Application of Air Power in High Altitude Areas

Written By: Air Marshal Sumit Mukerji

The recent flare-up and unstable conditions along the length of the India-China border or the Line of Actual Control (LAC) have led to a spate of speculations and discussions on the goings-on and their future ramifications. Fuelled by an over-active, hyper Indian media, comment- aries on the situation have virtually eclipsed those of politics and cricket matches, which generally hold center court. There seem to be more specialists in speculation than strategists who can paint the correct picture.

Notwithstanding the hype and holler, the on- going confrontation between India and China could have serious consequences that merit deep introspection and definitive action. The unusual build-up of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forces all along the India-China border, with a greater emphasis on Ladakh, does not predicate a routine skirmish between border troops but portrays an ominous portent of a sinister strategic plan. The issue needs retrieval, and means to manipulate it.

National Security

There are many factors that have led up to the morass that we find ourselves in. But the most important one is the basis of our strategic culture and strategic foresight. India is one country that

does not seem to capitalize on the factor of ‘accrued benefits of experience’ and exploit them to advantage. It is this one main reason why India has not been able to establish its National Security Strategy. Without a core direction, emanating at the highest level, it becomes impossible to create a culture or ethos among the population towards national security and infuse a sense of nationalism among the millions. History has recorded our callous and negligent approach to safeguarding our borders, therefore, our territory and sovereign integrity. The laid-back, servile attitude, born out of hundreds of years of subjugation and oppression by foreign rulers has inseminated an ethos or a mindset that suggests that we look at zealous aggressors as something that ‘will go away’ in due course.

The cutting edge or the sharp end that faces the effect of such historic debilitation is the armed forces. Sanctified by fire, literally and figuratively, at the turn of independence, the armed forces have bloodied their blade on five major occasions and have proven their mettle in many other skirmishes of lesser nature. Inhibited by an insular and non- aligned government, the armed forces have been aligned to protect the borders against two historical antagonists, China and Pakistan. Structurally designed to guard the land borders, the emphasis has been on a large ground Army, with a tactical Air Force to support it and a blasé attitude towards the Navy. Ego and turf wars between the three services have contributed to a mindset which does not permit growth or progress, thus relegating the Indian armed forces to perform less than optimally in a technology charged, high mobility environment, which is the essence of modern warfare.

Boots on the Ground

There is no gainsaying that ‘boots on the ground’ are a necessity in maintaining the security of our borders. With historically belligerent neighbors there is also the need that these boots remain dug-in and entrenched for 365 days in a year. The hostile terrain on our northern borders, is some of the most precipitous and difficult in the world. Stretching across nearly 4500 km, as one of the highest mountain ranges in the world, the Himalayas have the capacity to thwart anyone who dares to challenge its might. The unforgiving weather, with icy winds and temperatures plummeting to as much as -50 degrees is enough to deter man or beast. China has been progressively inching its way westwards and southwards, accessing footholds to eventually gain control of territory to claim as its own. Aided by a contested demarcation, loosely termed ‘Line of Actual Control’ (LAC), this imaginary dividing feature is indicative that it pushes well into recognized geographical borders and stretches across territory unashamedly retained by forceful occupation. The ill-gotten gains remain unreconciled and in a state of flux, offering opportunities to the belligerent to intrude and, over a period of time, stake claim. Since India has never fostered hegemonist views, it remains the passive recipient of intrusion by aggressors or infiltrators.

Strategic Significance Behind the ‘Stand-Off’

The necessity for the Indian Army to hold its ground to prevent infiltration has its own complications in this unforgiving area. Human endurance, maintaining morale, and motivation are a nightmare for the leaders and commanders. Provisioning of arms and ammunition, fossil fuels, communication facilities, food, clothing, and other supplies take on unprecedented proportions for the support services. The sheer effectiveness of the infantry soldier is entirely dependent on the back- up and re-supply. The means to deliver these goods will constitute the strategic backbone of the standing army.

This backbone consists of two channels. One is the surface infrastructure comprising roads, railway lines, bridges, tunnels, and secure stockpiling areas. The other channel is the supply by air, both by aircraft and helicopters. This facet of airpower, like the logistician, is little acknow- ledged but forms the vital link to the sustenance of those in some of the most inhospitable and inaccessible areas. The strategic significance of exactly this facet has triggered the recent face- off in Eastern Ladakh, between Chinese and Indian troops. The development and completion of the all-weather road connecting Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie (DSDBO) have brought the Chinese to express their fears and concerns, indicating the significance of this particular logistical artery. The threat to the Karakoram Highway leading to the much-prized China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has now become real and possible, exposing its vulnerability.

What has become intriguing is that the Chinese Western Theatre has deemed it (the DSDBO) significant enough to try and deny its usage at their will, by physically dominating the road from commanding heights in close, visual proximity, which brings the supply route under direct fire. The next move would be to capture enough territory to lay claim to both the road and the airhead at Daulat Beg Oldie. While China’s design is open to speculation, there is no doubt it has a larger plan in mind to annex more territory and facilitate a shorter route to reach the CPEC, through Ladakh. The noticeable change of posture is indicated by the amassing of an inordinately large number of troops in the immediate vicinity with a rather pronounced effect being projected by the presence of armoured vehicles, an unprecedented development. On the other hand, a look at the geography on China’s side of the LAC clearly discloses the convenience of terrain for the development of military infrastructure. A far-sighted strategic perspective and a defined expansionist policy have contributed to China pumping in financial and industrial resources to develop the BRI and associated infrastructure in areas of strategic significance. Anticipating a military resistance to their designs of expansionist ‘creeping’ towards India, they have carefully planned and created a network of all- weather roads, with suitable supply points or nodes in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), virtually in our backyard.

The facilitation of logistics supply and armament movement in this terrain is remarkable by any standards. In contrast, the development of infrastructure on the Indian side can comparatively be termed ‘pathetic’. The usual disregard for national security and its various implications, ignoring the feedbacks provided by the Army, and not directing funds towards infrastructure projects in these difficult areas have all the hallmarks of a nation devoid of centralized direction with regard to national security, with no foresight, nor vision or strategy.

The Grey Zone of Uncertainty

The current incursion by Chinese troops is not a one-off incident, but rather it follows a pattern of small probes over random periods of time, essentially to find a path of least resistance, to establish themselves and subsequently claim as their own territory. Skirmishes range from arguments to fisticuffs to pushing, although the current one has taken on a bit of an ugly turn where precious lives were lost on both sides. Escalations hardly occur, but for the exception of two major occasions, one in 1967 at Nathu La and the other in 1986 in Sumdorong Chu. Both instances saw a reversal of result with respect to 1962, and the Chinese PLA incursions were beaten back most effectively, incurring heavy losses. The latter also saw the employment of airpower to great effect in this region.

This simmering situation is apparently a condition in virtual perpetuity with neither side willing (as yet) to get into an open conflagration. There are no clear lines in black or white, but rather the relationship remains in a festering grey zone of confrontation. There is no all-out war declared, nor does peace exist wherein the demarcation lines are given due respect, permitting troop withdrawal from the region. While Pakistan persists in waging irregular warfare against India by using terrorists to infiltrate, with China, India faces the sub- conventional situation of low-intensity conflict.

In the overall context, while China possesses a larger standing army and a far larger air force, the asymmetry must be considered in the region of significance and the application thereof, or what forces can actually be employed effectively to bear upon the other. Given the region and the terrain, there is clearly one factor that can offset the asymmetry, and that is airpower. In terrain where mobility and rapid movement of forces in armoured vehicles is nigh impossible, it would be prudent for the Indian Army to resort to a holding battle and allow air power to provide the necessary application of force.

Air Power

Airpower has proven itself as the pivot that can turn the tide of surface warfare, both over land and water, so the proclivity to delay its effective utilization in the Indian context is not understood. Militaries the world over head into conflict with their Air Forces to soften the opposition and create avenues for the progress of the ground war. Therefore, the Air Force is prominently present at the planning of the land or a sea campaign. The sheer reach and span of the effectiveness of airpower means that it must be included and integrated from the inception of the planning process. The mobility and flexibility of airpower are the factors that overcome limited resources and therefore the air component Commander or the air elements need to have a holistic picture of each planned operation. This is considered absolutely mandatory for the Commander to distinguish and distribute his air power assets for effective application in the areas of interest. The want of this synergy and understanding could be the one fatal flaw in the ethos of our strategic military planning.

1962 will remain the last blot in the annals of independent India’s military history. Emanating from a poor conceptual government appreciation for the need for a strong military, notwithstanding the struggle to retain Kashmir from infiltrators from Pakistan, the necessary mindset to safeguard our borders was lacking in the political firmament. The fearsome capability of the Indian Army and their highly acclaimed contributions in both the first and second world wars created the politicians’ fear of the possibility of the military takeover, leading to the use of the provisions of the Constitution to subjugate the armed forces as much as the political leadership could. The ill-equipped and inadequately armed Indian Army suffered from the poor direction from the highest echelons and paid the price of ignominious defeat. Why the Indian Air Force was never employed has been a subject of great review and has provided a retrospective insight into what ‘may have been’ if offensive airpower was permitted to unleash its power with telling effect on the Chinese troops who would have been defenseless against this medium. As brought out earlier, the action at Sumdorong Chu in 1986 has driven home the proof that airpower can make the difference in a war in mountainous terrains.

Escalation Woes

The escalating ground situation and the unprecedented PLA build up in the TAR has sent a rather ominous signal to India. The lack of strategic perception and strategic surveillance has led to delayed perceiving of the development and direction of this posture. This is evidenced by the frantic reaction of the Indian Army rallying its troops and investing in large formations and mechanized forces to be inducted into the Ladakh region. The government of India has also gone into high gear to acquire additional air assets to supplement the dwindling combat squadrons of the IAF—a long pending requirement. It is unseemly that it needed a crisis for basic strategic understand- ing to sink in and activate a system that has notoriously long gestation periods. The fast-tracking of the acquisition of additional fighter aircraft will still take some time for the items to be effective.

PLAAF – Strategic Transformation

The past three decades have witnessed a concerted thrust by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) to upgrade its combat airpower with the acquisition of state-of-the-art fighter platforms having a capability to carry out all-weather precision strikes. The information medium and real-time data transfer have permitted the PLAAF to create and operate in a network- centric environment, with the decision level also networked through complex Command & Control (C2) Centres. This environment has greatly enhanced the operating environment of its air power assets while at the same time, creating a more lethal atmosphere for opposing airpower.

The 1991 Gulf War had an immense impact on the Chinese leadership. The remarkable effect of airpower, which virtually won the war, brought into sharp focus, and highlighted the pathetic state of the PLAAF (in comparison) and China’s air power. Operating redundant aircraft, with inadequate training status, and virtually non-existent international exposure, motivated the leadership to pursue a purposeful military modernization program. Following the direction given by the 2015 Chinese White Paper on ‘China’s Military Strategy,’ which stated that “…without a strong military a country can neither be safe nor strong,” China capitalized on its soaring economy to fund its defense modernization program. Prominence was given to develop the PLAAF, both in numbers and technical superiority. Reneging on foreign partners by fair means and foul, China manipulated funds and efforts to acquire technology by any means available.

Thus, the strategic transformation of the PLAAF commenced, with a stated purpose of modernizing and integrating its air and space forces and accelerating its transition from a purely territorial protection AD force to one capable of both defensive and offensive operations. With its well laid out Military Strategic Guidelines (MSG), which provided the ‘basic principles of planning and guiding the conduct of the war in a modern military environment,’ the PLAAF set out to layout its priorities for strategic transformation. These included:-

  • Effective Air Superiority
  • Suppression of modern Air
  • Develop a modern, integrated AD
  • Develop Long-Range Strike
  • Develop efficient Medium and Heavy lift capability through a robust transport
  • Develop C4ISR through Satellites, Airborne Warning And Control System (AWACS) & Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEWC)
  • Procure tankers for strategic
  • Modernize and enhance the indigenous military

Technology acquisition has resulted in the PLAAF procuring and manufacturing some of the most modern fighter platforms today. China’s proclivity for reverse engineering, not to mention the misappropriation of plans and designs from foreign Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) through dubious means, has benefitted the military industry. All this has resulted in China today possessing a state-of-the-art, lethal air force with a capability spectrum stretching through the air, maritime, space, and information domains. Copying the USA’s ‘Net-Centric Capability’ maxim, China has adopted the term ‘Informati- zation’ to describe its transformation into the realm of digitized warfare. Because training and doctrine were the weak areas in the PLAAF growth chart, concerted efforts to reach out have allowed them to participate with Pakistan, their strategic partner, in Air Warfare Exercises, which have been progressively increasing in complexity. Pakistan Air Force, which participates in exercises with many other Air Forces, brings to the table a host of experience that will prove immensely beneficial to the PLAAF.

PLAAF Capability

  • Fighter Aircraft. While the PLAAFs fighter aircraft arsenal is impressive, comprising SU-27, SU-30 MKK, SU-30 MK2, SU-35, J-10, J-11, J-15 (from the SU-33), J-16, J-20, and the developing J-31 in considerable numbers, extolling their performance and capabilities will only be effective when seen in the context of the region of The sheer elevation of the Tibetan plateau and the inhospitable climate for a more significant part of the year precludes the effective utilization of these sophisticated platforms. The limitation imposed by altitude on airplane engines, both jet and piston engine, is a simple case of debilitation in performance. The rarified atmosphere is not conducive to producing the suitable ‘composition,’ which allows these engines to operate optimally. The resultant loss of performance grossly impinges on the operational impact of these otherwise impressive weapon platforms. Restricted by take-off weight, aircraft have no choice but to forfeit either fuel or weapon load. Both are severe operational limitations. Freezing of fossil fuels/greases imposes further operating limitations in specific temperature conditions. Longer take-off and landing distances take their toll on tires and braking systems. Associated infrastructure like runways need to be longer, and the severe temperatures put building material and structures under severe stress, reducing their life spans. Thus, the sparingly created military airfields in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) are devoid of suitable infrastructure to support protracted operations. Until recently, they hosted fighter aircraft only in small detachments for brief training sojourns.
  • A matter of more in-depth consideration and attention should be the deployment of PLAAF helicopters and UAVs in the region. While helicopters’ effectiveness will suffer because of ambient altitude, their effectiveness in negotiating the terrain and their access to troop support will play a major role in the region of operations. The PLA and the PLAAF have a fleet of Mi-8 / Mi-17 helicopters acquired from Russia, with a large back-up of indigenously built helicopters. The main backbone is the Changte Z-8, while they also have the Z-9 (Dauphin derivative), and the newly developed Z-20 (a clone of the US Blackhawk helicopter). China has invested heavily in the development and manufacture of Z-10, Z-9W and Z-19 helicopters, all of which attack helicopters of differing weight and capability, with associated firepower. It was reported last year that the Z-10 and the new Harbin Z-19 and Z-20 helicopters participated in a significant multi-grouping and multi-dimensional army support exercise. Equipped with state-of-the- art glass cockpits, NVD (Night Vision Device) capable and networked with sensors like satellites / AWACS / UAVs, the helicopters, in close support role, were able to “see over the hill” well before they approached the targets, giving them the flexibility to orientate themselves to the real-time battle scenario and plan their attack and getaway optimally in a high threat zone. The report concluded that the attack helicopters were very effective during the exercise.
  • Rocket Perhaps the biggest airpower threat emanating from China that should concern us the most is their missile and rocket forces. Because of the limited capability that fighter aircraft could bring to bear in the region of conflict with India, China will probably lay greater emphasis on containing India’s air power by attempting to deny their use through pulverising attacks on IAF airbases with their missile and rocket forces. Supplementing the surface to surface missile and rocket force will be the ALCMs (Air-Launched Cruise Missiles) carried by the H-6K bombers of the PLAAF. Operating from depth airbases, utilising tanker support for air to air replenishment, the H-6K bombers could launch the Changjian-20 (CJ-20), an Air Launched Land Attack Cruise Missile (AL-LACM), which has an estimated range of 2000 kms. The warhead could be conventional or nuclear. Designed with inertial, GPS and terminal radar guidance, it is reported to possess a CEP of 5m, in other words, a precision strike weapon, normally used for strategic strikes on Centres of Gravity.

The Indian Air Force

The Indian Air Force has a well-established array of airfields confronting China. Stretching from Leh in the north, through the bases in Punjab, UP, Bihar, West Bengal, and Assam, every airfield is capable of full-fledged operations for all types of aircraft. In fact, they have a well-developed infrastructure that meets all possible necessities other than some specialist requirements specific to a particular type of aircraft or its weapons. The necessity for adequate air power to counter China in conflict across a 4500 km frontage highlights and brings to focus the consequences of delayed acquisitions for the IAF in the light of a dwindling inventory. This takes on a grave portent when it becomes necessary to offset the threat on the western front, simultaneously. The flexibility and mobility of airpower will permit the IAF to shift its assets across the frontage at will, based on the threat and requirements. While the total fighter aircraft assets may be able to cater for all sectors, these numbers do not cater to likely attrition if used in an offensive role. Like the PLAAF, the IAF in this scenario is also likely to be mainly utilized in close support to the army in conducting Battlefield Air Strikes (BAS) and Interdiction, both shallow and deep, to deny the PLA its logistics. Extensive use of helicopters would see the platforms undergoing high utilisation, providing theArmysupport in various roles, such as an attack, redeployment of troops, and casualty evacuation in the battle zone.

While the criticality of numbers of fighter aircraft is regularly talked about, in a crisis of this nature, the criticality is probably higher with respect to the availability of High-Value Airborne Assets (HVAAs) like the AWACS, AEW&C and FRA (Flight Refuelling Aircraft). If mobilisation and transfer of assets from one theatre to another is necessitated in a full frontage war, the lack of adequate force multipliers may become a factor that would decide success or failure. The IAF is woefully short of these assets in such a scenario.

In response to China’s missile and rocket force, India must make full use of its own indigenous firepower in this domain of Surface to Surface Missile (SSM) warfare. With our Prithvi series of SRBMs (Short Range Ballistic Missiles) covering distances of 150-600 kms, the Agni series of IRBMs (Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles) covering distances of 700-6000 kms (The Agni V is an ICBM – Inter Continental Ballistic Missile – range 5000-8000 kms) and the new Shaurya 700- 1900 kms range MRBM (Medium Range Ballistic Missile), we have a fairly effective coverage of likely targets in China. The latest range of Surface Launched Cruise Missiles (SLCMs), the supersonic Brahmos (290 km), Prahaar (150 km), Nirbhay (1000-1500 km) have brought into sharp focus our precision strike capability with land-based missile systems.

Operational Imperatives / Analysis

The recent border conflict and the on-going impasse may not coalesce into a full-fledged war between India and China. Not willing to face a repeat of the ignominious result of 1962, India must take all measures to ensure that the results are like those achieved in 1986. The circumstances today are far different, one would assess, but given the extent of China’s threat posturing and the ominous accretion of PLA forces as India’s opposition becomes firm, the situation could precipitate into an India-China conflict. Limitations of terrain and the fact that China, like India, is faced with another possible contested front (South China Sea), will mean that the China’s Western Theatre Command will be solely responsible to exercise its authority to oversee operations across the entire frontage. As brought out earlier, limitation of operations by PLAAF aircraft in the TAR and associated regions indicates that fewer than optimal air assets can be employed in the area. The likelihood of large-scale air attacks is therefore negligible, if not, obviated. China’s highly acclaimed Peoples Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) is likely to be at the forefront of the battle zones, unleashing a preponderance of SSMs / ALCMs to suppress IAFs air power from coming into effective play.

China’s fighter aircraft are likely to be restricted to air defense duties to protect its own VAs / VPs, carry out close support missions on as required basis in their territory, and attempt shallow and sporadic interdiction missions into Indian territory. In pursuit of its modernization process, China has built up a highly effective layered Air Defense system, designed to create a dense, protective, and lethal environment for any intruding aircraft. These AD assets are reportedly well integrated into a modern ‘informalized’ network providing a highly responsive and effective defensive structure. This will prove to be a significant deterrent to IAF aircraft which seeks to infiltrate deep into Chinese territory. AD systems are likely to be deployed in the mountainous region of the immediate area of confrontation.

The fact that airborne airpower is decidedly in India’s favor will not be lost on China. India needs to be up to speed to offset the onslaught of rockets and missiles that are virtually guaranteed to precede any major ground operations. Effective passive air defense measures, creation of infrastructures like hardened shelters and dissipated deployment of assets will offer safety. The vulnerability of HVAAs operating among the forward airfield zones/airspace will have to be critically assessed, and the HVAAs exposed for the minimum possible periods on the ground. This would be true for the transport fleet of C-17 / C- 130 / AN-32 aircraft that would be on a continuous supply chain replenishment duty. The factor of exposed aircraft to rocket and missile attacks will be critical for our helicopters operating out of our forward bases and ALGs. Helicopter support in mountain warfare is invaluable, and degradation will have catastrophic consequences, imposing severe limitations on-ground operations. China has created the PLA Airborne Corps, whose tasks are air and airborne assault, by paradrop and assault landing, respectively. Designed to support the main force thrust to seize and secure vital areas, they pose a huge threat to our forward airfields like Leh and Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO). The forward airfields are lifelines for Army re-supply and sustenance.

History Begets Caution

The employment of airpower in high altitude mountainous terrain was classically exemplified by the Soviets and Americans in Afghanistan, albeit in different periods of time. Some of the crucial lessons that emerged which are of significance and should be carefully studied and considered by our planners are enumerated below:-

  • Weather in mountainous terrain is Severe turbulence / poor visibility can hamper operations. Weather affects targeting, even by LGBs.
  • Effective attack directions are restricted and predictable, increasing the threat envelope for attacking aircraft/helicopters.
  • Small and dispersed targets in vertically oriented terrain make accurate engagement
  • Degraded performance of aircraft at high altitude, especially helicopters, make them vulnerable to anti-aircraft
  • Specialist training for pilots is considered necessary because of the specific peculiarities that operations in mountainous terrain
  • The strategic struggle of warfare in such terrain is to try and strangle the enemy’s logistics Interdiction will pay dividends.
  • Forward Air Controllers (FACs) play a vital role for effective air attacks, especially in terrain where targets are difficult to
  • The Soviets lost a lot of aircraft and helicopters to ground fire – they were forced to resort to long-range weapons to reduce
  • The US’ Op Anaconda was a huge disaster in which they lost several Chinooks, Blackhawks, and Apache Only nations like the USA and Russia can absorb such tremendous losses.
  • Both Soviet and American helicopters fell prey not  only  to  Low-Level Quick Reaction Missiles (LLQRM), but even to RPGs and heavy caliber small arms.
  • ISR and updated intelligence were vital to every operation. UAV’s are a vital asset but are quite

Conclusion

The possibility of an India-China conflict in the light of the recent skirmish and the saber-rattling that is in progress cannot be ruled out, and India cannot be found wanting under these circumstances. There is no doubt that air power will play a dominant role in shaping the war in the given area of operations. In the event of a major conflict, a comparison of capabilities clearly highlights the woeful state of the IAFs airpower resources when confronted with even limited assets across the border. As long as the conflict is swift and short, our limited assets will be able to sustain; but a protracted exchange will dramatically wear out an over-stretched force. In every eventuality, China’s missile and rocket force capability must be of concern to our planners. UAVs have not been elaborated upon because of the wide variety that can be operated. They contribute as a significant airpower asset in support operations to ground forces.

The procrastination seen for decades in defense acquisitions highlights a lack of understanding in India’s bureaucracy and political establishment of defense requirements to combat a hostile neighbor. Political and diplomatic maneuvers by themselves cannot guarantee peace in the absence of hard power alternatives, which simply suggests the need to maintain a strong military. It is hoped that the existing resources serve the purpose and prove their potential if full-scale hostilities ensue. Only time and history record the successes and failures of military confrontations.

*An alumnus of NDA and DSSC, Air Marshal Sumit Mukerji has served the IAF as a fighter pilot with distinction He has commanded three units, a MiG-29 Sqn, a MiG-25 SR Sqn and TACDE (considered the ‘Top Gun’ school of the IAF) and also served as the Air Attaché in Washington DC. He retired in 2011 as the AOC-in-C of Southern Air Command.

References:                                                                                                                                 

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