It is upgrading defence infrastructure in the Tibetan plateau to nullify the disadvantages that its airpower has vis-à-vis India

Aviation websites are abuzz with reports of a rapid upgradation of aviation infrastructure in Tibet. While the expansion of the road and railway network there has been subject to much debate, it is the speed of upgradation of airfields, construction of hardened aircraft shelters, new runways, aprons, underground storage and tunnelling into mountainsides, all visible in high-resolution satellite photos, that should have alarm bells ringing in New Delhi. This needs an analysis for two reasons. First, is there any link between these constructions and the procrastination by China in the talks for reducing tensions in Eastern Ladakh? What is the tactical aim of the Chinese with these upgradations? Second, how would these changes affect the balance of air power between the Indian Air Force (IAF) and People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) in the medium to long term?

On A Weak Wicket In The Air

While the larger strategic aim of the Chinese in upping the ante by violating decades-old understandings in 2020 is still a matter of debate, what Beijing discovered to its discomfiture was that India did not yield any ground, and actually occupied vantage points in the south Pangong Tso area to balance out some sectoral disadvantages. This firmness was backed by deterrent IAF firepower and it was clear to the Chinese that they were on a weak wicket in the air due to three reasons. First, the IAF’s high strike potential, with its aircraft having the advantage of a string of airfields all along the foothills of the Himalayas; that they are at low altitudes permit a full armament load to be carried. Second, Chinese airfields in Tibet were few, widely spaced out and hence not mutually supportive; there were gaps in the air defence structure too that the IAF would utilise to interdict targets in the rear. Third, most Tibetan airfields are at altitudes above 10,000 ft, severely restricting the payload of PLAAF aircraft. Additional infrastructure was required to make up these deficiencies since the positive asymmetry of IAF would be detrimental to China’s plans to gain any territorial advantage; ‘time’ had to be made an ally in this endeavour.

The balancing out of IAF’s asymmetry was only possible through a rapid upgradation of airfield and air defence infrastructure — this would need two years at least. The Chinese plan has been cleverly implemented through what can only be called a tactical pause, obtained via talks that were commenced but have meandered since. A ‘breakthrough’ in the eyeball-to-eyeball posture came in February when a simultaneous withdrawal in certain areas was agreed on, including a pulling back of Indian troops from their vantage points in areas south of Pangong Tso. With the threat to the PLA Moldo garrison removed, the Chinese re-adopted their procrastination position in subsequent talks regarding restoring status quo ante in Depsang/Daulat Beg Oldi and Hot Springs, which are of vital interest to India. This is the classic buying-time-through-talks technique and is still ongoing. In the tactical pause won surreptitiously, the Chinese have gone on the upgradation drive to nullify the disadvantages that Chinese airpower has vis-à-vis India; gaps in their air defence scheme are being plugged through the new infrastructure and positioning of new air defence radars and missile systems that would afford them a layered air defence setting and affect the balance of power in the medium to long term.

Trying To Turn The Tables

The IAF is equipped and trained for offensive action. In all the previous conflicts the IAF conducted aggressive strikes, besides providing active close support to ground forces. The odd exception was the 1962 India-China conflict where the IAF’s substantial strike potential was nullified by a political decision to not use it. The equipment accretion profile is a pointer to the offensive role as seen by the acquisition of Jaguars, Mirage-2000, Sukhois and now the Rafale. Seen from the prism of air power doctrine, this points to India’s strategy of deterrence by punishment: ‘don’t mess with us as we have the means and power to hurt you’. By strengthening their air defence architecture, the Chinese are trying to turn the tables and deter India through a strategy of denial, i.e., to dissuade the IAF by signalling that it would be costly in terms of aircraft and aircrew losses. For this turnaround to take effect would take China about two years. If China succeeds in its endeavour, India may lose the trump card of positive air power asymmetry that it now holds.

What should India do? The air defence upgradation drive is surely being monitored, but that is not enough. If status quo ante on ground is not obtained soon, it may be too late a year or two from now. The façade of talks should be acknowledged for its devious aim. India’s posture and demands at the talks (which one supposes has an IAF representative too) must reflect its understanding of China’s game plan. There is no other way out.