In 2014, the IAF had in­formed the Par­lia­men­tary Stand­ing Com­mit­tee on De­fence that, given the state its com­bat fleet was in, it would be dif­fi­cult to man­age a two-front war


In the con­text of the re­cent deal for 36 Rafale com­bat air­craft, re­marks by the Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), Air Chief Mar­shal B.S. Dhanoa about In­dia fac­ing a grave threat from its ad­ver­saries, has brought to the fore the dis­course on a pos­si­ble ‘two-front war’ that In­dia may have to face in the fu­ture. Although the pos­si­bil­ity of China and Pak­istan openly col­lud­ing to carry out co­or­di­nated op­er­a­tions as an al­liance against In­dia may ap­pear re­mote, a two-front war sce­nario could still con­front In­dia if one of the two es­ca­lates the present state of ‘no war, no peace’ to a con­ven­tional war and the other de­cides to de­rive strate­gic ad­van­tage from the sit­u­a­tion. From the Chi­nese and Pak­istani point of view, it would make good sense for such com­ple­men­tary ac­tion against a com­mon ad­ver­sary and would put In­dia in a dif­fi­cult state. In 2014, the In­dian Air Force (IAF) had in­formed the Par­lia­men­tary Stand­ing Com­mit­tee on De­fence that, given the state its com­bat fleet was in, it would be dif­fi­cult to man­age a two-front war. At that point in time, the strength of the com­bat fleet of the IAF stood at 34 squadrons as against the newly au­tho­rised level of 42 squadrons. As of now, the fig­ure has dropped to 31 squadrons.

In March 2016, Air Mar­shal B.S. Dhanoa, the then Vice Chief of the Air Staff, had said, “Our num­bers are not ad­e­quate to fully ex­e­cute an air cam­paign in a two-front war sce­nario”. State­ments from him af­ter tak­ing over as the CAS once again re­flect the ad­mis­sion that the IAF can­not match the com­bined strength of China and Pak­istan. So what is the threat loom­ing over the hori­zon?


Ac­cord­ing to World Air Forces 2018, a pub­li­ca­tion from Flight Global, an avi­a­tion and in­tel­li­gence com­pany, China has 1527 com­bat air­craft against In­dia’s 804. This nearly 2:1 ra­tio is a cause for con­cern. The qual­i­ta­tive as­pects of the air­craft in­ven­to­ries of China and In­dia can­not be dis­cussed in the short space avail­able here, but some points can be made to eval­u­ate the threat posed by the PLAAF. Af­ter a re­or­gan­i­sa­tion ex­er­cise in 2015, around 300 fight­ers and 72 bombers have been de­ployed in Lanzhou and Chengdu Mil­i­tary Re­gions. China has been in­creas­ing de­ploy­ment of its com­bat air­craft at dual-use air­ports in Ti­bet for both of­fen­sive and de­fen­sive mis­sions against In­dia. The fighter fleet in­cludes J-7H, JH-7A, J-7II, J-8F, J-8H,

J-10A, Su-27SK, J-11 and J-11B. Of these, Su-27SK, J-10A and J-11/ J-11B have com­par­a­tively su­pe­rior per­for­mance and can be ex­pected to be fairly ef­fec­tive from the high el­e­va­tion air­ports in Ti­bet while the oth­ers may be se­verely con­strained op­er­a­tionally. The J-11B has a per­for­mance that is bet­ter than In­dian Su-30 MKI. In fu­ture, J-20 and FC-31 fifth-gen­er­a­tion, mul­ti­role, stealth air­craft could be ex­pected to join the fray. Since 2010, the PLAAF has been de­ploy­ing Su-27SK/Su-27UBK/J11A at the dual-use air­ports at Lhasa Gong­gar (fac­ing Sikkim and North­ern West Ben­gal) and Ngari (fac­ing Ladakh in Jammu & Kash­mir) twice ev­ery year for two-week de­ploy­ment pe­ri­ods.

Ac­cord­ing to one re­cent es­ti­mate, there are 14 ma­jor air­bases in the Ti­betan Plateau and 20 small airstrips from which the PLAAF could con­duct air op­er­a­tions against In­dia. It is not easy to ex­e­cute air op­er­a­tions from within Ti­bet be­cause of the un­pre­dictable weather and the high al­ti­tudes at which the air­fields are lo­cated. There are se­vere lim­i­ta­tions on the fuel and weapon pay­load car­ried from these air­fields and air-to-air re­fu­elling would be­come crit­i­cal to launch­ing air­craft car­ry­ing rea­son­able pay­loads against tar­gets in In­dia. Nonethe­less, each of these air­ports, even when not in­te­grated with the PLAAF, has some de­gree of role to sup­port op­er­a­tions by the PLAAF. Com­ing to nu­clear ca­pa­bil­ity, a new long range bomber (H-20) with nu­clear ca­pa­bil­ity is un­der devel­op­ment and is ex­pected to join China’s nu­clear triad be­fore 2025. How­ever, the PLAAF has not had much ex­pe­ri­ence of ac­tual aerial war­fare and thus there is an in­ter­ro­ga­tion mark over its pos­si­ble per­for­mance in ac­tual com­bat op­er­a­tions against the IAF.


On the other hand, Pak­istan Air Force (PAF) is bat­tle-hard­ened and a po­tent force that would pose a chal­lenge for the IAF. Up till the 1980s, the US supplied the PAF with com­bat air­craft, but af­ter the Pressler Amend­ment in 1985, US hold­back led to Pak­istan ap­proach­ing China which will­ingly stepped in to pro­vide air­craft and equip­ment to the PAF. Ac­cord­ing to Flight Global, the PAF cur­rently has 20 com­bat squadrons con­sist­ing of about 410 com­bat air­craft. Some other sources in­di­cate a fig­ure of 465 com­bat air­craft. Ac­cord­ing to Flight Global, the PAF holds around 70 JF-17s, 45 F-16s, 69 Mirage IIIs, 90 Mirage Vs and 136 F-7s. The JF-17 Thun­der is a Chi­nese de­sign fighter air­craft co-pro­duced in Pak­istan by Aero­nau­ti­cal Com­plex, Kamra and Chengdu Air­craft In­dus­try Group, China. The JF-17 is claimed to be a fourth-gen­er­a­tion, multi-role air­craft. Apart from the 70 JF 17 on the in­ven­tory of the PAF, there are re­ports of an­other 100 be­ing on or­der. The PAF plans to ac­quire a to­tal of 250 to re­place its Mirage IIIs and F-7s. Some of these would be Block 2 ver­sion with 4.5 gen­er­a­tion fea­tures while some more would be Block 3 which are ex­pected to have fifth-gen­er­a­tion char­ac­ter­is­tics. The PAF is also said to have placed an or­der for 36 Chi­nese J-10 (4.5 gen­er­a­tion) air­craft. The J-10 is ex­pected to be in­ducted as the FC-20, an ad­vanced PAF-spe­cific vari­ant.

The PAF is a highly skilled and well trained force with good ex­po­sure to mod­ern air­craft and tac­tics through its re­la­tions with the West, es­pe­cially the US. More­over, it is con­stantly en­deav­our­ing to re­main close to the lead­ing edge of com­bat air­craft tech­nol­ogy. Thus, while the PAF has a lesser num­ber of com­bat air­craft, it is well equipped, ad­mirably trained and could be ex­pected to dis­play high morale in a stand-off with the IAF.


Ear­lier in this write up, the pos­si­bil­ity of China and Pak­istan col­lud­ing in a co­or­di­nated at­tack against In­dia was stated to be low. How­ever, it must be kept in mind that the PLAAF and the PAF have been con­duct­ing joint ex­er­cises since 2011 un­der a se­ries named Sha­heen. At the end of the sixth edi­tion of the ex­er­cise held in Septem­ber last year, a Chi­nese De­fence Min­istry spokesper­son stated at a me­dia brief­ing “If we char­ac­terise Pak­istan-China mil­i­tary-to-mil­i­tary re­la­tions, the three key terms are ‘all-weather brother­hood, high-level mu­tual as­sis­tance and sup­port as well as deep-rooted strate­gic mu­tual trust.” For the IAF, such state­ments hold forth fore­bod­ings of a two-front war. While the PLAAF and the PAF in­di­vid­u­ally pose a chal­lenge to the IAF in the event of out­break of hos­til­i­ties, a col­lu­sive ef­fort could bring the IAF to an ig­no­min­ious state due to its present de­pleted strength of com­bat air­craft.


It is ap­par­ent that the IAF needs to have plans to cope with a two-front war. Ex­er­cise Ga­gan Shakti, held in April this year, was a two week work out by the IAF to as­sess its own war wag­ing ca­pa­bil­ity vis-a-vis its in­im­i­cal neigh­bours. The first phase was fo­cused on the Western bor­ders of In­dia af­ter which the North­ern bor­ders be­came the sig­nif­i­cant area of op­er­a­tions. Not­with­stand­ing the hype that the me­dia created about how the ex­er­cise re­lated to prac­tic­ing for a two-front war, the fact that the ex­er­cise was run in two phases, cor­re­spond­ing to the two pos­si­ble ad­ver­saries, is ad­e­quate in­di­ca­tion of the IAF’s in­abil­ity to take on both the en­e­mies si­mul­ta­ne­ously. An op­er­a­tional ori­en­ta­tion to­wards one ad­ver­sary would be at the cost of leav­ing our fron­tiers with the other com­par­a­tively un­der-de­fended. Risk as­sess­ment play­ing off prob­a­bil­i­ties of oc­cur­rence of a two-front war against sever­ity of its con­se­quences sug­gests that, while the prob­a­bil­ity of a two-front war is low, the sever­ity of its con­se­quences on In­dia could be dis­as­trous.

The CAS has him­self re­cently said, “No coun­try is fac­ing the kind of grave threat that In­dia is con­fronted with. In­ten­tions of our ad­ver­saries can change overnight. We need to match force lev­els of our ad­ver­saries.” He has gone on to in­di­cate that a short­fall of over ten fighter squadrons ex­ists which se­verely af­fects the IAF’s ca­pa­bil­ity to take on its hos­tile neigh­bours and that even adding an­other 200 air­craft may still not meet with the re­quire­ments of the IAF.

In this con­text, the on­go­ing ef­forts to in­duct 36 Rafale jets and an­other 114 sin­gle/twin en­gine com­bat air­craft, take on grim ur­gency. The on­go­ing po­lit­i­cal cam­paign by the op­po­si­tion to dub the 36 Rafale deal a scam, should be kept apart from the ac­tual in­duc­tion process. And if it is in­deed proved to be a scam, let the guilty pay for it. Also the process for the 114 com­bat air­craft in­duc­tion should be fol­lowed through to a log­i­cal con­clu­sion and not be smoth­ered at ma­tu­rity stage like the ten­der of 126 MMRCA that was can­celled in 2015. Even with both these in­duc­tions sup­ple­mented by Te­jas Mark II when­ever it comes, the IAF will be able to reach a 42 squadron strength only in a decade or so. And when that hap­pens, it will be time to re­view the 42 squadron fig­ure it­self. Mean­while, the spec­tre of a twofront war with the PLAAF and the PAF hangs like the prover­bial Sword of Damo­cles over the IAF.

A short­fall of over ten fighter squadrons ex­ists which se­verely af­fects the IAF’s ca­pa­bil­ity to take on its hos­tile neigh­bours

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