New Delhi: Weeks after the India-China stand-off began in Ladakh last year, soldiers on the two sides faced off in the Galwan Valley as a disengagement attempt was derailed by the refusal of the Chinese to keep up their end of the deal. Twenty Indian soldiers, including Commanding Officer Col. B. Santosh Babu, were killed in action.
This was the first time since 1975 that Indian soldiers had died in a clash on the India-China border, and the episode marked a shift in the nature of the stand-off. That is when the Indian Air Force (IAF), which has a considerable advantage along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), was brought in for active combat deployment in the area.
In the weeks before, the IAF had been helping deploy Army personnel and equipment, including tanks and armoured personnel carriers, besides bringing in winter stocks for the additional soldiers posted in Ladakh.
A year on, the IAF remains operationally deployed against China, with fighter aircraft continuing with forward deployment along with new radars and surface-to-air missile sites close to the LAC.
“The IAF, which was deployed fully after the Galwan clash, continues to remain operationally deployed,” a senior government source told ThePrint.
As its role in Ladakh underwent a shift last year, the IAF put in place a full offensive and defensive deployment to counter China’s strategy of “Anti Access Area Denial (A2AD)”, sources in the defence establishment said.
This strategy involves restricting the enemy’s freedom of movement in the battlefield, and saw China deploy a wide range of surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites and long-range radars, apart from a large number of soldiers, artillery, rocket forces and armoured elements, the sources said.
The IAF, in turn, deployed assets of multiple commands against China. Unlike the Army and the Navy, the deployment of assets in the IAF is centrally controlled. In times of need, the IAF headquarters decides where the assets are to be deployed.
The assets deployed ranged from transport aircraft like AN32, C-130J and C-17, to helicopters, including Apaches and Chinooks, besides fighters, including Rafale. The deployment also included surface-to-air missiles, radars and increased surveillance duty, the sources said.
For ground staff and specialists in the IAF, this marked the first time they were deployed in extreme high-altitude areas along the LAC, close to the site of friction, the sources said.
“The 15 June Galwan clash changed everything. The casualties meant that there was every possibility of things going in a very different direction than what was anticipated initially,” said a source in the defence establishment.
“The IAF has considerable advantage along the LAC and a decision was taken to induct the force into active combat deployment.”
Chinese operations in Ladakh
While China has an edge over India in its air defence systems, the Indians have an advantage over the former in the high-altitude Ladakh sector from a pure air-to-air combat perspective.
One of the biggest disadvantages for China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) is that all their bases in the Tibet region are far away from the LAC and are at high altitudes, unlike India’s.
And because of high altitudes, the fighters cannot take off with full fuel or weapons packages. This means that the high altitude effectively saps the energy of the fighters.
China brought five of its ‘fifth-generation’ Chengdu J-20, also called the Mighty Dragon, in July, days before India got its first set of Rafale fighters earlier that month.
These fighters remained deployed till March this year. Sources said it was flexing of muscles by China ahead of the induction of the Rafale aircraft.
“Chinese had set up new SAM sites, which basically included HQ 9, 22 and 16 (types of SAM). The Chinese had also deployed Russian systems,” a source said.
“The Chinese broader thought process for defence is A2AD, which stands for Anti Access Area Denial. They do the same in the South China Sea also. They first deny access and then deny the area,” the source added.
Anti-access is limiting enemy military movement into an area of operations and involves the use of fighters, warships, and specialised ballistic and cruise missiles designed to strike key targets. Area denial is denying enemy freedom of action in areas under friendly control and employs more defensive means such as air and sea defence systems.
“Their entire deployment is based on this concept and they sought to do the same in Ladakh. Hence, there was a need for a combined response to Chinese aggression and that is exactly what was done,” the source said.
IAF deployment took place in hours
It is believed that the IAF had fine-tuned a fresh plan in mid-2019 on what all needs to be done in case tensions break out along the LAC.
After Galwan, within hours of the decision by the government, fighters from multiple locations flew off to ramp up presence in the airfields nearer to Ladakh. This included bases in Haryana, Punjab, and Jammu and Kashmir.
For example, the Mirage 2000s, which operate from Gwalior, moved to bases near Ladakh. While the IAF has capabilities of mid-air refuelling, the movement closer to Ladakh was to ensure that the fighters can reach the location in minutes if needed.
The IAF started off with aggressive combat air patrols (CAPs) near the LAC as ground support staff and equipment were deployed.
The IAF also extensively deployed its unmanned aerial vehicles to keep track of Chinese movement and deployment besides depending on satellite imagery.
How IAF filled gaps
When the tensions broke out, sources said, it was realised that there were certain gaps, specifically with ground air defence assets. To counter this, India started deploying its SAM assets in the region.
“We did not have too many radars along the LAC. The Chinese have a flatter terrain on their side of the LAC and hence it was easy for them to move in and set up radars and SAMs. In total, about 8-10 new SAM sites were established by the Chinese. We built up too,” another source said, refusing to get into the numbers.
Sources said IAF ground staff co-located themselves with both the Army and the ITBP, depending on who held what areas.
The deployment of equipment also meant that IAF specialists had to be deployed in the area. Many locations were very close to the scene of friction and this meant that IAF ground staff and specialists were deployed in certain forward locations for the first time, and, that too, right through the winter.
The IAF also went in for faster operationalising of the Rafale fighter jets soon after they came in July. It went in for the emergency procurement of the French HAMMER air-to-ground precision-guided weapon system as well to deploy the Rafale faster.
(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)
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