India-China LAC standoff: Since 2020, IAF played crucial role in effectively pushing back China’s offensive air posture, and also acted as force multiplier for Army. It's now gearing up for 4th winter. The IAF continues to play the crucial role of a “force multiplier” for India's military capabilities at the LAC

New Delhi: The India-China military standoff at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh will soon enter its fourth winter, and while troops there remain heavily deployed, the Indian Air Force (IAF) continues to play the crucial role of a “force multiplier” for the military capabilities that can be brought to bear on an aggressor. From upping the game at the LAC by way of pushing whatever was needed high up the Himalayan border by the forces, and that too at a much greater scale, the IAF’s role has proved to be indispensable in the India-China border clash this time. It is now preparing itself for the fourth consecutive winter.

The requirement of equipment and essential items needed by the Indian Army multiplied this time even as China amassed huge numbers of troops as well as military equipment that forced the Indian Armed Forces to be literally “war-ready”, and the challenge was to get all items up in the border areas in quick turnaround time. Hence, despite the development in infrastructure there in terms of roads and bridges, use of the air assets “augmented the mobility of the Army to a very large extent”, top-level defence and security sources said.

When the military standoff between India and China began in April-May 2020, and particularly after the Galwan clash in June that year, around 68,000 troops and 90 tanks were taken at the LAC in a matter of days. This is one of the reasons why the Indian armed forces could take up such an offensive posture. A lot of resources had to be placed at the hands of the Army to make ‘Operation Snow Leopard’ a successful endeavour. The IAF had to deploy a fleet for aircraft to make this operation achieve its goal. It has deployed all its assets from AN-32, C-130J, C17, Chinooks as well as Mi-17s, depending on the type of roads and the platforms the Army needed, the sources said.

Additionally, the IAF helped in ensuring that critical loads could be placed in the hands of those who needed it the most and in cutting down the transportation time — essentially a role carried out by helicopters such as Chinooks and Mi-17s.

‘Operation Snow Leopard’ was launched by the Indian Army in August 2020 in order to increase its troops deployment and occupy the strategic heights in the South Bank of PangongTso in Ladakh along the LAC to monitor PLA’s movement from atop the mountain ridges. The Army continues to launch the operation even now whenever the need comes up, the sources said.

It seems India and China are in for the long haul. Earlier this month, the top military brass between both sides met once again to chalk out a strategy for disengagement and de-escalation of the troops but the talks did not see any headway. This was the 20th round that failed to come to any kind of viable resolution to the standoff. Last year too, troops on both sides clashed with each other along the eastern sector of the LAC in Arunachal Pradesh, but the tensions were quickly defused. But incidents such as these might increase in the coming days, said the sources.

IAF Maintaining ‘State of Readiness’

The Air Force is now busy strategizing the winter deployment at the LAC as temperature there dips below 40 and maintaining high-tech and heavy weaponry becomes hugely difficult.

“All resources required to tackle any eventuality, be it aircraft, air defence networks, surface to air weapons etc are in position and ready to tackle any eventuality,” said one of the sources quoted above.

The IAF was never needed to operate in those kinds of conditions and environment before, but the force is now carrying out all such operations without a hitch and are gearing up for the upcoming winter.

The IAF’s preparedness can also be gauged from the fact that it is able to undertake night operations by all types of aircraft, including fighters. The IAF continues to deploy squadrons of fighter jets along the LAC and the number can increase as winter approaches, the sources underlined.

Anil Khosla, Air Marshal (Retd.) and former Vice Chief of Indian Air Force, said: “The defence services, the Indian Air Force included, are doing the needful jointly and synergistically. The IAF undertakes missions to accomplish its roles and tasks, like any other defence force, including political and strategic signalling not only by deploying and operating aircraft, weapons and systems at appropriate places but also by carrying out exercises in these areas in terms of rapid mobility, troop induction, and transfer. Rapid troop mobilisation undertaken by the IAF surprised everyone as well as sustenance and supply (equipment, ammunition, weapons, rations, etc.). All IAF resources including heavy-lift aircraft, medium-lift aircraft, and helicopters are used for this task.”

Khosla also said: “All the assets of IAF are always available and are used to deal with prevailing or emerging situations. IAF is always prepared for any eventuality. It is a capable, motivated and battle-hardened force. The IAF may be numerically lagging behind but is still a few points ahead in its war-waging capabilities. Moreover, IAF always works on two plans. First plan to fight immediately with whatever it has."

The second one, he added, is to enhance its potential (capability and capacity) in the short, mid and long terms. "These plans are periodically reviewed, revised and activated. This edge needs to be maintained, while war fighting capabilities have enhanced over the years it is the capacity (numerical strength) which needs enhancement on priority. Appropriate actions have been initiated and they need to be executed speedily.”

According to a report — 2023 Report on Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China — released by the US Department of Defense earlier this month, China continues to increase its deployments at the LAC and is also going in for a massive infrastructure build-up there.

The Pentagon also said that China’s Western Theatre Command is “oriented toward India” due to “differing perceptions between India and the PRC regarding border demarcations along the LAC, combined with recent infrastructure construction on both sides, led to multiple clashes, an ongoing standoff, and military build-ups along the shared border".

In 2022, the report added, China deployed one border regiment, supported by two divisions of Xinjiang and Tibet Military districts with four combined arms brigades (CAB) in reserve in the western sector of the LAC. China also deployed as many as three light-to-medium CABs in the eastern sector from other theatre commands and an additional three CABs in the central sector of the LAC. Although some elements of a light CAB eventually withdrew, a majority of the deployed forces remain in place along the LAC.