Despite the humiliating defeat in 1962 of the Indian Army at the hands of the People’s Liberation Army, the focus thereafter of not only the Indian Army but also of the Indian Air Force (IAF), remained concentrated on the Indo-Pakistan border. The perpetual conflict over Jammu and Kashmir and its potential to escalate into a full-scale war with Pakistan, were possibly the primary reasons why the nation adopted Pakistan-centric policy for the deployment of its armed forces.
For a variety of reasons including possibly the lack of adequate operational capability, the IAF was kept out of the Sino-Indian conflict of 1962 leaving the Indian Army to face the onslaught of the Chinese ground forces. But after years of diffidence and neglect of the Sino-Indian border, the situation has indeed begun to change and over the last decade or so, the Indian Army and the IAF have taken a number of measures to bring about positive changes. While the Indian Army has bolstered its strength considerably to take on the PLA and is now better placed in respect of infrastructure development especially by way of road network that will help provide far better logistic support, the IAF too has taken a number of steps to enhance both defensive and offensive capability against the Chinese armed forces deployed against the frontiers of India in the North East Region. The recent confrontation with China at the Doklam Plateau in Bhutan wherein Indian and Chinese forces were locked in a 73-day stand-off that began on June 16 last year and ended on August 28 the same year, was a grim reminder that there is no room for complacency on the part of the Indian armed forces on the Sino-Indian border.
While the most potent platforms in the combat fleet of the IAF were invariably based at airfields on the Western front, those in the North East region generally housed the older and less capable combat platforms and logistic support platforms both fixed and rotary wing platforms. In 2008, the Ministry of Defence took a decision to station the Su-30 MKI multi-role air dominance fighter aircraft at the four major air bases in North East India that were located in the proximity of the Sino-Indian border. These four airfields were at Tezpur, Chabua, Hashimara and Bagdogra. In addition, the IAF has been able to upgrade and fully operationalise seven Advanced Landing Grounds (ALGs) in Arunachal Pradesh. These ALGs that were short, unprepared or semi-prepared landing ground or even mere grass strips that could accommodate only light or at best medium-lift transport aircraft deployed to provide logistic support to forces deployed on the North Eastern front, can now host even the latest combat aircraft as also strategic airlift aircraft. The IAF is in the process of building blast pens to ensure safety of combat aircraft from attack by enemy aircraft when parked at these ALGs during a possible sino-Indian conflict in the future. The upgraded ALGs are located at Walong, Ziro, Along, Mechuka, Pasighat, Tuting and Vijaynagar. This has been a major forward movement in the regime of infrastructure development which will undoubtedly enhance the country’s operational reach and capability.
In August 2016, a Sukhoi Su-30 MKI combat aircraft of the IAF landed at the upgraded ALG at Pasighat in Arunachal Pradesh on the occasion of its formal commissioning for operational use. On March 14 this year, the IAF landed the C-17 Globemaster III, the largest strategic airlift transport aircraft on the inventory of the IAF, at the upgraded Tuting airfield in Arunachal Pradesh which is located in the proximity of close to the Chinese border. This has certainly strengthened the IAF’s operational capability in the North East region.
Air operations capability is also being strengthened along the border with China in Eastern Ladakh. Earlier on, in August 2013, the IAF carried out a landing by a C-130J Super Hercules tactical airlift aircraft at the rudimentary airstrip in Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) in Ladakh, just seven km from the border with China. Located at an altitude of nearly 17,000 feet above sea level, DBO is the highest ALG in the world and overlooks the strategic Karakoram Pass.
While both the Indian Army and the IAF have taken a number of concrete steps, the IAF plans to operate Su-30 MKIs capable of carrying the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile. The IAF has plans to base the first squadron of the Rafale fighter jet at Hashimara by 2020. This aircraft procured from Dassault Aviation of France is capable of delivering nuclear weapons. The Indian armed forces have indeed come a long way since the debacle of 1962.