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Are India’s Air Force Ready to Compete with China’s rapidly expanding PLAAF?

Updated: Jan 5, 2023

The ongoing conflict between India and China in Ladakh and the most recent incident in Tawang demonstrate China's aggressive and occasionally aggressive behavior.

The Communist Party's sudden desire to rule the world is evidenced by Xi Jinping's continued consolidation of control over all instruments of Chinese power and increasing forays into Taiwanese and Japanese ADIZ.

China keeps making significant investments in the modernization of its armed forces. Early on, they understood that whoever controls aerospace also controls the planet.

Today, airpower is the primary tool used to wage war. It is inherently strategic, simultaneously offers conventional deterrence, and gives the political leadership quick access to a variety of response options. For achieving military objectives, aerospace offers speed, range, accuracy, and lethality. The future of all warfare depends on airpower.

Air campaigns can be run in tandem against numerous dispersed target systems. With extreme precision, it can offer both kinetic and non-kinetic options. Surface force actions and results are directly impacted by airpower.

All surface operations will still require air superiority in order to be successful. Even the military wants to invest more in air assets.

IAF's Present Combat Resources

The Indian armed forces are anticipated to fight simultaneously on both fronts in a war that lasts 30 days (intense) and 60 days (normal). With a maximum authorized strength of 42 fighter squadrons, the Indian Air Force (IAF) currently only has 30.

Two Rafales, 12 Su 30MKI, three MiG 21 Bison, three MiG 29s, three Mirage 2000s, five Jaguars, and two LCAs are among them.

The IAF's Rafale fighter jets are far superior to China's J-10, J-11, Su-27, and Su-35 fighter jets because they are outfitted with Meteor and MICA beyond visual range (BVR) air-to-air missiles and a contemporary EW suite.

The primary air superiority fighter with air-to-ground strike capabilities for the IAF is the Sukhoi Su-30MKI. Upgrades have been made to MiG 29s and Mirages. The LCAs are now considered assets that can be used in operations.

On February 15, 2022, the Tejas of the Indian Air Force will perform at the Singapore Air Show's opening ceremony.

With 11 C-17 and C-130 aircraft each, 17 IL-76, and more than 100 upgraded An-32, the IAF has a sizable capacity for moving cargo and troops. Likewise, the IAF is well-positioned for rotary wing assets with the addition of 15 Boeing Chinook heavy-lift and 22 Apache AH-64E attack helicopters, as well as a sizable fleet of 240 Mi-17 series medium-lift helicopters, nearly 100 ALH variants, and smaller Chetak/Cheetah fleets.

Only three large Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) aircraft, two of which were developed locally by the DRDO, are currently in the IAF's inventory. The IAF only has six IL-78 Flight Refueling Aircraft (FRA). For a continental nation like India, which also covers the Indian Ocean Region, both of these fleets are woefully insufficient.

India has an integrated and well-covered air defense radar system. The SAM-3 Pechora and SAM-8 OSA-AK are two legacy surface-to-air missile systems that are still in use by the IAF. With the introduction of numerous indigenous Akash AD systems and the already-inducted five S-400 systems, the AD coverage can be considered significant.

To cover the substantial Chinese border, more systems will need to be introduced. IAF has a sizable arsenal of aerial weapons, including the Meteor, Astra, SCALP, BrahMos, and Hammer, among others. Numbers must increase.

PLAAF's Rapidly Expanding

The People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) of China is equipped with an extensive and developing fighter fleet as well as cutting-edge air defense systems. Yes, they have to fight the significantly stronger American Air Force.

Almost 1,700 fighter/bomber aircraft are currently in service with the PLAAF, 800 of which are fourth-generation or newer, including more than 150 fifth-generation J-20s.

Their FC-31/J-31, a second fifth-generation aircraft, has received new funding. Nearly 170 H-6 long-range strategic bombers are available to the PLAAF, some of which have the capacity to transport up to six cruise missiles over a 1500-kilometer range.

File: H-20 Bomber

According to the schedule, the H-20 Stealth bomber could take off by 2025. EW aircraft are also available to the PLAAF. Numerous Y-20 large transport aircraft (66 tonnes) are being introduced.

Although the numbers are still small for their size, their other strategic assets, such as domestic AEW&C aircraft and Flight Refueller (FRA), are expanding. China is far ahead of other countries because it has already tested a hypersonic weapon.

With its extensive arsenal of surface-to-surface missiles, China also has an advantage. The largest asset of China is its domestic aircraft industry, which manufactures advanced helicopters and all types of aircraft.

China has a sizable fleet of indigenously designed drones and unmanned combat aircraft (UCAV). With nearly 600 aircraft and two operational aircraft carriers, the PLA Navy (PLAN) of China also possesses a sizable maritime air force.

Two additional carriers are being built, and two larger ones are in the planning stages. It is clear that China has a sizable air force.

Pakistan Air Force (PAF)

There are about 400 fighter aircraft in 20 squadrons of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF). There are signs that there will be 24–25 squadrons total. Newer fleets are replacing older ones. J 10 C and JF-17 Block III are currently being induced.

The F-16 spares package has been approved by the US. The PAF could eventually have more than 250 JF-17s, 75 F-16s, and about 50 J-10 C (two squadrons). According to reports, PAF is also interested in the J-20, but that seems early.

The PAF has a fleet of medium-sized helicopters and transport planes. However, they have a sizable number of Chinese unmanned aerial vehicles, and they will soon begin producing Wing Loong UCAVs in Pakistan.

The PAF is primarily focused on air defense. Despite the fact that the PAF does not pose a serious threat to India, it has been training closely with the PLAAF and benefits from equipment interoperability. Additionally, it might permit the PLAAF to use a few of its airfields. Thus, the IAF must account for a dual frontal attack.

IAF Targeted End State

By 2025, all IAF MiG-21 Bison squadrons will have been phased out. Up until 2030, the remaining fighter fleets would operate. Only four squadrons of LCA Mk 1A would be added by that time. One squadron of LCA Mk 2 may induct at most.

1-2 squadrons of the newly imported fighters could be enlisted if a decision is made in time. IAF may therefore still be present at 33–34 squadrons. Not the best situation, really.

estimation is that the IAF will only be able to reach 42 squadrons by 2038 if the country makes a decision and everything proceeds as planned. The final configuration might include 14 Su-30 MKI squadrons, two each of the Mirage 2000 and MiG 29, 12 LCA variant squadrons, two Rafales, six of the new fighter, and four Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA). It would then be 42.

IAF would actually need to use more of its Mirage and MiG 29 fleets. As long as funds are allocated on time and AMCA doesn't experience any significant development delays, these numbers are very doable.

Additionally, the IAF is required to target 12 FRA aircraft as well as ten large and ten small AEW&Cs. DRDO is developing indigenous versions of these types of aircraft based on ex-Indian Airbus models. The process of inducting them will take close to 6–8 years. Up until then, we need to move quickly with the two AEW&C acquisitions, and it would be a good idea to lease a few FRA.

IAF must possess a sizable fleet of UCAVs, including the "Ghatak" created by the country's own DRDO. IAF requires a sizable amount of drones and drone swarms. Additionally, the IAF ought to have a sizable stock of aerial missiles with longer ranges, such as the later iterations of the BrahMos and Astra missiles.

Asset Positioning and Infrastructure Focused on China

For a long time, the military equipment and infrastructure of India were focused on the Pakistani border. Both the positioning of assets and the building up of infrastructure are rapidly changing. The IAF has upgraded its Advanced Landing Grounds (ALG) close to the China border while border roads and connectivity are being improved. Aircraft and equipment shelters are being hardened at IAF airfields. The procedure needs to be accelerated even more.

IAF is currently facing China with a sizable number of Su-30 MKI squadrons. The eastern sector has also received recent additions like the Rafale, C-130 J, Chinook, and Apache helicopters. The same holds true for both weapon placement and air defence systems.

Ecosystem for Domestic Aircraft Production

Success for the LCA Tejas. The eco-system for producing fighter aircraft is now established. Even now, the LCA production rate is incredibly low. HAL and a private player must produce 18 aircraft per month for the IAF to receive numbers. The development of the LCA Mk1A and Mk2 must be accelerated. The AMCA must be run by a task force.

File Image: AMCA Model

The eco-system for producing helicopters is now fully established as well. At Tumkur, a new helicopter factory has been established. Armed forces enlistments are proceeding as planned. There have been orders placed for 70 HTT-40 basic trainer aircraft. It's time to push the long-delayed Intermediate Jet Trainer (IJT) trainer.

The midsized Indian Regional Jet (IRJ), which has 80–90 seats, has yet to take off while the Saras small transport (19 seats) is still having trouble. Although the C 295 W's local production should increase domestic transport aircraft production, the projected delivery times are close to 8–10 years.

Continued work on long- and medium-range SAMs, as well as air-to-air missiles, is required from India. For LCA Mk II, the Uttam AESA needs to be successful and perform better. Mission avionics, airborne processors, and airborne electronic warfare all require more development.

In the meantime, India's aero-engine program is still having difficulties. Pure research must be transformed into things that the armed forces can actually use.

Synergy At National Level

Synergy India must publicly release its National Security Strategy (NSS), which will serve as the foundation for the political direction given to the armed forces. Growing levels of cooperation between the armed forces and civil agencies are essential from an operational standpoint because conflicts often take on multiple dimensions. IAF must control the skies with at least local superiority in time and space for the surface forces to be successful.

Special national-level task forces would have to be established in fields like aero-engines, stealth, AI, advanced robotics, drones and swarming, combat air teaming, directed energy weapons, cyber, electronic warfare, quantum radars, sixth-generation technologies, and hypersonic weapons in order to acquire more modern technologies. The private sector and academia would need to be involved.

Atmanirbharta, The Only Answer

India has a strong industrial base and a sizable market for defense equipment, which provides a scale advantage. India can produce defense goods successfully if it can advance its missile, space, and nuclear programs.

Atmanirbharta, the Make-in-India initiative, is being aggressively promoted at the highest levels of government. The focus is on promoting "Made-by-India" as the top option. 'Make-in-India' is promoted as a stopgap measure. Defense manufacturing has received serious attention from large private industrial companies like Tata, L&T, Mahindra, Adani, Bharat Forge, and many others.

The initial goal of India is to lower defense imports from 70% to 40%. A fairly comprehensive list of indigenous practices should be helpful. To encourage self-reliance in the defense industry, the government created the "Defense Production and Export Promotion Policy 2020."

It is a lofty but doable goal to reach a turnover of Rs. 1 lakh 75 thousand crores (US$ 25 billion) by 2025, including exports of Rs. 35 thousand crores (US$ 5 billion) in aerospace and defense goods and services.

There may be a case for increasing the privatization of DPSUs as well. Radar and missile joint ventures with Israeli and Russian companies have generally been successful. India has achieved great success in shipbuilding, which the aerospace industry should emulate.

Aero-structures for the Boeing AH-64 Apache and CH-47 Chinook, Sikorsky S-92 helicopters, and Lockheed C-130J aircraft are produced by Tata Aerospace and Defence.

GE has a sizable presence in India. Components for India's CFM International LEAP engine are produced by the Tata Group in partnership with GE. TASL was chosen by Lockheed Martin to manufacture F-16 wings in India.

Cassidian, an EADS subsidiary, wants to turn India into a major hub for a variety of locally produced defense goods with high technological potential. Additionally, a sizable MRO market can build an R&D foundation for engineering services. India-based Adani-Elbit JV will produce Hermes 900 UAVs.

In the market for artillery and specialized vehicles, Bharat Forge is a significant player. Vertical fin assemblies for Sukhoi 30 MKI fighters and front fuselage for LCA are produced by Dynamatic Technologies. For the LCA Tejas, VEM Technologies produces the centre fuselage.

Avasarala Technologies, DefSys, Ravilla, and Taneja Aerospace are just a few small businesses that have recently acquired cutting-edge technological capabilities.

In addition to having access to cheaper skilled labor, Indian businesses now have the ability to manufacture products precisely to specifications, especially in the aerospace, metalworking, and electronics industries.

The defense supply chain currently employs an estimated 24,000 MSMEs, and over the years, more than 500 licenses have been granted to private companies, increasing their involvement in the defense industry.

Imperatives For IAF

Uninformed cynics have argued that the IAF shouldn't keep looking for 42 squadrons since the Rafale and Su-30 MKI can have an impact that is much greater than that of the older MiG 21s.

The argument is not strong. Although the IAF has seen a measured increase in capability, the rivals, particularly China, have been outpacing it with fifth-generation platforms. They aren't reducing the number of people. Weapon platforms and aircraft must be comparable to those used by the enemy.

Indian Air Force Su-30 MKI jets

IAF must restore its authorized 42 squadron force levels. While indigenization must be promoted, the temporary fighter shortage must be filled with fighters made in India.

Additionally, IAF requires more AEW&C and FRA immediately. The IAF needs to invest more in combat UAVs, including affordable kamikaze drones, as seen in the conflict in Ukraine because the future is unmanned.

India must also protect itself from a potential large-scale Chinese surface-to-surface missile attack (SSM). In addition to the numerous indigenous air defense systems currently under development, we need more SAM air defense systems of the S-400 and Iron Dome class.

A larger supply of ammunition and missiles is necessary. SSMs and cruise missiles will be required. Better cyber and electronic warfare capabilities are required for network-centric warfare, as is the security of one's own networks and the denial of the same to the enemy. On this front, much more work needs to be done.

Way upfront

India's threat on two fronts has been acknowledged by the government. However, it is also obvious that a full-scale conflict between neighbors is unlikely. China will keep provoking border conflicts to test India's willingness to defend itself. However, the only way to deterrence is through strength.

The disparity with China is still widening. Modernizing the IAF has a serious backlog that needs to be addressed right away. For aerial systems, obsolescence sets in much more quickly. Additionally, it might imply an increase in defense funding.

IAF has a strong operational background and is well-trained. The IAF clearly outnumbers China in terms of airfield quantity, quality, and location.

IAF can match PLAAF, but once the numbers rise, IAF will be in a much better position. The time to act is now.

SOURCE: EurAsian Times

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