Com­bat Fleets

IAF vs PLAAF

SP's Aviation - - TABLE OF CONTENTS - BY AIR MAR­SHAL B.K. PANDEY (RETD)

THE CON­FRONTA­TION ON THE Dok­lam plateau in Bhutan be­tween the In­dian se­cu­rity forces and el­e­ments of the Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army Ground Force (PLAGF) of the Peo­ple’s Repub­lic of China that flared up on June 18 this year, is em­bed­ded with all the omi­nous pos­si­bil­i­ties of es­ca­lat­ing into a wider con­flict in the fu­ture. While the armies of both China and In­dia are con­sol­i­dat­ing their re­spec­tive po­si­tions to be pre­pared to engage in a pro­longed con­flict, it should only be ex­pected that the In­dian Air Force (IAF) would be called upon to pro­vide the nec­es­sary lo­gis­ti­cal sup­port as also to carry out re­con­nais­sance and surveil­lance mis­sions as and when re­quired. How­ever, there is every pos­si­bil­ity that the face­off may not re­main con­fined to be­ing merely a case of spo­radic con­flict on the bor­der and could well es­ca­late into a ma­jor con­flict or even a full scale war be­tween the two na­tions. In such an even­tu­al­ity, the IAF will be fully in­volved with all plat­forms in its fleet led by the fleet of com­bat air­craft spear­head­ing the em­ploy­ment of air power with the re­quired de­gree of lethal­ity. The com­bat fleet of the IAF would also have to con­front the chal­lenges posed by the fighter air­craft of the Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army Air Force (PLAAF). As both the na­tions pos­sess nu­clear weapons, it would be nec­es­sary for the plan­ners in the IAF to fac­tor in the pos­si­bil­ity of nu­clear ex­change into their plans, lest they be caught off guard.

COM­BAT FLEET OF THE IAF

To­day the IAF is the fourth largest Air Force in the world with the au­tho­rised strength its com­bat fleet be­ing just over 800 air­craft. Un­for­tu­nately, ow­ing to a very tardy process of mod­erni­sa­tion of the IAF over the last decade and a half, the strength of the com­bat fleet has pro­gres­sively de­clined to 600 plat­forms pri­mar­ily due to ob­so­les­cence. Of the 600 com­bat air­craft cur­rently on the in­ven­tory of the IAF, the fleet of Su-30 MKI which presently num­bers around 200, is of the fourth gen­er­a­tion. By the end of 2019, the IAF is ex­pected to have a fleet of 272 Su-30 MKI air­craft fol­lowed by an­other 40 by 2024, tak­ing the

strength to 312. The re­main­ing 400 air­craft cur­rently held in the fleet that are of the third gen­er­a­tion in­clude the Mi­rage 2000, MiG-29, MiG-27, MiG-21 Bi­son and the Jaguar. These vin­tage air­craft ac­quired over three decades or more ago, are op­er­at­ing with ex­ten­sion of air­frame life hav­ing un­der­gone ex­ten­sive mid-life up­grade in re­spect of pri­mar­ily avion­ics and weapons sys­tems. As things stand to­day, in the event of a war with China, at this junc­ture, the IAF can field only the Su-30 MKI as the multi-role front­line fighter air­craft. How­ever, the Su-30 MKI fleet is af­flicted with is­sues re­lated to the ser­vice­abil­ity of the fleet which would ad­versely af­fect avail­abil­ity of air­craft on the flight line and place the IAF in a po­si­tion of dis­ad­van­tage. The Mi­rage 2000 fleet will be able to pro­vide limited back up in a multi-role pro­file. The MiG-29 and the MiG-21 Bi­son can be em­ployed pri­mar­ily in the Air De­fence role to en­sure se­cu­rity of air bases. The fleets of Jaguar and the MiG-27 will have prac­ti­cally no role to play in a con­flict with China as it would in­volve air op­er­a­tions at high al­ti­tudes.

Fail­ure of plans of the IAF to in­duct up to 200 of the fourth gen­er­a­tion Rafale jets from Das­sault of France, has re­sulted in se­ri­ous ero­sion of its op­er­a­tional ca­pa­bil­ity. In­duc­tion of 36 Rafale jets in­stead that is ex­pected to be de­liv­ered to the IAF in the pe­riod 20192022, will pro­vide only par­tial re­lief to the IAF. The plan to de­velop and man­u­fac­ture the fifth gen­er­a­tion fighter air­craft jointly with the Rus­sian aerospace in­dus­try based on the T-50 PAK FA from Sukhoi, is mov­ing at a snail’s pace ren­der­ing the time frame of avail­abil­ity of this plat­form to the IAF com­pletely un­cer­tain. The in­dige­nous light com­bat air­craft Te­jas is likely to take sev­eral years to be fully op­er­a­tional. The IAF can­not rely on this in­dige­nous plat­form to en­hance its op­er­a­tional ca­pa­bil­ity sig­nif­i­cantly. The in­dige­nous Ad­vanced Medium Com­bat Air­craft (AMCA) is pro­posed to be a twinengine, fifth gen­er­a­tion multi-role stealth fighter. How­ever, it is still on the draw­ing board and hence is not rel­e­vant to the present con­text of pos­si­ble con­fronta­tion with the PLAAF. The pro­posal to in­vite a for­eign orig­i­nal equip­ment man­u­fac­turer of a proven sin­gle en­gine fighter air­craft to jointly pro­duce the plat­form in In­dia in large num­bers un­der the Make in In­dia scheme, ap­pears to be in limbo and is un­likely to fruc­tify in a rea­son­able time frame, leav­ing the IAF lit­er­ally in the lurch.

In the fi­nal anal­y­sis, with the pos­si­bil­ity of war with China loom­ing large over the hori­zon, the IAF will have no op­tion but to man­age with the cur­rent hold­ing of com­bat air­craft as listed above. In other words “The IAF will fight with what it has”, a rhetoric of­ten heard from the high­est ech­e­lons of the ser­vice, will be in­deed be a brute re­al­ity.

COM­BAT FLEET OF THE PLAAF

Cur­rently the third largest Air Force in the world and equipped with 1700 com­bat air­craft, nearly three times that with the IAF, the PLAAF is striv­ing to dis­place the Rus­sian Air Force and oc­cupy the second slot by 2020 rub­bing shoul­ders with the United States Air Force that oc­cu­pies the top slot. The com­bat fleet of the PLAAF has a ju­di­cious mix of third, fourth and fourth plus gen­er­a­tion plat­forms. The PLAAF is em­barked on an am­bi­tious mod­erni­sa­tion drive that be­gan twenty years ago. It ac­quired from Rus­sia, the Su-30 MKK, an ad­vanced ver­sion of Su-30 and the Su-30 MK2 air dom­i­nance fight­ers. Cur­rently over 200 of these air­craft are in ser­vice with the PLAAF.

The ma­jor achieve­ment of China how­ever, has been the suc­cess­ful in­di­geni­sa­tion of the Chi­nese aerospace in­dus­try as ev­i­dent in the fourth plus gen­er­a­tion Shenyang J-11B. This is an ad­vanced plat­form based on the Su-27 ini­tially ac­quired from Rus­sia and later pro­duced in­dige­nously. Equipped with ad­vanced avion­ics and radar, both pro­duced in­dige­nously, per­for­mance of the J-11B is re­ported to be as good if not su­pe­rior to that of the Su-30 MKI oper­ated by the IAF. In­clud­ing all vari­ants of this plat­form, the PLAAF has over 250 of these air­craft in ser­vice. Amongst the other air­craft op­er­a­tional in the com­bat fleet of the PLAAF are the over 400 of the multi-role Chengdu J-10, 50 of the multi-role Shenyang J-16, 75 of the Su-27, 73 of the Su-30 MKK and 24 of the Su-35 ac­quired re­cently from Rus­sia. The PLAAF has made an en­try into the fifth gen­er­a­tion with the in­duc­tion in March this year of the in­dige­nously de­signed, de­vel­oped and man­u­fac­tured Chengdu J-20, a mul­ti­role, stealth fighter air­craft. Quite in­ter­est­ingly, the J-20 bears a strik­ing re­sem­blance with the Lock­heed Martin F-35 Light­en­ing II Joint Strike Fighter. With only 32 J-20 air­craft in­ducted so far, the fleet is ex­pected to reach full strength by 2018.

The Chi­nese aerospace in­dus­try con­tin­ues to forge ahead as it is cur­rently de­vel­op­ing more ca­pa­ble plat­forms of the fifth gen­er­a­tion. On top of the list is the Shenyang J-31 also known as the Shenyang FC-31. This is a twinengine, multi-role com­bat air­craft with stealth fea­tures. The pro­to­type un­der­took its maiden flight in Oc­to­ber 2012 and is ex­pected to en­ter ser­vice in the pe­riod 2018–19.

A FOR­MI­DA­BLE CHAL­LENGE FOR THE IAF

Over the last decade, China has been en­gaged in the de­vel­op­ment of a string of mil­i­tary air­fields in Ti­bet and has sig­nif­i­cantly en­hanced the fa­cil­i­ties on the ground for com­bat air­craft of the PLAAF to op­er­ate from. The dis­ad­van­tage of lim­i­ta­tions on pay­load car­ried by com­bat air­craft while op­er­at­ing from air­fields in Ti­bet that are lo­cated at medium to high al­ti­tudes, has been off­set to a large ex­tent through the em­ploy­ment of Flight Re­fu­elling Air­craft (FRA). In 2015, the PLAAF ac­quired the Rus­sian IL-78 FRA and sub­se­quently con­verted the Xian H-6 medium range bomber for this role. Op­er­a­tions by com­bat air­craft of the PLAAF is also sup­ported by a fleet of Air­borne Warn­ing and Con­trol Sys­tems (AWACS) air­craft such as the IL-76-based KJ-2000 and the smaller AN-12- based KJ -200. With the help of these force mul­ti­pli­ers, the ca­pa­bil­ity of the com­bat fleet of the PLAAF the strength of which is al­ready three times that of the com­bat fleet of the IAF will be fur­ther en­hanced. Thus qual­i­ta­tively, the PLAAF will pose a daunt­ing chal­lenge for the IAF whose com­bat fleet at this junc­ture and even in the fore­see­able fu­ture, is likely to re­main short of the num­bers re­quired and by and large, less ca­pa­ble than the ad­ver­sary.

IN THE EVENT OF A WAR WITH CHINA, AT THIS JUNC­TURE, THE IAF CAN FIELD ONLY THE SU-30 MKI AS THE MUL­TI­ROLE FRONT­LINE FIGHTER AIR­CRAFT. HOW­EVER, THE SU-30 MKI FLEET IS AF­FLICTED WITH IS­SUES RE­LATED TO THE SER­VICE­ABIL­ITY OF THE FLEET WHICH WOULD AD­VERSELY AF­FECT AVAIL­ABIL­ITY OF AIR­CRAFT ON THE FLIGHT LINE AND PLACE THE IAF IN A PO­SI­TION OF DIS­AD­VAN­TAGE.

(LEFT) IAF SU-30 MKI; (RIGHT) PLAAF J-10

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