting international cooperation in energy, finance, food trade, and transportation and undermining the global economic recovery.
- Promoting post-conflict reconstruction. The international community needs to take measures to support post-conflict reconstruction in conflict zones. China stands ready to provide assistance and play a constructive role in this endeavor.
Internal Governance In China
China has an unseen and unheard governing model, which keeps tabs on the governing apparatus known to the world.
The Beidaihe meeting, or the ‘Summer Summit’ as it is known to China watchers, is held annually in the resort town of Heibei province. The conference is an informal discussion opportunity attended by Chinese elders and current leadership. Most of the proceedings are behind closed doors. During the 2023 meeting, the atmosphere was tense and strained. President Xi was supposedly reprimanded and questioned by the elders on various national and international issues.
To project Chinese threat/power, China’s attempts towards territorial expansion in the South China Sea region have taken precedence over the Chinese focus on India. The Permanent Court of Arbitration gave an adverse judgment against China in the Philipines case. However, China refused to accept the decision. Chinese have been actively creating artificial islands, with a few hosting operational forces. This fact indicates the Chinese political aim of controlling its neighborhood littoral states. Taiwan remains a top priority issue. China is probably waiting for Presidential elections in Taiwan in January 2024, hoping that the next Taiwanese president will have a more friendly approach and possibly be amenable to reunification. It will, in all likelihood, be the last option for peaceful reunification.
Military options against Taiwan will be fraught with the risk of the US joining the war. China is not prepared for this eventuality.
Military option against India to resolve the border and Arunachal Pradesh issue is also extremely unlikely. China understands fully that it cannot win convincingly over India’s conventional forces. There is every possibility that China may have to retreat in the face of solid action by the IAF. As stated earlier, PLAAF operating from TAR cannot match IAF.
India’s proactive response to Chinese misadventures in recent times has acted as a deterrent for China to attack Taiwan. If the USA, Japan, and India join together, China will have to rethink its option of striking Taiwan.
China cannot spread out its defense capability to neutralize all adversaries. Russia’s military support cannot (even if available) alter the script in favor of China.
- International Space Station
- Unmanned reusable spacecraft
- Latest Super Computer
- Reusable Rockets. The private Chinese launch enterprise i-Space has successfully recycled a rocket just 38 days after its previous take-off.
- Chip Technology
Quoted above are the areas/domains where China has leapfrogged miles ahead of India because it invested in R&D and continues to do so. Chinese ‘soft threat’ in the field of Cyber Attacks is and will remain a formidable threat to India.
In space, China has taken a giant leap. I-Space, known as Beijing Interstellar Glory Space Company, is entering the export market with a possible connection with Elon Musk’s Space X. During a trial lift-off, a rocket using liquid/methane fuel rose to about 200 meters and returned safely for a vertical landing.
I-Space is developing a rocket named Hyperbola-3 by 2025, which will be capable of lifting around eight tons of payload in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and will be reusable.
China will remain India’s main adversary (not enemy). It will keep the border issue with India alive to ensure that India is forced to spend vast amounts of money on security. The process impedes India’s growth in other areas.
However, China is unlikely to take a conventional military option against India, knowing it cannot win the war. Loss/stalemate will dent China’s stature globally, and its dream of becoming a numero uno superpower will be shattered.
China has to attend to far more pressing problems, namely Taiwan, the South China Sea, and an economic offensive against the USA.
Politically, China finds itself in a corner. Its growth has dwindled; real estate business has plummeted; the economic war against the USA did not favor China as presumed. Building new nuclear capability will merely add to the already existing deterrent.
Despite US preoccupation with Russia-Ukraine and Hamas-Israel war, its focus on China has not been lowered. The US is attempting to resolve issues with China through diplomacy.
The recent summit meeting between Biden and Xi was the first positive step towards normalizing the relations between the two countries. China, therefore, will wait and watch before embarking on any military option against India or Taiwan.
- 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 THE AUTHOR
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