Recent events in Eastern Ladakh have once again brought to the fore the question of just how capable the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) really is, when deployed against India. Providing fuel to the discussions are frequent reports of PLAAF exercises being planted in the official and semi-official Chinese media, as well as videos of PLAAF aircraft posted on social media. But does the PLAAF really pose a major threat to the Indian Air Force (IAF) or are these reports and videos merely part of a larger Chinese psy war campaign? In this context, a dispassionate look at the capabilities and limitations of the PLAAF when operating out of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) would not be out of place.
The Numbers Game
The one aspect that is often the starting point for capability assessment is the numerical strength of an Air Force. A recent study puts the likely number of aircraft available to the PLAAF in the Western Theatre Command (WTC) which is of relevance to India at 157. Here’s the detailed breakdown of this strength which has been organised by the PLAAF into five air brigades:
|109th||16 x J-8F, 16 x J-8H||Hotan|
|110th||24 x JH-7A||Ürümqi South (Wulumuqi)|
|111th||16 x J-11A, 16 x J-11BS, 2 x Su-27UBK||Korla and Hotan|
|112th||32 x J-11M||Malan/Uxxatal|
|16th||16 x J-11, 16 x J-11BS, 2 x Su-27UBK|
This puts the PLAAF at a disadvantage vis a vis IAF in numerical terms, with the latter being able to muster around 270 fighters and 68 ground attack aircraft for use across the line of actual control (LAC) at any time. Of course, the PLAAF can bring in more aircraft from other theatre commands for an India-contingency, but due to the lack of proper basing facilities (as we shall see below) this number will also remain limited. Even qualitatively, the PLAAF is at a disadvantage with respect to the IAF. Most of the PLAAF’s existing fleet, made up in the main of J-10s, J-11s and SU-30 MKKs, is not as capable as the IAF’s Su-30 MKIs, Mirage-2000I/TIs and MiG-29UPGs. Neither is the PLAAF J-16, despite Chinese claims to the contrary. But just a broad comparison of numbers and types may not make for a realistic assessment and more granular analysis is in order.
PLAAF Aircraft to Watch
The most modern and advanced aircraft in PLAAF service is the J-20 and news of the same is tracked and noted with interest for obvious reasons. The J-20 entered service in 2017 and has been deployed as part of the 9th Air Brigade at Wuhu, which itself is a part of the PLA’s Eastern Theatre Command (ETC) facing Taiwan. It is likely to remain in ETC give the importance of maintaining the aggressive posture against Taiwan though its deployment in WTC can, obviously, not be ruled out.
Indeed, the J-20 has taken part in some deployment exercises in TAR, with the more recent ones being the “real combat training exercise” in January 2018 when PLAAF J-20s undertook beyond visual range engagement practice. Touted as a game changer by the PLAAF, the J-20 however has some serious limitations with the main limitation being that it is not probably not stealthy enough for a so-called fifth-generation type.
IAF Su-30s have reportedly picked up the J-20 at considerably long ranges in 2018 which the latter were flying over TAR during exercises. Some analysts have of course mused that it may have been because of the reflectors called “Luneburg Lens” used by stealth fighters to enlarge their RCS on routine flights in order to conceal their true capabilities. Since the details of the number of J-20s picked up and at what ranges are not available in the public domain, it is difficult to infer much from the claim but there are other reports about the limitations of the J-20’s stealth features. One such report claims that while the J-20 is quite stealthy from a frontal aspect, its side & rear aspects exhibit a much larger radar cross section (RCS) thus limiting its overall ability to hide from enemy radar.
An added disadvantage for the J-20 is of course its engines. Originally designed to be fitted with Chinese high-thrust turbofan WS-15 engines, it presently uses either Chinese WS-10B or Russian-built AL-31FM2/3 engines, significantly compromising its manoeuvrability and stealthiness. Viewed objectively, the J-20 may not be the ‘Powerful Dragon’ that China projects it to be.
It may sound rather strange but China has long neglected its infrastructure development in TAR as far as air connectivity is concerned especially for operations in Western Tibet. As on date, the PLAAF’s WTC has a total of eight airbases that can be used for operations against India, alongside several smaller airfields that cannot really host combat jets. Also, given the elevation of the almost all of these airfields, PLAAF aircraft operating from them will be able to do so only with limited payloads and sortie rates.
The main airbase in TAR is at Gonggar / Kongka Dzong located just south of Lhasa at an elevation of 3570 m. It has two runways, of 4000 m and 3600 m runway length, respectively. The other airbases are Hoping near Shigatse city (elevation 3809 m, runway length 5000 m), the dual-use airfield at Gar Gunsa (elevation 4274 m, runway length 4500 m) near Shiquane, Bangda/Pangta (elevation 4334 m, runway length 5500 m) and Linzhi in Nyingchi prefecture. Xinjiang has two airfields viz. Kashgar and Hotan. Kashgar is a civil airfield and is about 570 km from Leh while Hotan is about 330 km from Leh. Further away from the LAC in Xinjiang is Korla airbase.
For sustained air operations against Eastern Ladakh, the PLAAF has only two airfields i.e. Hotan and Gar Gunsa which are at a distance of about 330 km to 350 km from Leh. Notwithstanding the availability of airfields, the main limitation is however the lack of infrastructure. Most airfields have only rudimentary support infrastructure which restricts the ability to carry out large-scale air operations in a sustained manner. It is only Gonggar and to a limited extent Shigatse that can support large scale operations but parked aircraft survivability remains a problem though Gonggar now has hardened shelters where the PLAAF can apparently park up to 36 aircraft in tunnels dug up in nearby mountains. But except for this, none of the other airfields have blast pens for parking of aircraft and that makes the deployed aircraft highly vulnerable to any counter-air strikes.
Whatever be the deployment pattern by the PLAAF, its aircraft will remain vulnerable on the ground thereby severely restricting its potential. The other limitation is the lack of mutually supporting bases. Gar Gunsa, the main base near Ladakh has only Hotan within a radius of 500 km to support it and is almost a standalone base. To provide some redundancy and mutual support to Gar Gunsa, China is developing a new airfield at Burang, at a distance of about 220 km from Gar Gunsa but it is far from ready. In case of Gar Gunsa being put down, there will be a large gap between the two nearest airfields (Hotan and Hoping) for operations against Eastern Ladakh. The geographical limitation will be a major factor influencing PLAAF operations and cannot be wished away.
Use of Pakistani Air Bases. Social media was recently abuzz with rumours of several PLAAF aircraft (40 J-10s) having been moved to Skardu, although this turned to be mere hype. As per the latest reports, an IL 78 tanker of the PLAAF did land at Skardu a few days ago though only limited activity has been observed at the airbase. The reports of deployment of PLAAF aircraft is as of now just another psyops move though the possibility of Pakistan Air Force (PAF) bases being used by China cannot be ruled out entirely and India must keep a close watch over the area. It needs to be remembered that the PLAAF and the PAF have been conducting joint exercises since 2011 with the latest instalment i.e. Shaheen VIII having taken place in 2019 during which the PAF operated from Hotan airbase. The PLAAF has earlier operated from PAF bases with the two air forces having achieved a good level of interoperability. This axis may not be a threat during the present standoff but will need to be watched closely for any developments in the future.
China is a world leader in the international drone market with its drones being used in varied areas ranging from Pakistan to Syria. Its drones are capable of multiple missions including command, control, communications & computers, intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (C4ISTAR) and electronic warfare (EW), and can serve as launch platforms for various weapons, besides acting as decoys. China has achieved considerable success in swarm technology and is next only to United States in the areas of ‘autonomy’ and ‘swarm’ based drone operations. The drones range from Caihong CH-4/5 (Rainbow), an armed unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) similar to the US MQ-9 Reaper, the BZK-005/HY-01 medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) UAV, the Wing Loong (or Yilong), a MALE UAV similar to the Predator and the Xianglong (Soaring Eagle), a HALE UAV similar to the Global Hawk. There are at least three Chinese UAVs being developed to carry precision strike weapons – Wing Loong/Yilong, (Sky Sabre), Lijian (Sharp Sword) stealth drone, and Anjian (dark sword) which may have dogfighting capabilities.
In WTC, the PLAAF has positioned 20 x GJ-1/WD-1K precision strike UAVs, 12 x WD-1 ground attack and reconnaissance UAVs, 12 x WD-1 precision strike UAVs and 8 EA-03 reconnaissance and EW UAV. The drones are likely to be used extensively for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) tasks given that the PLAAF does not have adequate manned ISR and special mission aircraft. They are also likely to be used for precision strikes. The terrain and the fact that only a limited number of platforms will be able to operate in a dense air defence (AD) environment will however restrict their effectiveness.
The PLAAF may also be able to field the WZ-8 hypersonic surveillance drone, which is intended to fly at extreme speeds and altitudes to provide both general intelligence and targeting data on enemy positions. It is likely to be employed in conjunction with Chinese satellites to carry out surveillance of areas of interest and it is speculated that the WZ-8 can travel at a maximum speed of between Mach 6 and Mach 7 making it very difficult to shoot down. Coupled with the likely electronic warfare countermeasures it would be carrying, the WZ-8, if fully operational, needs to be taken note of.
Cruise missile equipped bombers
For delivering air launched cruise missiles (ALCMs), the PLAAF uses its H-6K bombers for strikes up to 3,000 km away. The H-6Ks are armed with the K/AKD-20/CJ-20 ‘Long Sword’ subsonic ALCMs while the H-6KH variant has two additional underwing pylons for KG-800 escort jamming pods and a belly-mounted KD-63 data-link pod. The PLAAF is also likely to get support from the PLA Rocket Force’s (PLARF’s) arsenal of tactical ballistic missiles and ground launched cruise missiles armed with conventional warheads but neither this nor the CJ-20 armed H-6Ks will be enough to offset its weaknesses detailed earlier due to the number of such vectors being limited.
PLAAF Electronic Warfare (EW) Capability
One major factor that can act as a force multiplier is Chinese Electronic Warfare (EW) Capability. The PLA considers electronic warfare and cyber warfare to be a single continuous domain and calls their convergence Integrated Network Electronic Warfare (INEW). Prosecuting INEW for China will be the PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) responsible for cyber, space, electronic and electromagnetic spectrum management and is the PLA’s primary tool for shaping campaigns in the electromagnetic spectrum. Elements of the PLASSF have been carrying out exercises in Western TC since 2018 in order to help the PLAAF enhance its capabilities to carry out operations in an advanced electromagnetic environment.
The main EW aircraft that is likely to be used against India will be the J-16D, which first flew on December 18, 2015. The nose radome of the J-16D has been reshaped, possibly to accommodate a more advanced active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar with EW pods mounted on the wingtips. In addition to the EW pods, the J-16D would have six of its twelve hardpoints free to carry weapons. For anti-radiation missiles (ARM), it can carry either the CM-103 missile with a range of sixty-two miles or the YJ-91 (a copy of the Russian Kh-31P missile) or indeed even the LD-10 ARM missile derived from the PL-12 antiaircraft missile.
China also maintains some larger aircraft to provide jamming support at standoff ranges. These include a couple dozen Y-8GX and Y-9GX transports equipped with tactical jammers and other electronic-warfare gear, and HD-6 electronic-warfare planes based on the H-6 bomber. Adding to this capability is a large fleet of drones that are capable of disrupting fighter radars and missiles while jamming and spoofing communications between enemy bombers, airborne early warning and control aircraft, other unmanned aircraft and their datalinks between satellites, and land-based missiles below. These EW capabilities may be able to disrupt command and control networks during operations against India and will need to be countered.
Ground Based AD System
The PLA Ground Force and the PLAAF together have a well-coordinated ground-based air defence network that can give a credible challenge to the IAF, the details of which may be found in this earlier piece. Though the PLAAF’s existing S-400 surface to air missile (SAM) unit is reportedly not deployed in TAR as yet, its move from China’s ETC to cover the area of interest cannot be ruled out. Overall, China has a formidable line-up of a range of AD systems in TAR that are capable of providing layered AD and pose a challenge to the IAF.
The PLAAF can deploy around 9 AWACS / AEW& C, Air Refuellers, surveillance and EW aircraft in support of its missions. Aerial refuellers could give the PLAAF aircraft more payload and combat time, but they are in too less a number to give a real edge to China.
Another major vulnerability of the PLAAF is the standard of training and lack of experience. Reports have indicated that PLAAF pilots lack initiative and are too dependent on ground control during their missions for tactical direction. The PLAAF’s operations are therefore anchored to ground based radar cover around key communication nodes and its combat proficiency may be significantly weaker than often estimated.”
Almost a decade back, an assessment put the PLAAF ‘way ahead of IAF’ but the power equation has changed over the years and the balance of power is definitely not in the PLAAF’s favour today. It is not the actual numbers alone that can be realistically fielded by the PLAAF which leads to this conclusion, but a combination of related factors that include training, combat experience, infrastructure and the penalties imposed by the terrain.
So, for the final assessment, we must ask: Can the PLAAF make a difference? Unlikely, since the lack of experience and the fact that the PLAAF has never operated for long, and in large enough numbers, from the limited number of airbases available in the rarefied terrain of Tibet will take a major toll on it during real conflict. It will be tough going for China in the aerial domain and she may well be aware of this limitation. Nevertheless, India should be prepared for any eventuality and not let its guard down.
Colonel Mandeep Singh(Retd) joined the Indian Army in December 1982 and was commissioned into Air Defence Artillery. He commanded an Air Defence Group during Operation Parakaram and also commanded his Regiment along the Line of Actual Control with China.
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