Very recently, Air Chief had caused a minor stir with his statement on IAF’s preparedness for a two-front war. In itself, it is not that the idea of Indian preparation for a two-front war is particularly radical. The concern that India would be acted against by its two largest hostile neighbors in tandem is not new. The Sino-Pakistan axis has existed even before the US-Pak axis was upgraded by Nixon to US-Pak-China axis in late 60s and early 70s by Nixon and Kissinger. During the 1970 and 1971, as the US provided diplomatic cover to the ongoing genocide in East Bengal by Pakistan, the threat of Chinese involvement in the what would become the Bangladesh liberation war was a distinct reality. As US sent its carrier battle groups into the Indian Ocean, it encouraged China to simultaneously move against India from the North. Thankfully, adroit military planning by India to keep the action limited to winters and deft geo-political manoeuvring to have the Russian bear in her corner meant that the threat from the US-Pak-China axis did not go beyond diplomatic and material support and no real military operations against India from either side could actually be mounted.
Since then the world has changed, Pakistan is no longer a reliable partner to western interests and the Islamist factions nurtured by west have turned on it. The price of Chinese being in the western camp is bleeding of its economic strength and the most recent nationalist trends to rise in the west are beginning to realize the real cost of a Made in China product, including geo-political goodies it had been sourcing from it till now. At the same time the erstwhile Soviet bloc is no longer as involved in pushing its influence in the world, and is in inward looking mode with immediate Russian interests taking the greatest precedence over ideological or larger international agenda. The emerging world is therefore tending towards the multi-polar picture that Indian polity has for long expected to be the natural state of the world.
However, this in turn means, the détente and the systems of checks and balances which dominated the old world orders are crumbling. The multi-polar world is an increasingly uncertain place with changing loyalties, unpredictable acts by significant players, emergence of local blocs and non-rational sudden death moves by proxy state and non-state actors which could be earlier be held on a much tighter leash. Examples abound, of US nurtured Taliban and IS turning on the West, North Korea being unstable proxy for Chinese influence, emergence of tactical blocs like Russia-Iran-Syria for short term critical geo-political objectives etc etc etc. In the uncertain times, the one enduring bloc which has actually emerged stronger has been the Sino-Pak axis, its strengths have been fed both by the classical geo-polity of the old, and the emergence of tactical moves of the new. It has also created conditions that would embolden them to act without fears of a larger fallout to meet their long held aims of self-actualization at national level.
India has in turn over the years stepped up its readiness for such an eventuality, even as far back as 2010, the armed forces had presented to the government, the changed threat perception necessitating an evolved deterrence matrix. This involved for the army, operationalizing of the cold start concept proposed in 2002-4 NDA government time frame to carry out rapid punitive action against Pakistan, coupled with stronger might in the North. The Norther threat was to be dealt with by raising additional two additional divisions under a brand new mountain strike corps.
However, there was very limited progress towards meeting these goals till 2014, and only when the NDA government returned to power did military strength become a national priority again. Since then the initial plans put together by the Army have seen fructification. The Army had formally begun to raise the new 17 Mountain Strike Corps in 2014, under which, the 59 Infantry Division was the first to be raised at Panagarh in West Bengal. This division was made almost fully operational in 2016-17 time frame, and the Army is now focusing on raising the 72 infantry division under the mountain strike core, which is well on plan for its completion in 2017-18 financial year. The requisite outlays have been made by the finance ministry and simplified fund release mechanism for emergency purchases put into place by government has aided acquiring ammunition and other assets for it. In addition, the government has actively pursued acquisition of fire power through expedited purchase of M777 howitzers through the FMS route which have now started arriving in India towards equipping the core with needed mountain assets. In addition, both the army and the air force have been working towards strengthening the logistical infrastructure to support Indian operations. Steps included operationalizing of advanced landing grounds (ALG), with C 130J and C 17 globe master operations supporting them and building of the road network. In Arunachal alone Mechuka, Tuting, Ziro, Walong, Pasighat and Along were reactivated, while Tawang and Vijayanagar are being worked on. Additional ALGs in Ladakh and Uttarkhand are actively being worked on as per unconfirmed reports. Since the new government has taken over, the completely stalled road network development project have received a fillip with, 27 or the 71 sanctioned roads completed, and the remaining have been put into mission mode for completion by 2022.
As a reference point, these were actually supposed to be completed by 2012 but were languishing with no work whatsoever being done on them. The PM recently oversaw the completion and launch of India’s longest bridge in Assam, capable of taking tanks and other heavy equipment. While a lot remains to be done towards completion of the ambitious road development plans, the government is pushing the same on war footing with rapid progress being made.
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It is these steps, a combination of manpower, equipment modernization, war store inventory build-up and logistical back bone strengthening, which have enabled the Chief of Army Staff, Gen Bipin Singh Rawat to claim that Army was ready for a two and half front war.
It is no empty boast, as was amply demonstrated during the Doklam incident where IA was able to stare down PLA, moving in additional troops and support on a very short notice in an effective manner not only in the specific theater of operation, but along the entire Northern front to be able to clearly establish its force projection capability. The successful conclusion of the Doklam incident was not only a success of immediate military and diplomatic operations, but three years of sustained capability building by the Indian nation. It is in this context too that we must evaluate IAF chief’s recent statements. What steps do we see from IAF to enhance its capabilities across the various dimensions as listed above for IA ?
While building up of the armed forces is difficult, it is doubly more so for the air force and the navy, which by their very nature are asset intensive fighting forces, requiring very high capital outlays towards acquisition of weapon systems which even when fewer in numbers are expensive, complex, need large logistical footprint and state of the art technological excellence for it to be even borderline effective. This essentially means that the time that IAF would need to meet its preparedness goals after the destruction of UPA years would be much higher. IAF’s squadron strength has plummeted to 32 or 33 from the minimum need of 45 sqdns for a full spectrum two front war. This has caused the chief to despair as close as beginning of last year that IAF numbers are not adequate to fully execute an air campaign in a two-front scenario.
From then to now, for the IAF Chief to say that there indeed exists a plan towards a two-front war, is highly unusual, especially since there has not been any significant increase in the numbers of front line aircrafts in the period.
One would be tempted to assume that its either an empty boast, or generally reassuring noises for public consumption, had it not been coming from the very same man who a year and half back had expressed his concerns without hesitation. It is then clear that IAF has over last year and half, come up with a stratagem for the inevitable, if it were to occur before the full upgradation plans complete. However, there is nothing either in public media or most strategic think tanks which discuss IAF’s approach in a two-front war situation with the current limitation of numbers it faces. That analysis is something we must do ourselves, depending upon the tidbits of information in Air Marshal’s address and some amount of well-informed imagination. The key points the chief talked about included acquisition of defensive shields like S-400 long range air-defense missiles to interdict the enemy air assets, the continuing increase of offensive airborne platforms like Rafael and Su-30s, and being able to fix and destroy nuclear and other strategic assets across the border. He also talked about how the Chinese and Indian air forces have different operating conditions in a manner which helps IAF. Nevertheless, over the year and half within which there has been a marked change in IAF’s stance, one would be hard pressed to list similar developments as one can for IA based on the available information.
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It is here that contours of plan-B then suggest themselves. Traditionally, there have been two ways to win wars, the first being the classical tactic of application of overwhelming force against the enemy, the essential military superiority model. The second, not nearly as popular, and much harder to pull off is the asymmetric warfare model, i.e. to use ingenious tactics and military innovation by formally weaker force to overwhelm as stronger one. This is not as unusual as it might seem, with some of the most notable victories in the history of mankind having been obtained this way. This includes famous examples such as Guerrilla tactics of Sisodia Rajputs of Mewar against Mughal Akbar, and later by Marathas against Aurangzeb as well as VietCong and Taliban against US and so on. These have however been limited to land warfare, and there are very few examples of similar effort in equipment intensive forces, with the exception of IAF taking on a qualitatively superior PAF in in 1965. The plan-B for IAF would then be to do more with less numbers than conventionally thought possible. There are a straws in the wind which point to this.
One of course is the part of the statement by Air Chief that the force would plan carry out more sorties with what they have. This is also backed up by other reports that IAF is enhancing night flying. In a short intense war, IAF is preparing for maximum uptime of its equipment with minimum turnaround time between missions to maximum the strike with given aircraft numbers. The other clear emphasis is to make the aircrafts more effective for each mission they undertake. The existing fleet is being modernized as fast as possible not only through intake of newer planes, but making the current aircrafts far more effective than what they would normally thought to be. Such steps are being taken through network centric model of connecting the aircrafts together in an grid for older aircrafts to gain from the situational awareness provided by the cutting edge platforms, either in form of a Su 30 or AWACS or such.
IAF has been long experimenting with such force multiplier strategies, embedding Mig 21s within a fleet of Su 30s to be nearly invisible weapon carrying platforms which work as extension of the Gen 4.5 Sukhois, stepping up from a Generation 3.5 platform purely from use of unexpected battle tactics. The choice of additional orders of Su 30 and Rafael’s also start playing in here. Rafael’s are very similar to upgraded Mirage 2000 , and with IAF pilots already training to induct Rafael’s and with an experienced fleet of Mirages, in a critical situation, the orders of Su 30s/Rafaels/Mirage 2000 can be expedited to make additional aircrafts available at very short notice to make up for attrition in battle. The effort to make each unit count is also seen in IAF focusing on quality of the aircrafts it has, anecdotally the IAF Su 30 MKI far outmatch anything China has operational, with its best Su 27 derivatives being outclassed by the MKI by many times over.
In addition the PLAAFs capabilities will be limited by the fact they would operate from Tibet plateau, where the airfields being at a higher altitudes and in very rugged physical conditions in remote desolate geographies would limit the payload with which the aircrafts can take off, the number and the types of aircrafts that the Chinese can operate as well as making these very visible and susceptible to Indian counter strikes. This was alluded to by the Chief as well, and a few well informed war gaming scenarios published as fiction such as “Chimera” outline the same. Chinese logistical chains, for reasons mentioned before are particularly vulnerable to sustained attacks, which India would seek to mount through cruise missiles, deep penetration strike operations and in most desperate measure, targeted by ballistic missile with semi-conventional or tactical nuclear warheads. Cutting down on the Chinese air bases in Tibet would severely limit the ability of PLAAF to bring its assets in operation against India, and would manifold increase the risks for its aircrafts operating from Chinese plains and reaching India through refueling over Tibet.
IAF would seek to inflict serious damage on both PLAAF and nearly wipe out PAF through cruise missile and other methods of operations to re-adjust the overall force levels in its favors early in the war. If a brutal sustained air war can destroy the limited assets of PAF, IAF would be freed from the western front and would not be in a unfavorable position during the war of attrition which would inevitably follow with the Chinese. This incidentally is not dissimilar to Pakistani attempts during the 1971 war, although Pakistan was horribly unsuccessful in execution of the strategy and its initial successes were far too limited to keep IAF out of action for any period of time. In contrast, the Japanese achieved much greater success in this approach at Pearl Harbor and the US navy was kept out of war for nearly a year allowing Japan sufficient time to overrun East Asia. PAF of course would seek to preserve its aircrafts by keeping them out of battle and use the aircrafts to provide a nuisance value in the west and force IAF to tie down its assets and not focus on China. The Chinese would try and push as many aircrafts into battle on the first day with their numerical superiority denting tactical advantage of IAF, even if at greater costs to PLAAF.
The battle lines for a two front war are then fairly clear, and if the air chief is now confident in his force’s abilities, it means that over the last two years, IAF has developed capabilities towards asymmetric warfare through leveraging of technological platforms, development of key logistical aids and acquisition of critical force multiplier assets to prevail even in a situation of numerical weakness.
In addition it has developed strategies and practiced and trained for tactics towards degrading enemy counter to Indian asymmetric warfare, through ability to achieve targeted reduction of enemy assets which would counter Indian battle plans.
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