India’s security narrative of the region has been largely driven by the coercive diplomacy which China has chosen to pursue as a part of its national security strategy. Border stand offs in Arunachal in the near recent past and Ladakh currently, underscore India’s ever-present continental challenge due to unresolved boundaries with its largest neighbour. On the other hand, the rising maritime muscle flexing by China on its Eastern and Southern seaboards is expanding from a South East Asian context into a wider Indo-Pacific domain. Both these scenarios impact India directly, but differently. When seen from the lens of continental security, in the absence of a collective South Asian regional impact, the border issue with China is essentially India’s problem.
By Air Marshal D Choudhury
The maritime domain however, draws much more traction, both regionally and in the larger geo-political context, simply because of the large number of players involved. Given that India’s security has a geographical construct in both continental and maritime domains with China, therefore all military security narratives with respect to it have traditionally been seen predominantly from Army and Navy perspectives. While this traditional approach is understandable given the domain centricity of the two Services, the Air Force (AF) has been conspicuously missing in the security narrative. This has not only narrowed India’s security outlook, it has also somewhat ‘boxed in’ its strategic options.
In an age where all leading nations and even smaller ones, routinely exploit air power as a significant instrument of national power, with one the oldest and the fourth largest AF in the world, India has ironically not leveraged it to its full advantage. Before considering as to how it could, let us first examine how China has employed the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) in its national interest. The Gulf War of 1999 was crossing the Rubicon moment for the Chinese leadership when it came to air power. According to Qiao and Wang, the authors of ‘Unrestricted Warfare’ – “When we attempt to use wars that have already occurred to discuss what constitutes war in the age of technical integration-globalization, only ‘Desert Storm’ can provide ready-made examples. At present, in any sense it is still not just the only [example], but the classic [example], and therefore it is the only apple that is worthy of our close analysis.” The modernization of the PLAAF has since been undertaken with a dedicated long-term vision. Three consecutive China Defence White Papers of the years 2013, 2015 and 2019, bring out the vision and the goals of PLAAF’s capacity-building, and its systematic expansion of roles in the PRC’s national security and military strategy. A review of its increasing mission sets provides a clearer insight into the elevation of air power into a strategic instrument of a revisionist China’s foreign policy, and national security. The significant actionsof airspace control, ADIZ declaration, building artificial island air bases, anti-access-area-denial, participation in regular international air exercises, sending of bombers and fighters routinely to threaten Taiwan, Japan, Guam, and other Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) allies for strategic signalling, etc., are classic examples of air power leveraging. The most recent violation of Malaysian airspace by 16 PLAAF aircraft on June 2, 2021, which was declared a “breach of Malaysian airspace and sovereignty” by its foreign ministry, underscores this approach. It is noteworthy that General Xu Qiliang, who is on his third tenure in China’s Central Military Commission, and is currently the senior most Vice Chairman and the number two to President Xi, is the ex-PLAAF chief responsible for PLA’s military reforms of 2015 and the transformation of the AF.
General Ding Laihang the current PLAAF chief has stated on China National Radio – “In the past, our strategies and guidelines focused on territorial air defence. Now we have been shifting our attention to honing our ability in terms of long-range strategic projection and long-range strike.” Consequently, the PLAAF has joined the PLAN as an equal instrument of coercion in the East and South China Seas (SCS). The rapid advancements prompted the USAF Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh, to caution the House Appropriations Committee in 2016, that China’s aircraft numbers would be as big if not bigger than the US by 2030. It is no coincidence that in the last SCS crisis, two carrier strike groups (CSG) of the US Navy, one flat-top from its home port in Japan and the other from Philippines, exercised South East of Hainan Islands. With two-CSGs, each with 65-70 combat aircraft, supplemented by USAFB-52 nuclear-capable Stratofortress bomber from its task force in mainland US, it was essentially a display of coercive air power aimed to deter the Chinese belligerence. While Taiwan holds out against the ‘one-China’ policy of its neighbour, only two factors help it to buy time – its small but well trained and equipped modern Air Force, and the US support. The US sale of 66 latest F-16 V to bolster the Taiwanese Republic of China’s Air Force (ROCAF), will take its inventory to more than 200 F-16 jets, the largest in the region, highlights the criticality of air power in its national security matrix.
Let us now examine India’s border dynamics with China. Given that it has resolved its border issues with almost all its neighbours, the non-resolution with India is clearly a part of its larger strategy. Without getting into the multi-layered subtleties of the issue, two facts are amply evident: that it serves China’s interests to retain this as an asymmetric leverage; and that there is little India can do unilaterally, as the ability to resolve the dispute lies squarely with China. Historically, India has chosen to keep the issue at a tactical military level, managed by mutually agreed control mechanisms at operational levels and diplomatic oversight. This had worked until Doklam, where India sent a clear signal that it would not accept forceful attempts to change the status quo at any of its boundaries. The Chinese have since shifted gears in their normative approach leading to the current Ladakh situation, and since there has been no change in its policies on a range of issues that are critical for India, it is prudent to include all options on how to deal with China. While Indian Army’s (IA) actions have been resolute, bold and praiseworthy, some inevitable questions which arise are: Has it made a difference in the larger picture of the border problem? What has held China back in Ladakh, given its propensity for coercive action a la Taiwan straits and the SCS? Is it only due to IA’s ground actions, or India’s diplomatic stand, or a combination of surface centric military-diplomatic actions?
Arguably there is more to it. The need to include air power in the border equation was not considered necessary in the past, till Doklam, where according to O’Donnell and Bolfrass, PLA’s strategic options were constrained by IAF’s asymmetric advantage over the PLAAF. In Ladakh, what many will have missed in the recent swift and extensive IAF activation in the region is the intent to undertake all operational tasks and provide support to the entire range of military operations that are envisaged in a possible high altitude conflict with China. Every AD, offensive air power and combat support lesson from the Kargil conflict was addressed during this activation, and the deployment has been a deterrent display of high-altitude offensive airpower capability. Naturally, there will be some surface-dominant air power sceptics who will question where does the AF fit in and what can it do?
While the IAF is definitely disadvantaged in the inventory count with its dwindling squadron strength, it still has significant and potent combat capabilities. It is also an AF which has been used offensively in every conflict except against China in 1962. The PLAAF on the other hand has not seen combat since the Korean War in 1950-53. Notwithstanding its large size and modern capabilities, the IAF’s battle-proven combat skills, tough training standards, professionalism and innovative tactics, will significantly offset PLAAFs numerical superiority. With the present limitations faced by the PLAAF in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), the IAF’s strategic agility, dynamic concepts of operation and vast high altitude combat experience gained in Kargil, will play out to its advantage. Given the challenges of the terrain, any conflict in the region will primarily be an air interdiction pre-dominant joint counter surface force operation, under an offensive AD umbrella. IAF’s advantage of low altitude bases permits the launch of heavily armed strikes, thus enabling greater weight of attack. The number of bases and aircraft allows greater combat persistence, higher and swifter turn-around between missions, greater tactical deployment options and most significantly, a 24×7 day-night operational capability. And finally, the airstrike on the terrorist camp at Balakot deep inside Pakistan in 2019 has indicated India’s willingness to use its air power kinetically in peace time. In a breakaway from the past, the swift coercive deterrent IAF build-up in the face of the Ladakh stand-off has been a clear signal of India’s resolve to use air power if necessary.
China understands air power’s coercive capability and its importance in the national security context, which is evident in its increased exploitation of PLAAF on its Eastern and Southern sea-boards. It therefore, recognises the asymmetric air power advantage India currently enjoys in TAR. To close the gap, it is rapidly expanding infrastructure and assets, increased its air combat training, conducting international exercises including the dedicated Shaheen serieswith Pakistan, and deploying its latest aviation hardware in its bases in the region. In his visit to Pakistan in August 2020, Gen Xu Qiliang inaugurated the Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Computing (CAIC) at the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) HQ in Islamabad. According to the PAF Chief- “technology had altered the characteristics of warfare in the 21st century and the vision of establishing the centre was to harness the potential of artificial intelligence and its integration in PAF’s operational domain.” Xu is said to have succeeded in impressing upon Pakistan the significance of making the PAF the lead service in the war, and the PLA was ready to share select virtual war domains capabilities with the PAF for war in North Kashmir and Ladakh region. So, how critical is air power in the Ladakh? Let us theoretically take IAF out of the equation in Ladakh/Tibet. Will it allow the PLA the option to get more coercive in its actions? Will it allow the PLA to now exploit the asymmetric advantage of using PLAAF to enhance its coercive advantage? Will it enhance China’s coercive deterrence to inhibit IA to a totally defensive holding posture? If the answers are yes, then it is time to include air power as a national instrument in all our continental response strategies. To even remotely consider any continental contingency without offensive air power in the region will be a 1962-redux; a fatal strategic mistake for the nation, and not just a local tactical one.
Let us now shift to the maritime domain. The IOR is the vital lifeline for energy, trade and commerce, and therefore its security is imperative for India’s growth and future. While the wider multi-lateral Indo-Pacific construct by Japan, the USA, Australia and India has gained prominence as the Quad, the IOR will remain India’s core interest. PM Modi in his Shangri La Dialogue articulated – “The Indian Ocean has shaped much of India’s history. It now holds the key to our future”. He also spoke about a comprehensive agenda for regional cooperation amongst the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), strategic partnership with ASEAN and that – “India’s growing engagement is accompanied by deeper economic and defence cooperation”. In the wider context of the Indo-Pacific he committed to – “promote a democratic and rules-based international order, in which all nations, small and large, thrive as equal and sovereign. We will work with others to keep our seas, space and airways free and open” . Regarding the Indo-Pacific region he also said – “We should all have equal access as a right under international law to the use of common spaces on sea and in the air”.17 It was the first time that air and space were mentioned by an Indian PM in a strategic regional geo-political context. While the maritime strategy has understandably been the focus, an ‘air strategy’ has a vast unexploited potential which needs serious consideration. So, what capabilities and options does Indian air power have to offer in the maritime domain in the larger national interest?
The vast area is largely left to an overstretched IN, and needs a stronger, more focused and joint approach for safeguarding our interests. All maritime strategic thought with a carrier-centric airpower mindset, tends to ignore the significant capabilities that land-based air power brings to the table. Without underestimating the strategic capabilities of a CBG, it however takes a significant preparatory time to sail out and reach the area of interest. This ‘response-reach’ lag can be compensated in the interim, with the swifter response and the extended reach capabilities of land-based airpower. Also, in India’s widened maritime arena, inclusion of land-based airpower resources, qualitatively and quantitatively add value to the strategic options basket of its comprehensive national power. The current fighter inventory of the IAF with long range stand-off precision weapons, mission packaged with AWACS/AEWC/Maritime Reconnaissance aircraft and flight refuellers, is a potent coercive force. It enables Indian airpower to be strategically applied across widely separated maritime spaces towards enhancing Net security, enabling regional stability and undertaking tasks in the national interests.
From a cooperative defence and regional security perspective amongst the South East Asian countries, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam have small AFs, with a mix of varying vintage and limited modern combat assets. Only Singapore and Taiwan have modern AF inventories. Simply put, none of these nations can match up to the PLAAF individually. Yet, all of them are running programmes to modernise their AFs, as possibly the only viable conventional hard power option to support their limited ‘grey hull’ capabilities. Put together, these AFs can provide their nations an asymmetric instrument to exercise sovereignty, against a dominant China in the nine-dash-line region. The IAF being the only regional air power of consequence can play a significant role here. Assisting in training and conduct of exercises towards strengthening the defensive and deterrent capabilities of the regional AFs, while simultaneously creating space for future potential joint tasks and missions if deemed necessary, is easily done. Regular operations with friendly AFs can also provide access to their bases for turn-around facilities, enhancing India’s reach and response options. Unlike the erstwhile US strategy,18 and lately of China, India does not need to create ‘bases’ but just needs access to ‘places’ in the friendly regional countries. With its vast experience in long range international deployments, IAF’s professional goodwill and strategic reach could be leveraged in the national interests. A display of ‘intent and capability’, provides the option of cooperative airpower employment with the regional AFs, not only for enhancing net security in India’s SAGAR strategy, but also towards countervailing Chinese domination of the Asian waters. Building on IAFs HADR image, there is tremendous scope for regular interaction with the regional AFs, especially Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and Australia. Interestingly, India has defence cooperation agreements with all these nations, including Brunei, Cambodia and Laos, and can certainly enhance defence diplomacy by building on regional cooperation and goodwill, if not relationships.
The recent blockage of the Suez underscores the critical importance the greater Red Sea region holds for India from its trade and energy requirements. A criticality somewhat subsumed in the current and dominant wider Indo-Pacific focus. The Western reaches of the IOR will continue to be of enduring strategic importance to India, and therefore building on AF-AF relations in the West, with Kenya, Tanzania, Oman and UAE, has significant strategic possibilities. Oman, especially, has been a historical pivot of the Arab trade links with ‘Al Hind’ or India, and the IAF already conducts air exercises with Oman and the UAE. Building relations with Kenya and Tanzania, both nations with small AFs, by providing training and military support, can give Indian air power access to the western edge of IOR. And finally, IAF’s long history and vast experience of joint air power exercises with the US, UK, France, Australia, has not only built trust, mutual confidence and gained credibility, it provides an array of options for interoperability and inter-usability towards peace and stability the region. The options are many, limited only by how much we want to leverage it, either independently or jointly, in the national interest.
With due regard and respect to our security community, it is time for the windows to be opened to allow in some fresh air of ‘air power’ into our presently somewhat ‘two-dimensionally’ limited strategic thinking and response strategies. It is a versatile and a strategic instrument of national power, which brings a variety of hard and soft power options to the table. A robust air power capability will therefore be increasingly important as a multi-domain asymmetry in India’s conventional security matrix. Leaving air power out of the narrative, simply because it does not physically occupy a geographical domain, will be fatalis vitium from India’s current and future national security and interests.
This article first appeared in www.vifindia.org and it belongs to them.