On 27 Jun 2020, it was reported by several news channels that a Chinese PLAAF Il-78 tanker aircraft had landed at Skardu. This was followed by unsubstantiated reports of up to 40 Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) J-10s also having landed there. Several analysts flagged this as a showcase for interoperability between the Pakistani and Chinese Air Forces, even going to the extent of claiming that ‘Alarming! Interoperability is here’. A later report based on satellite imagery analysis concluded that only a PAF C-130 had actually visited the base during the period in question, thereby belying the rather alarmist conclusions alluded to earlier. Nevertheless, even as the activities PLAAF remain under watch and its capabilities get dissected, there is a need to look at the actual level interoperability between the PAF and the PLAAF that might be possible during the current standoff between Indian and Chinese forces in Eastern Ladakh.
Image: Skardu Airbase with its two runways, of which only one is operational
One of the possibilities often discussed is the use of PAF bases in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir by the PLAAF to offset the disadvantages it has whilst operating from the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). The PAF airfields likely to be used for this purpose are posited as Gilgit, Skardu, Chilas, Muzaffarabad and Chitral. Of these, the first four are in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK )while Chitral is in Northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The existence of a new airfield at Manshera was reported in September 2019 that this too can be added to the list of potential bases likely to be used by the PLAAF.
Image: JF-17A Thunder of No. 16 Squadron “Black Panthers” at Skardu
Various reports and analyses notwithstanding, there are a number of factors that will be at play during the current standoff and they need to be understood to appreciate the contours of any PAF-PLAAF nexus. Let us first examine the usability of the PAF bases mentioned above. Skardu has two runways; one 3,640m and the other 2,660m long. It is the only one in regular usage and more importantly, is the only base with hardened aircraft shelters (HAS), of which there are eight in number, grouped in two clusters. The PAF has earlier deployed it’s JF-17, Mirages and F-7s to Skardu in the past but the base has no air defence system deployed there as of now, leaving it vulnerable to a counter-strike. At best, 10 to 12 combat aircraft could be deployed there during operations but air defence assets will also have to be deployed concomitantly alongside the required technical support. The other bases mentioned above have much smaller runways with very limited infrastructure and can only be used for combat support operations and for unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) operations.
Pakistan has allowed the use of its airbases by other countries in the past, hence the technical possibility of the use of these bases by the PLAAF exists but moot question is – will the PLAAF actually use them? In case of an all-out war, the likelihood is high but given the present build-up and Indian capability to neutralise these bases, it is unlikely that the PLAAF will use these bases since the advantage accrued is outweighed by the disadvantages.
This, however, does not imply that there are no other domains in which the PAF can provide support to the PLAAF. Both Air Forces have been conducting joint exercises (i.e. Shaheen series) since 2011 and have developed a fair degree of interoperability between themselves. There are reports which suggest that PAF pilots are familiar with PLAAF aircraft and have flown them during these exercises. PAF radars and air defence controllers have been used by both the Air Forces and PLAAF pilots have apparently gained from the tactical expertise of PAF pilots. In addition, there is some commonality of aircraft and equipment between the two air forces given that the PAF operates Il-78 tanker aircraft and the Chinese ZDK-03 airborne early warning & control (AEW&C ) aircraft. It is in these areas that PAF support could be provided to the PLAAF.
Image: PAF and PLAAF participants during Exercise Shaheen VIII in August 2019
A simple way of extending support would be to tie down some Indian Air Force (IAF) resources by way of forward deployment of PAF aircraft at Skardu. With the need to monitor and surveil PAF activity, the IAF will have to dedicate some resources to the western flank even if there are only routine, but heightened activities by PAF. Indeed, a heightened operational tempo by the PAF is in itself indirect support to the PLAAF. Realising this threat in being, the IAF is already keeping a close watch on all air-activities in POK.
The other areas where the PAF can provide support is through the use of its Falcon 20 electronic intelligence (ELINT) aircraft to provide inputs to the PLAAF and by extending the services of its IL-78s tankers and AEW&C aircraft to the latter. However, because this would amount to direct support in case of a declared conflict, Pakistan may not want to graduate its support to this level at present since it may not want to get sucked into an India-China conflict in such a ‘wholesome’ manner keeping in mind the military blowback it will face from the Indian side. However, the prospect of the PAF providing these assets ‘on loan’ to the PLAAF remains a possibility, although in that case they may have to fly from Chinese airbases in the Tarim basin in Xingjiang.
Both the close ties between the PAF and the PLAAF as well as the degree of their mutual interoperability are well known to New Delhi and remain a matter of concern. Nonetheless, what form PAF support to the PLAAF takes in the event of a conflict can only be known as the same unfolds and therefore a ‘wait and watch’ approach is what Indian observers must adopt instead of investing in alarmist tropes.
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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