The Chinese army (PLA) has now built new barracks near the disputed Sino-Indian boundary as part of its ‘preparation for war’, says a Chinese state media report. This was the assessment of some of us, when the Chinese began their build up. And even now, while there is hope in some quarters that everything will be back to normal, we shouldn’t rule out a possible conflict with China, and one that could escalate into a full blown war, for which India’s armed forces are ready. This has been re-asserted now by the IAF chief, Air Chief Marshal Bhadauria, following up on such earlier statements by the defence minister, Mr Rajnath Singh, and the CDS General Bipin Rawat. And though the initial surprise in South Block over Chinese intrusions had a sense of déjà vu about the uncanny resemblance to the events that led to India’s humiliating defeat by Chinese forces in 1962 -when Pandit Nehru and his team had completely misread the intentions of Chairman Mao and China – the swift response by the Indian armed forces this time, shows that we’ve learnt the lessons of the humiliating rout of 1962.
The central difference then – after the Chinese began their build up – and now is that, then in 1962, our armed forces were ‘not’ allowed to fight! In fact, almost every well researched book on the 1962 conflict confirms that the Indian air force – despite many advantages that India held – wasn’t used because the Nehru-Krishna Menon duo were adamant that if India were to use its air force the border conflict could escalate into a full blown war. And when the Chinese forces began to roll down into Assam, Pandit Nehru was ready to consider the IAF option, but by then it was too late. The Chinese ‘having taught India a lesson’, decided to pull back exactly a month after they had invaded India. Thus, Prime Minister Modi’s decision to leave military matters to the Indian armed forces this time – though objected to by some commentators – needs to be appreciated, as our military men are professionals who know their job, and are suitably prepared, as they should be.
More specifically, taking the IAF chief’s remarks at his annual press conference on the eve of Air Force day (that falls on 8th October), it would be in order to analyze what his message means in the event of a Sino-Indian conflict. Those who are in awe of China’s technological advantages, and believe that its air force (PLAF) would have all the advantages in the event of a Sino-Indian conflict, should be reminded that apart from the limitations of high altitudes of the Tibetan plateau from where the Chinese air force (PLAAF) would have to fly towards India – whereby they would half to operate with half their useable fuel and ammunition loads- Chinese air force (PLAAF) pilots have little experience of battlefield situations as they rarely exercise with other forces, unlike Indian IAF pilots who regularly train with US, France and Russian air forces. The PLAAF has thus operational limitations. Moreover, China’s latest J-20 Chengdu fighter isn’t a 5th generation fighter as Beijing claims as per the youtube video by Defence Update (on Weapons and Strategies) since a 5th generation fighter is normally invisible to radars. But in 2018, an Indian Sukhoi- 30 MKI, had sighted the J-20 on its radar. So it’s a glorified 4++ generation fighter, and still ‘a work in progress’ to become a 5th generation fighter.
Thus, India’s Sukhoi’s and the new Rafale’s could be more than a match for the J-20. Also as Russia has confirmed that China has ordered new batches of SU-35 fighters (of 4++ generation), China’s claims of air superiority are contestable. Moreover, as other Chinese aircrafts are reverse engineered (copied) versions of Russian design, and as Russia doesn’t provide China its best technology since it’s wary of China copying it, Chinese aircrafts aren’t quite the state of the art technology they boast of. Even Pakistan has refused to buy J-17 s China makes with all-Chinese technology. Instead Pakistan has bought its critical components from other countries. The Indian air force (IAF) can thus be an effective match for the Chinese air force (PLAF) despite the depleting numbers, as the IAF chief has stated.
And those who fear that the Chinese superiority in ‘rocket forces’ would allow them to cause considerable damage to our airfields – not aircrafts – in Leh and Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO) should be reminded that India’s air armada would be flying from airfields far away from Chinese artillery and rocket reach – in Srinagar, Pathankot, Agra, Bareilly, Siliguri and Tezpur – and all of these airfields allow fighter aircrafts to load their full bomb and fuel payload and take off for their missions (unlike Chinese airfields on the Tibetan plateau, which restrict the operational capabilities of aircrafts). Moreover, any analysis of an air-land battle scenario, must account for the capabilities of an air force, beyond its line of fighter jets.
The Indian air force now has a range of battle worthy force multipliers, like the strategically capable C-17s and C-130 planes, the AH-64 Apaches and the CH-47F and MI-26 heavy lift heptrs, and is even using the Navy’s P-81 Poseidon multi- mission aircrafts for reconnaissance along with UAVs and AWACs for monitoring Chinese movements. Most importantly, a global ranking of the armed air services worldwide puts the IAF at 6th place behind all four US service air forces and that of the Russians, but ahead of the Chinese !
But if the PLA were to only resort to a face saving bet, to try another Galwan type encroachment along the LAC, India’s soldiers are now ready and waiting! Almost all Indian army’s infantry units (of about 700 men) have a ‘Ghatak’ platoon (of 36 men). These are made up men chosen and punishingly trained, to even kill with their bare hands, and many of them are hardened after years of battling terrorism in the J&K, and could give the PLA a serious drubbing. It was they who rushed to take on the Chinese army when they heard that Colonel Babu and his small team had been ambushed. Apparently they broke the necks of 18 Chinese soldiers and disfigured the faces of many others with stones says the report of Defence Updates.
But if the PLA were to only resort to a facesaving bet, to try another Galwan type encroachment along the LAC, India’s soldiers are now ready and waiting! Almost all Indian Army’s infantry units (of about 700 men) have a ‘Ghatak’ platoon (of 36 men). These are made up men chosen and punishingly trained, to even kill with their bare hands, and many of them are hardened after years of battling terrorism in J&K, and could give the PLA a serious drubbing. It was they who rushed to take on the Chinese army when they heard that Colonel Babu and his small team had been ambushed. Apparently, they broke the necks of 18 Chinese soldiers and disfigured the faces of many others with stones, says the report of Defence Updates.
Also to make any series gains on the LAC or McMahon Line, China would need a six time superiority in number of Indian troops deployed. So for every Indian division of about 8000 men, China must field 48,000 men. With that requirement China is still woefully short of troops on the entire Indian front. Besides, the Chinese army, on the other hand, might look impressive in ceremonial parades and in doctored videos. But it has virtually no battlefield experience, unlike the Indian army. More so, the Chinese army’s retired veterans are today openly resentful of their shabby treatment. This is a de-motivator for serving soldiers. Besides, with China’s one child policy, its soldiers are unwilling to die. India’s case is quite the opposite. The Indian army is ready to blow off the ghost of 1962.
There are similar questions against China’s maritime claims. The latest submarine in Chinese Navy (PLAN) is the Type 094 J-Class, which apparently is a backbone of China’s second strike capability and nuclear-deterrence. It carries one 1-Megaton nuclear warhead and twelve JL-II missiles (SLBMs with a range 7200 kms). But in October 2019, one of these submarines suddenly surfaced on the coast of China’s Hainan Island. It raised questions about why a nuclear submarine had surfaced, as its deployment is normally a secret? Did something go wrong with its systems? Western analysts also say that as Chinese submarines are very loud they can be tracked from far. Besides, the Chinese naval fleet with its aircraft carriers like ‘Liaoning’ and ‘Shandong’ carry J-15 fighters (copied from SU-33) that uses a WS10-8 engine that’s underpowered, so it has a limited effective range and can only carry a lesser weapons package than the SU-33 can. All this indicates that the Chinese navy, though large in numbers, still has its limitations.
India’s navy on the other hand, enjoys a considerable edge over the Chinese in the Indian ocean region, and can block Chinese ships from passing through the Straits of Malacca (a waterway near Singapore, between Malaysia and Sumatra). This can be a major pressure point against any long term Chinese military campaign against India. Incidentally, Indian navy ships in this area now operate closely with the US navy (which has in the past said that the professionalism of the Indian navy was up to NATO standards). This is China’s ‘Malacca dilemma’, and as a counter, China has made considerable investments in a port in Pakistan (Gwadar) and the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that runs from Kashgar in Xinjiang via POK and through Pakistan to the Arabian Sea. Some American analysts have recently expressed fears that any escalation around the J&K and Ladakh region, could draw in the US also and spark of a bigger Sino-US conflict and even possibly World War – III
Hence Beijing is now between the ‘devil and the deep sea’, surrounded as it is by American naval task forces and facing India’s tough stand against its territorial incursions. The one area that China could have a major edge over India if it uses its large cyber force to launch a form of ‘Unrestricted Warfare’, the new buzzword in Chinese military circles. And though Indian experts say that the cyber defences of India’s government sector remain strong, this cannot be said about our corporate sector. The other possibility is that if Beijing decides to raise the level and threaten the use of nuclear weapons, it must know that India can also respond. It isn’t the numbers of missiles and warheads that matters, but the fear of ‘mutually assured destruction’ (or MAD as the strategist prefer to call it) that would restrain Beijing. So in short, we are prepared.
The writer is a retired army officer and columnist