By Wing Commander Amit Ranjan Giri
The scenario wherein India is engaged with its traditional opponent in the western sector and the Red Dragon opens up the eastern front, or vice versa is a ‘sticky wicket’ to play on. Questions have been asked, war games have been played and strategies have been built around this scenario to get a feel and predict the requirements so as to be prepared for addressal in future. If an analysis of the probable situation is to be done the first item needing attention is the reality and the efficacy of a two-front war. Is it possible to have one and how effectively can the opponent(s) run the campaign?
Yes, a two-front war is a definite possibility in the Indian context nevertheless, the war envisaged, would be very difficult to coordinate and execute by the opponents. The worst-case scenario for India is, both, the western as well as eastern fronts being attacked simultaneously, thus forcing her to divide the war efforts. Any more coordinated effort by the enemies would require centralised command and control structures, aka WW II, which is envisaged not to be a possibility in the present situation. Thus, bereft of centralised command, the efficacy of a two-front attack and maintenance of the aim is diluted, giving India the edge. For India, it would now mean breaking down the war into three distinct major geographical theatres viz. the west theatre, encompassing the borders and sea we share with Pakistan, the north theatre, encompassing the border regions of Ladakh down south to the northwestern edge of Nepal and the northeastern theatre, encompassing border regions from the south-east of Nepal to all the way up to Arunachal and further down towards the south. The border regions of Nepal, approx 1500 km and that of Myanmar to the Far East is expected to be left off the main battle. This sounds rather rosy but in actuality would be a Herculean task for the centralised war room at Delhi to handle. Airpower which paves the way for all modern campaigns, need to match up to the challenges on all three fronts.
Interestingly, in the context of traditional air warfare, Pakistan stands at a better position to threaten India, than China would. Adequacy of airbases all along the border and a tight network of air defence system provide Pakistan just the required platform for an ideal offensive and subsequent defence. China whereas, all along its area of interest, lacks adequate airbases, the few they have are at very high altitudes, penalising the take-off requirements and all up weight performance. The PLAAF would have to be broken down, to at least four elements along the entire border and reaching the Indian assets, overflying Nepal or Myanmar, would not only involve international complexities but also the use of multiple air refuelling for every mission. However, on its plus side, China has a robust long-range air defence for most of its bases and vital points, not to forget its wide battery of “second artillery corps”. These missiles could and would prove a threat to India.
China has an arsenal of 2500 +, the surface to surface missiles of varying ranges and CEP (circular error of probability), with conventional warheads, which it would most certainly use against India in the opening wave. However, it needs to be said for IAF that a little care, planning and distribution of assets would render this threat to mostly a nuisance value, in the face of the enormity of the situation. Civilian targets addressed by these missiles are not being considered here, nor are nuclear warheads. It would be sacrilege to put in actual calculations involving range, warheads, CEP, target diversity & a few other factors, on an open platform, however, it is safe to say the IAF has adequate depth and diversity to nullify the effect of the Chinese SSBM (surface to surface ballistic missiles) rain, the logistics for it and the actual execution would no doubt be a massive task.
The government approved fighter squadron strength for the IAF is 42.5 squadrons of which the existing number of squadrons are in the thirties. The air defence element is undergoing a revamp and looks pretty potent, notwithstanding, for a two-front war this element requires a rather large boost, especially for enemy targets of interest, not within a military zone. Gone are the days of base defence only, its time for Air Defence Umbrella for larger areas. India’s missile force also needs work to be done on, at present, it is in a very juvenile state, a shade better than Pakistan’s. In conventional warfare, however, the SSBMs don’t really push much weight except for a few tactical ones, which could shape the immediate battlefield. The lift capability of the IAF, in the present state, is rather envious. During the last Ex Gagan Shakti in 2018 and related events of the time, the IAF had demonstrated this capability to the envy of our neighbours, interestingly enough, heavy lift capability of the IAF has increased since.
As and when it happens, in the western theatre, it would be a conventional air war like it has been for the past three full fledged wars with Pakistan. A lot of offensive air action would be seen, to make sure the PAF keeps its head down during the advance of the Indian Army. Also, offensive missions against supplies lines and feeder mechanisms would be undertaken at the onset of hostilities, in addition, missions to suppress the Pak Air defence would be required. These would be closely followed by the actions over the battlefieldwhere in our tactical fighters pound the Pak army. The entire offensive force would require a rock-solid defensive package, to give them cover from enemy fighters. The air battle here would be bloody and intense. The Rafales would welcome such a scenario to prove their multi-billion dollar worth.
The other two theatres would be pretty different, the Indian air battle here would mostly involve a defensive posture. Fewer missions for airfield busting and long-range interdiction would be flown, as compared to the battlefield strikes and shorter-range interdiction missions. It is to be appreciated that the same problems which plague the PLAAF, distance and altitude, causes problems for the IAF too. The Air defence of own assets would be one of the most important missions in these sectors. Since the Army is the one who would play a major role in most of the places in these sectors, from holding the ‘chickens neck’, to fighting the battle mainly in mountains, most IAF missions would be in support of our surface forces.
Needless to say, the entire IAF has a task cut out in a dual front war. This scenario is generally practised by the IAF during regular intervals, the last exhaustive one being Ex Gagan Shakti, in the first half of 2018. During this exercise, the IAF demonstrated its capability and reinforced its concept of a two front war. Also practised during this, was the swing effort from front to front and very successfully too. The effort was lauded the world over including, surprisingly, from the state-owned Chinese media. Serviceability rates and launch sustainability rates achieved during the exercise surpassed the USAF efforts at times. The IAF had similar number of fighter squadrons then as it does now, give or take one odd here and there. So are the number of squadrons now sufficient and we never need to reach the magic figure of 42.5?
The answer to the above is a big ‘NO’. Like Sam Manekshaw in the 1971 Indo-Pak war, the IAF had adequate time to plan the entire orchestrated effort for the exercise, a privilege it wont have during actual action nowadays. The blueprint for the exercise was finalised at least two years ago, over the year prior, assets were developed, raised, maintained and nursed for use during the exercise. The capability was demonstrated with a dual message, for the country-to push for the assets so due to the airforce and for the world to take notice of the IAF as a major force.
Since advance notice in case of a present-day armed conflict would be most likely absent or minuscule, the IAF may be caught in an embarrassing situation with the present strength of its assets. It is here when the entire 42.5 squadrons of fighters and other approved machinery of the IAF are required, maybe, even more with the ever-changing face of warfare. The build-up is slow but seems to be steady over the last few years, the S-400s, the Rafales, the Akash, the LCAs, the Chinooks, the Apaches, the Globemasters, the Hercules, the Prithivis, etc, are all looking good at giving the IAF the required edge, but what looks excellent over the last few years is the will to attempt and succeed. This is by far the biggest force multiplier.
(The author is an IAF Veteran. Views expressed are personal.)