The 2020 China–India skirmishes are part of an ongoing military standoff between China and India. Since 5 May 2020, Chinese and Indian troops have reportedly engaged in aggressive melee, face-offs, and skirmishes at locations along the Sino-Indian border, including near the disputed Pangong Lake in Ladakh and the Tibet Autonomous Region, and near the border between Sikkim and the Tibet Autonomous Region. Additional clashes are ongoing at locations in eastern Ladakh along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that has persisted since the 1962 Sino-Indian War.
People’s Liberation Army has placed a large number of its troops and armored fighting vehicles to the contested region, large formations of PLA are placed on rear as reserves.
Indian Army has mobilized large formations in an attempt to mirror the deployments. Indian Airforce’s transport fleet is playing its role in mobilizing armoured vehicles and other equipment to the north. IAF C-17s, An-32s, and IL-76s have undertaken sorties to transport anti-aircraft guns, artillery pieces, tanks, armoured vehicles among other heavy and light equipment to the conflict zone.
People’s Liberation Army Airforce’s premiere Base of Operations in the region is Ngar Gunsa Airport which is located at 14,000 feet above sea level. PLAAF’s heavy flankers cannot operate out of this with a full mission load that includes fuel and armaments.
IAF looks satisfied and feels a little ease as PLAAF’s operational capability out of Ngar Gunsa is limited but this shortcoming can easily be solved with little tactics and employment of aerial refueling. Even without that still, PLAAF planes can operate in the area with air to air weapons to face any IAF intrusion in the area.
In case the situation takes least likely but most violent turn, both ground forces start engaging each other and both airforces are called into action both sides have capable planes to wedge against each other. Since the Chinese side is dug into fighting positions in case IAF has to play combat role it will have to conduct precision strikes. IAF has stand-off attack capabilities but not long-ranged enough to keep striker birds away from PLAAF BVR Missiles and Surface to Air Missiles. IAF will either have to secure local air superiority by shooting PLAAF birds or execute a surgical strike without engaging PLAAF in the air to air combat. However, both seem near impossible for IAF as PLA already has tons of air defence measures and PLAAF is also vigilant on scene.
Indian Airforce is making emergency purchases of 12 Su-30MKI heavy combat jets, and 21 Mig-29 Airframes are being acquired from Russia. Defence Acquisition Committee approved 1.44 billion dollars for the purchase of 12 Su-30MKI aircraft from Hindustan Aeronautics Limited which has a licensed production facility of Su-30MKIs at Nasthik in Maharashtra. For the cost of 992 million dollars, 21 Surplus Mig-29 airframes would be acquired from Russia along with UPG upgrade kits.
It is being widely believed that these acquisitions are being done in lieu of recent tensions with China, but these acquisitions were on the table for very long. Su-30MKI Acquisitions are there to cover up losses of airframes in accidents. 11 Su-30MKIs have been lost to accidents and 1 is claimed to have been shot down by Pakistan Airforce in 2019 February Clash. Mig-29 Acquisitions are there as supplementary numbers to cover up gaps caused by fleet obsolesce. United States has urged India to rethink its planned acquisition of Russian fighter jets, a move that risks potential sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).
It’s widely reported by the Indian side that an allied country has provided India with a state of the art surface to air missile system. Believed to be Israel providing India with David Sling SAM system. But however, it seems impossible as India has no experience of operating David Sling SAM and for obvious political reasons, Israel can’t deploy its personnel against China.
As per the IAF itself, the minimum required number of Squadrons for the Indian Airforce is 42 however as of now number of operational Squadrons available with IAF is as low as 23. Even those 23 Squadrons are struggling to maintain/keeping the optimum number of their jets available for operational duties. IAF’s Ark Rival Pakistan Airforce maintains a large fleet, 5 Multirole Squadrons of F-16s, 5 Multirole Squadrons of JF-17s, and 6 Tactical Attack Squadrons consisting Mirage ROSE aircraft are positioned by PAF to take on any contingency with India. Indian Airforce has been made well conversant with capabilities that PAF can put up against them. To keep PAF at by huge operational commitments are required from IAF on its western border against PAF.
India’s long-awaited Rafales are scheduled to arrive on 27th July 2020, The ground infrastructure has been set up at Amballa Airforce Station of IAF, but Rafales won’t be pushed into operational flying in the disputed region unless IAF is politically pressured to do so. Rafales would take some time before taking full operational duties in IAF.
In present conditions and in near future IAF cannot play any significant role in turning tables in favor of India. The Capabilities PLAAF possesses as of now and which are in a rapid process of the acquisition have outpaced the Indian Airforce. Pakistan Airforce has budgetary constraints but seems to be making the most out of what they have.
PAF was considered as the primary rival of IAF but recent Standoff is clearly showing PLAAF is also an adversary to be taken care of. China and Pakistan are strategic partners and are willing to protect each other’s interests by combine effort. So IAF now has two major rivals to counter and huge fleet obsolesces to cover up and large numbers to fill up. As well as IAF also needs to work on its tactical approach in which domain it is far behind its Ark rival PAF.
Induction of Rafale and Tejas are good signs but they are not enough to meet IAF’s requirements. Rafale will introduce many weapons and will improve standoff capabilities but their number is limited and requirements are far greater. However, even these limited numbers have opened doors for IAF to join in many international exercises and learn to allot more things and improve existing ones, this a great opportunity for IAF which seems to be lacking innovation and suitable tactical enhancements.
Introduction of Astra BVR Missile is also a good sign but it is yet to be seen how well it performs. MMRCA 2.0 is a whole other chapter, it’s a desperate requirement but there are multiple obstructing factors that first need to be addressed. IAF’s only focus on its western border Pakistan centric planning has left it vulnerable now when threat is coming from the north also. PLAAF is a new guest to the party. Now it’s PLAAF PAF vs IAF. IAF’s own miscalculation, Miss handling, lack of long term planning, and foreseeing has now come to haunt them.
These errors were mainly caused by political interventions in the acquisition process, leadership crisis in IAF, and root-level mismanagement. I personally have very optimistic expectations from ACM RKS Bhadauria but at the same time, I have my concerns on political interventions in IAF’s operational matters. IAF has allotted to go through, in simple words IAF only half now (23 Sqns) it has to complete itself (42 Sqns).
A lot to learn in terms of tactics and strategies as well. IAF needs to learn how to improve its engineering capabilities. Also to improve its maintenance standards by improving the training of maintenance crews and ground staff. All goals can only be achieved once not only IAF but all branches of the Indian military are free from political interference. An Ideal IAF’s ultimate goal is to complement India’s political goals in the region and the world.