From landing the mammoth transport carrier Hercules on Daulat Beig Oldie (DBO) airstrip in 2013 to more recently deploying Apache helicopters to provide air support to troops in Ladakh, and moving fighter jets to airfields close to the LAC in the last few days, the Indian Air Force has been consistently ramping up its operations in Ladakh. Follow India-China border dispute LIVE updates
Even as Air Chief Marshal R K S Bhadauria on Saturday said the IAF is “well prepared and suitably deployed” to deal with any eventuality arising out of the Galwan standoff, analysts told The Sunday Express that although IAF enjoys a geographical advantage over air power, any decision on its use will have to be taken after careful consideration by the government.
Also, occupation of the Galwan heights could impact the DBO airstrip, they said.
Air Vice Marshal K K Nowhar (retd), of the Centre for Air Power Studies, said utilisation of air power in direct support of the Army along the LAC in these areas has never been contemplated. “But it is feasible. We will definitely be asked if the chips are down,” he said.
Any escalation, said Air Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur (retd), can either be horizontal, wherein you can fan your forces across the LAC from Galwan and Pangong Tso to Sikkim, or vertical. “Use of air power enhances the force used and would constitute vertical escalation. But if one side uses it, so would the other,” he said.
Bahadur said it would be prudent to assume that China would have factored in air power as well.
Sources said the forward bases of Thoise and Leh, which have been operational for several years, are seeing heavy mobilisation of troops and machinery. Nowhar said these bases are of tremendous importance in deployment of men and machinery to the forward areas in the eventuality of a conflict. The IAF transport aircraft can also undertake airdrops, besides landing on various unprepared surfaces.
More recently, IAF has deployed Apache, an attack helicopter, and Chinook, a strategic lift helicopter with an impressive ability to transport troops, machinery and deliver heavy payloads to high altitudes, in Ladakh. The Chinooks were inducted into the IAF airbase at Chandigarh in March 2019.
Group Capt Ravinder S Chhatwal, former Senior Fellow, Centre for Airpower Studies, who is pursuing a PhD on Chinese air power from JNU, said IAF holds a geographical advantage over the Chinese Air Force despite the latter’s large fleet of combat jets. “The Chinese have 2,100 combat aircraft — the numbers they have given upfront, though they could have more — against (IAF’s) 850. In sheer numbers, they outscore us, but to run an air campaign you have to get these jets close to the border, and they have a limited number of airfields in the area, with most of these in Tibet plateau at an average height of 10,000 feet,” he said.
He said China has seven dual use airfields on its western front bordering India, all of which also land civilian aircraft.
All these airfields are at a high altitude, barring Kashgar and Hotan, but these are at a great distance from the LAC.
“With seven airfields, you can’t bring 2,100 aircraft here. At best, they will be able to press into service 300 combat aircraft. We have a geographic advantage, as all our airfields, almost double in number, are at a lower altitude – at the sea level – and our aircraft can take off with full bomb loads,” he said.
Besides aircraft, an air campaign also requires infrastructure, Chhatwal said, pointing out that most airfields in Xinjiang and Tibet don’t have blast protection, and the aircraft are parked in the open, making them vulnerable to air strikes. “It is only after Doklam that the Chinese started making 36 concrete underground shelters in the military airfield for Lhasa,” he said.
Recent satellite images show heavy construction activity at a Chinese airbase close to Pangong Tso.
The Chinese can also protect their airfields with heavy deployment of surface-to-air missiles, anti-aircraft weapons, and air defence guns. “We have to be ready to counter that, we need to plan for that,” warns an analyst.
The Chinese, says the analyst, will rely on heavy air defence cover such as missiles like the Russians.
The Chinese are also at a slight disadvantage due to the location of their airfields at a great distance from one another, making it difficult for a jet to be diverted to another field in case of any mechanical failure or insufficient fuel.
“You need at least one diversionary airfield for combat operations. But central Tibet has only one airfield – Gargunsa. There is no supporting airfield in this area.”
In contrast, besides Leh, the IAF has at least four bases close to Ladakh.
The J20 stealth fighter aircraft recently developed by China gives it a technological edge, though Air Vice Marshal Bahadur says it has not been deployed in this sector.
Sources say the recent incursions could change a lot of things on the ground. Any occupation of the Galwan mountaintops would make it easy to cut off the DBO airstrip in eastern Ladakh, which was unofficially reactivated in 2008, as well as sub-sector north, the area adjoining Aksai Chin, from any ground support.
The DBO airstrip, set up during the 1962 India-China was, was operationalised in 2008 with the landing of an AN-32. Subsequently, the IAF landed C-130J Super Hercules transport plane there in 2013.
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