In 1962, an uninformed political leadership, dominant Army brass, and diffident Air Force leadership ensured that a reasonably potent offensive element of the Indian Air Force (IAF) watched from the sidelines as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) rolled into Ladakh and down the Sela Pass into Bomdila. Swayed by the assessments of a British Operations Research expert, Patrick Blackett, and the U.S. Ambassador to New Delhi, John Kenneth Galbraith, then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru baulked at the idea of using the IAF to stem the Chinese tide. IAF fighter pilots posted at air bases that could impact operations in Ladakh and the Tawang Sector (Pathankot and Tezpur) recall that they were battle ready and waited for the call to action that never came.
Defensive and offensive strategy
Fast forward to the winter of 1986 and the summer of 1987. Following the establishment of a camp at Wangdung grazing grounds in the Sumdorong Chu Valley (northwest of Tawang and in the same area where Indian forces were overwhelmed in 1962), the trio of General Krishnaswamy Sundarji, Lieutenant General Narahari and Major General J.M. Singh put together a logistically viable envelopment strategy that spooked the Chinese with numbers, firepower, and aggression without needless confrontation. An important element of this strategy was the use of helicopters and transport aircraft to facilitate and sustain this deployment.
That was not all. They even developed an offensive strategy to take the battle to Le, the forward most PLA base in the sector. There was close coordination between 4 Corps in Tezpur and the fighter base close by and training was stepped up in the valleys to support offensive operations if required. In an interview with the author, Major General J.M. Singh was emphatic that air power held the key in operations on the Tibetan Plateau. He argued, “‘We must have the capability to gain and maintain a favourable air situation for limited periods of time, and carry out interdiction to back shallow multi-pronged thrusts across road-less terrain to outflank the Chinese build-up that will take place on the existing road and rail networks.”
The IAF’s advantage
On June 15, 2020, there was a violent clash at Patrolling Point 14 in Galwan. The ground situation across the entire Line of Actual Control (LAC) is largely one of parity and for any tangible gains or tactical advantage to be gained on the ground the Indian Army needs a numerical superiority of at least 5:1. Therefore, if there is any asymmetric advantage to be gained, it is air power that will prove to be decisive in depleting the PLA’s combat potential before it is applied along the LAC.
By all recent operational assessments including one by the Harvard Kennedy School, the IAF currently enjoys both a qualitative and quantitative advantage over the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) across the LAC. It’s fighter fleet of 4th Generation Aircraft (Su-30 MKIs, Mirage-2000s and MiG-29s) are superior in almost every respect to the PLAAF’s J-10s, J-11s and SU-30 MKKs. The IAF has more operational bases than the PLAAF close to the LAC. There is reasonable redundancy and survivability to withstand an initial attack on IAF bases by the PLA Rocket Force (PLARF).
There are, however, two areas of concern. The first is a strong ground-based air defence network strung up by the PLAAF in Tibet comprising the S-300, S-400 and HQ-9 systems that the IAF will have to contest during its offensive operations. The second is the advantage that the PLAAF has in long-range air delivered cruise missiles (500-3,000 km) from the H-6 bomber. As compared to this, the IAF’s Su-30 MKI has just been cleared to carry the BrahMos land attack cruise missile with a range of 300 km which could be a significant force multiplier against targets in Aksai Chin and Tibet.
The other area of significant advantage enjoyed by the IAF is in the aerial mobility department where the IAF transport fleet of C-17s, Il-76s, An-32s and C-130s are as proficient in diverse roles as the best air forces in the world. Whether it is rapid troop induction into major bases or at Advance Landing Grounds like DBO, Nyoma or Mechuka, or inter-valley transfer and insertion of special forces with helicopters like the recently inducted Chinooks and the versatile Mi-17 series, these are areas that will provide great confidence to the Indian Army. After initial setbacks in Afghanistan, the U.S. Army has figured out a way to exploit the lethal firepower of the Apache Attack Helicopter at altitudes of 12,000-14,000 feet. It would be reasonable to expect that the IAF’s Apaches would add significant firepower in Ladakh.
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Finally, in the area of surveillance, China possesses a large complement of the Yaogan series of low earth orbit surveillance satellites that offer it an almost persistent stare capability over areas of interest. To counter this India must leverage its existing space-based surveillance assets and airborne surveillance platforms to support wide-spectrum operations and provide better situational awareness.
The importance of air power
Unless there is vision and an acceptance of the importance of air power in what has been till now a significantly land-centric operational philosophy across the LAC, there is a clear and present danger. In the next decade or so, the IAF will lose its competitive advantage with the PLAAF as the latter has invested heavily in modernisation and is continuing to do so. On the other hand, with deep budgetary cuts and the likelihood of the slowing down of the induction of cutting-edge platforms and weapon systems, the choice is not about what the IAF wants but what the country needs in the prevailing complex security environment. Air power represents the sharp end of contemporary military power. We need to ensure that it does not get blunt.
Arjun Subramaniam is a retired Air Vice Marshal from the IAF and a military historian