Notwithstanding the continuous flood of information that the Chinese state-controlled media handles are releasing about the new aerial platforms and technologies that are being developed by them, the Indian Air Force (IAF) is fairly well placed against the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). One needs to remember that China is nearly 2.5 times the size of India. Its immediate strategic and tactical interests are in the South China Sea (SCS) and Western Pacific. It has to contend with a much more powerful US and also many free world countries that are grouping to take them on.
IAF’s Current Broad Capabilities
As per open information, the IAF has around 32 fighter squadrons. These broadly include two of Rafale, 12 Su 30MKI, four MiG 21 Bison, three each of MiG 29 and Mirage 2000, six of Jaguar, and two of LCA. IAF’s induction of both Rafale squadrons will complete by early 2022. The aircraft is clearly superior to China's J-10, J-11, and Su-27 fighter jets. Armed with long-range Meteor and MICA beyond visual range (BVR) air-to-air missiles, the Rafale fighters are expected to pose a significant threat to Chinese aerial assets.
The SCALP cruise missile and Hammer glide bombs have very high accuracy. Rafale also has the best electronic warfare suite in the region. The Sukhoi Su-30MKI is the IAF's primary air superiority fighter with capability to perform long range air-to-ground strike missions. Mirage 2000 and the MiG 29 have all been upgraded. With 11 C-17 and C-130 each, 17 IL-76, and over 100 upgraded An-32, IAF has significant global reach and cargo and troop lift capability. Similarly, having inducted 15 Boeing Chinook heavy-lift and 22 Apache AH-64E attack helicopters, and with already a significant fleet of 240 Mi-17 series medium-lift helicopters and nearly 100 ALH variants and smaller Chetak/Cheetah fleets, IAF is in a good position for rotary wing assets.
IAF has only three large AWACS aircraft and two indigenous DRDO developed AEW&C aircraft. Similarly, IAF has six IL-78 Flight Refueling Aircraft (FRA). Both these fleets need augmentation for a continental size country like India which has also to cover the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).
India has a good chain of integrated radars to support network centric offensive and defensive operations. IAF’s legacy surface-to-air missile systems like the SAM-3 Pechora and SAM 8 OSA-AK are being upgraded. With the induction of a large number of indigenous Akash AD systems, and also, to start arriving soon, five S-400 systems from Russia, the AD coverage will be significant. To cover the large Chinese border, more systems are being inducted. With the induction of the indigenous Astra and BrahMos, the IAF has a significant aerial weapons inventory.
The future is unmanned. Artificial Intelligence-supported autonomous systems will fly independently or in conjunction with each other in a swarm or with manned aircraft as a team. IAF has a significant number of UAVs. More are being developed indigenously or being acquired.
PLAAF has a larger fleet of fighter aircraft and air defence systems. Of its nearly 1,700 fighter/bomber aircraft, only around 800 are 4th generation plus. PLAAF already has around 40 fifth-generation J-20 fighters, and targets to have 200 of these by 2027. Meanwhile, the second FC-31/J-31 development is being accelerated. PLAAF has a strategic bomber fleet with 120 H-6 bomber variants, each carrying six cruise missiles. They also have relatively larger numbers of AWACS and FRA. China has an edge with a huge surface-to-surface missile force.
China's biggest strength is its indigenous aircraft industry that produces all types of aircraft and advanced helicopters. China has a huge indigenously built UAV fleet. China also has significant maritime air power, with the PLA Navy (PLAN) having two operational aircraft carriers and nearly 500 aircraft. Two more carriers are under construction and two further, larger ones, on drawing boards. That will add more air power.
IAF's Strategic Reach
IAF is looking at reach from the Persian Gulf to the Straits of Malacca, using long range aircraft supported by FRA and AWACS. More of these are being acquired. More airfields are becoming operational in the southern peninsula, and in Andaman and Nicobar Islands. This along with in-flight refuelling will add to the reach. The Lakshadweep islands are also being developed strategically. IAF is regularly exercising and increasing interoperability with major air forces of the world.
IAF's Operational Capabilities across Himalayas
IAF is very well placed with nearly 25 airfields capable of launching operations against China. China effectively has three airfields close to eastern Ladakh, and around eight in Tibet. One more is coming up in Xinjiang. They are trying to upgrade infrastructure but have the disadvantage of very high altitude. IAF will be able to launch a much larger number of missions. For a long time, India's military assets and infrastructure were Pakistan border-centric. This is fast changing, for both infrastructure build up and assets positioning. While border roads and connectivity are being improved, IAF has upgraded its Advanced Landing Grounds (ALG) near the China border.
All IAF airfields are getting hardened aircraft and equipment shelters. IAF now has a significant number of Su-30 MKI squadrons facing China. Also, the new acquisitions like Rafale, C-130 J, Chinook and Apache helicopters have all been located in the eastern sector. The same is also applicable to air defence systems and weapons positioning.
While IAF has been modernising steadily, more needs to be done. This is more so because India has a two-front threat from formidable adversaries. IAF must get back to the authorised force levels of 42 squadrons. Some often suggest that since Rafale and Su-30 MKI can achieve much greater effects than the older MiG 21s, why IAF should continue to seek 42 squadrons. The argument is flawed. India’s adversaries already have fifth generation fighters. They are not cutting down numbers. Type of aircraft and weapon platforms must be comparable to the adversary. IAF also urgently needs additional AEW&C and FRA. The future being unmanned, IAF needs to invest more into combat UAVs.
India has also to defend itself against a possible sizeable Chinese surface-to-surface missile (SSM) attack. IAF will need more air defence SAM systems of the S-400 and there is a need to accelerate inductions of larger numbers of indigenous air defence systems. It is important to have a larger ammunition and missiles stocking. SSMs and cruise missiles are going to be important. India has a good missile programme. The Prithvi, Agni, BrahMos, Akash and Astra missiles are a success, and newer variants must be hastened.
India needs to invest more in game-changer technologies. These include cyber and electronic warfare, artificial intelligence, unmanned systems, hypersonic, among others. Hypersonic flight and weapons will be difficult to engage. They will act as force multipliers against high-value targets. There is a lot of action in Directed Energy Weapons. Lasers that can burn incoming missile electronics or dazzle electro-optical sensors.
For India to become significant, it must also master aircraft engine, and AESA radar technologies. Joint venture route is the best to imbibe high-end technologies. We need very long range weapons, including aerial missiles with around 400 km ranges. Similarly air-launched cruise missiles with ranges of around 1,500 km.
There is a backlog of modernisation. The obsolescence sets in much faster for aerial systems. To stem the increasing gap with China, India perhaps needs to increase its defence allocations, from current 2.15 percent of GDP to around 2.5 percent. IAF is well trained and operationally well exposed. IAF has a clear advantage in terms of the number of missions it can launch across the Himalayas. IAF can well match the PLAAF, but once the numbers increase, IAF will be much better placed. Time act is now.
The writer is a retired Indian Air Force officer. Views expressed are personal.