Tuesday, March 28, 2023
HomeOpinionIAF is key to India’s ‘deterrence by punishment’ plan against China. Now...

IAF is key to India’s ‘deterrence by punishment’ plan against China. Now to wait for winter

China knows PLAAF doesn’t match IAF, and is strengthening its air defence along LAC. The government’s stance must stay focussed on punishment, not denial.

Text Size:

There is a stalemate across India’s northern frontier. Truth be told, we have lost some territory to China and the status quo at the Line of Actual Control or LAC has been disturbed to our disadvantage. The Indian Army seems to have taken some tactically vital ridges on the south bank of Pangong Tso in the last two days but, considering the larger canvas, something would have to give way, peacefully or otherwise. While the peaceful option, through diplomatic parleys, would be most welcome, it is the latter option that India should be worried about and plan for.

China’s behaviour, in no way, sends a message of peace, as indicated by its feverish build-up and construction activity in the border areas, especially of infrastructure associated with its air defence network. It signals a plan to stay put.

This construction activity, while gaining time by prolonging discussions, is indicative of three things. First, an acknowledgment on the part of China that its air defence arrangements along the border with India have a porosity (aerial surveillance gaps) that the Indian Air Force (IAF) can exploit. Second, an acceptance of the fact that the IAF would be the vanguard of an Indian response if push comes to shove. And third, building up its deterrence quotient through a strategy of denial whereby it feels that India would be forced to re‑think using its air force due the threat of an impenetrable air defence network put in place.

But India no longer needs to play to the strategy of deterrence by denial.

Also read: Satellite images reveal China is building surface-to-air missile site at Mansarovar Lake

A message needs to be sent

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh has admitted that “talks are underway to resolve the border dispute…but to what extent it can be resolved, I cannot guarantee.”

So, the IAF is key to India’s offensive plans against China. It has an edge over the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) for many reasons. The foremost being the fact that Chinese airfields are at high altitudes, which results in drawbacks in terms of what its air force can throw at the IAF and the Indian Army. China knows that and is trying to overcome it with its new radar and surface-to-air missile deployments – in effect, putting in place a dense, ground-based, air defence network.

It seems to be following the doctrine that Pakistan has used in its attempt to blunt the offensive foundation of Indian air power. Could the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) be giving China inputs and playing an active role behind the scenes? While this might be true, Beijing is playing the psy-war to the hilt by parking its frontline assets, including the latest J‑20 stealth fighters, on the tarmac in forward airfields —  in full view of satellites scouring the area from high above so as to send a message to New Delhi. Some may say that there are no hard shelters to park the aircraft there, but that is only part of the argument because there are always options to get around it.

Chinese Ambassador Sun Weidong terming the Galwan clash and loss of 20 Indian soldiers as “..a brief moment from the perspective of history”, besides being disdainful, is also an example of classic deception at work.

A message needs to be sent back. It has to be one of substance, and not of rhetoric meant for a domestic audience; adversaries see through these very easily.

Also read: India’s electronic warfare units are archaic, but camouflage, concealment can blunt PLA

Deterrence by denial

Winter is approaching and China would have studied the weather pattern that affects our airfields up north. The weather conditions that exist in the Himalayan foothills, where all our airbases are located, and those on the Tibetan plateau, which hosts the PLAAF airfields, would have been fed into war games and simulations by both India and China.

As the IAF would give top cover to any Indian riposte on ground against any action by China — and to action that India might take to push the Chinese back — it is vital that this protective umbrella not be diluted.

In a very prescient 2018 study of India’s strategic dilemmas vis-à-vis China, scholars Anit Mukerjee and Yogesh Joshi wrote in the journal Asian Security that New Delhi had moved from a strategy of ‘deterrence by denial’ to ‘deterrence by punishment’ for various reasons. It means that India intends to prevail through offensive action and take the battle to the adversary now. And China must beware of the damage that would be caused to its forces if it decides to use hard power.

Beijing feverishly strengthening its air defence network has to be seen in this light. The message it is sending to New Delhi is one of deterrence by denial – why send your Air Force if it will suffer huge damage?

Also read: Indian Army ‘redeploys’ troops, reaches heights facing Finger 4 in Pangong Tso

Deterrence by punishment 

The appropriate reply to China in this situation must be a transmission of capability and intent — the IAF would communicate the capability and the intent would be discerned through the actions and statements of our political leadership.

The IAF should maintain its alert status and conserve its forces for the coming cold weather. Deployments would surely be getting reviewed and offensive assets, other than fighters (that require airfields to operate from), would also be getting tasked for a greater role in case of a shooting war. We have the aerial resources to operate in those high altitude areas – we also have (always had) crew who must be straining at the leash to help restore the status quo ante.

The government’s stance must stay focussed on deterrence by punishment. Simultaneously, New Delhi must gainfully use the interlude to push through the agenda of augmenting indigenous defence R&D and manufacturing capacities. This needs decisive decision-making, clinical implementation of policy catalysts (to kickstart the stuttering process that has been attempted for decades) and shunning faux publicity that only ends up in reducing credibility. The fact is that neither can we change our neighbours nor should we be naïve enough to expect them to change their outlook towards India — if anything, the events of the past few months have confirmed that, and we must plan accordingly.

The author, a retired Air Vice Marshal, is Addl Director General, Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi. Views are personal.

Subscribe to our channels on YouTube & Telegram

Support Our Journalism

India needs fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism, packed with on-ground reporting. ThePrint – with exceptional reporters, columnists and editors – is doing just that.

Sustaining this needs support from wonderful readers like you.

Whether you live in India or overseas, you can take a paid subscription by clicking here.

Support Our Journalism


  1. Delusion writer and comments from armchair Indian warriors (mainly Hindus). IAF will get destroyed in one week by PLAAF. After one week IAF will have no planes left. IAF got 5 Rafales from France and Indians are dancing and singing as if they got 500 Rafales.

    Dont forget IAF attempted to impress Modi by dropping a few bombs in jungle in Pakistan. They lost one aircraft (flying coffin anceint Mig 21) and pilot was captured by Pakistan. IAF is weak, poorly trained and ancient aircraft. Be careful or China PLA and PLAAF will destroy Indain army and IAF.
    Note: I am Indian myself, but not delusional .

  2. It is very clear from China’s actions that China will never give back the land it has grabbed without a serious war.
    If war happens, all the countries in the world including U.S , Russia, France , U.K etc will get involved and try to stop it due to the chances of war going nuclear.
    India should have taken advantage of this nuclear war possibility and immediately counter attacked in May instead of allowing the Chinese to set up more defenses. Not doing an immediate counter attack to get back lost land was a big mistake. Now the cost of counter attack has increased significantly. India cannot play the waiting game and plan for winter attack because Chinese positions are getting stronger each day. In addition, if change in leadership happens in U.S after November election, then the new government in U.S is likely to be friendly to China and will likely take lot of pressure off from China that is applied today in South China sea. So delaying any counter attack to get lost territory was a big mistake and if India wants to do it, it should not waste any more time.

  3. China realizes India is the next shift for the supply chain. So it intends to distract India militarily and economically vis a vis the border incursions and possibly war.

    But if India thinks China has any good intentions towards it, just ask why did China resolve all border issues with every country except India?

    • ‘China realizes India is the next shift for the supply chain.’

      That is typical Hindu wishful thinking. Yogi claimed he invited companies shifting from China to come to UP. None came. They went to Vietnam, Indonesia etc.

      The only people investing in India are people like Facebook which realises there is a large Hindu market for fake news and hate speech.

  4. On Feb 27th 2019 IAF could not escalate against PAF even after losing Aircraft & helicopter. PAF is 1/4 th in resources compared to IAF……………How is the author expecting IAF to dominate PLAAF??

    • You are right. When India had lost a pilot to Pakistan, India de-escalated. Otherwise, Pak would have kept the pilot, if India attempted to escalate, it would have led to more losses and it would have become an election liability. The Indian media pretended India won and Hindus believed it !

      Immediately after getting a beating in Galwan, the Hindus kept a low profile. Now as time has passed they are trying to pretend that China is on the run ! Besides the BJP’s IT cell, 80% of the media talk as if the Chinese ran away.

      It is vain Hindu bravado. With Pak, they got the pilot back due to Imran being a gentleman. With China, India is not going to get land back. Xi is not Imran.

    • Dear chengez Chinese J0KER, they lost their best plane F-16 and runaway within half an hour, under your stinky undy

    • Dear Chinese J0KER chengez k, they lost their best plane F-16 and runaway within half an hour, under your stinky undy, so now is your time to clean it.

  5. What Vijay G says is absolutely correct. The so called defence experts are living in alternate world where money is never given a thought.
    Also the author is day dreaming about Indias military capabilities against China.
    Dare devilry suggested by this foolish man will ensure only one thing:Total defeate of india militarily followed by wast economic ruin.

    • Let us drop these stinky Chinese under-wears with Indian stamp on them to dustbin, tese are best suited in China.

  6. Someone had been extra conscious for many years towards the kitty, nation has and could spare for arming the defence preparedness. Result is obvious. No procurement of strategic military hardware for 18 years. The chinks in the defence eco system are bothering the leadership, never to this extent.
    Your point is indeed worth considering but in peace time. The country is pitted against a rogue state called Pakistan and expansionist China. You don’t spend in procurement of armaments and get subjugated and ask your new probable master to take care of the other requirements of the public or you fight back with disruption to your welfare schemes for some period and be victorious. This is definitely a hard choice but reality stings. Nations have preferred to starve for the sake of its victory, which India should also emulate.

      • rasgolla, already told you to change your chinese dad, so tell your ammu to reproduce you from an Indian dad under cover of her avaya, then you become a human from a D0NKEY.

  7. Respected Mammohan Bahadur ji, Can you elaborate, when the land was lost? can he elaborate why roads to DBO not constructed in Manmohan singh Govt.?

  8. PLA has far superior Electronic warfare systems and and synergised C4I. Moreover It will be quite difficult for IAF to sustain offensive or defensive role on northern front as it will suffer heavy losses…FD, FT, HQ and HHQ SAM missiles deter any airpower easily on such a limited depth of battlefield…

    • Great Usman, the pakistani, do you suggest us to runaway runaway ? We too have Agni, Brahmos, Pinaka, Israel on our side who are the best in the world in electronic warfare, which makes your country to pizz on pants? What are your basis behind taking PLA as superior? Are you a military or Air force general or a handsome Chinese pay packet or in Chinese cum pakistani sezx racket member?

  9. Chinese airforce is afraid of Indian airforce? Really? They don’t even seem to care about US airforce.

    Jingoist media will invite disaster. Atleast sh@t @p for heaven’s sake

  10. It is possible that our combat aircraft and pilot training are superior to that of the Chinese at present.
    However, the initial efforts would have to be seen in terms of how effectively we neutralize their SAM missile sites , since these are Russian origin weapons and highly effective against air targets. Also, how we neutralize any S-400 sites if any. Once that is accomplished, we can begin to assert our superiority over the J 17s, J 20s that the PLAAF deploys.

  11. The experts talk about what should be done or what should have been done. BUT NOBODY IS TALKING ABOUT THE MONEY THAT IS REQUIRED. A lot of money that now will go in defense expenditure will be at the cost of something else.
    The well meaning expert from every field wants the best for his field and justifiably so, but there is also someone looking at all the fields and needs to finally decide the priorities.
    At the end of the day it is the trust in the ability of that someone. (1) Is he likely to make money for himself? (2) Does he talk nonsense? (3) Is he committed to his job 24×7 ?

    • What a non-sensical comment! Mr Vijay, will you be in a position to earn money when there is security lapse and there is terrorist attacks or in worst case, our country gets ravaged by war. Can your money be useful? If you want to really know the truth, then visit any forward area and see for yourself.
      In fact our government should make it mandatory for every individual to serve the country for at least a year so that nobody ever thinks so about defence.

      • ‘In fact our government should make it mandatory for every individual to serve the country for at least a year so that nobody ever thinks so about defence.’

        No need. Mohan Bhagwat said he can mobilise his cadre in 3 days. That is a formidable force, the Chinese have nothing comparable.

    • Relevant questions all of them…but allow me to further qualify them….

      More than money that is ‘required’, what we should be interested in is ‘where is that money going to’…’where will it circulate’….’who will benefit materially from all the expenditure’…..

      as long as the answers to all of that, are sited in India, or for Indian interests alone, then it doesn’t matter…….

      If i need to scrimp on my family’s needs, to ensure they stay alive and strong, and need to ‘spend’ for that instead of buying a new book for my son, it would help if i ensure that my spending benefits my all-time friends, than just the local bully or his friends.

      You do see the analogy , don’t you?

    • Currently India spends about 2.5% of GDP on military spending. In a scenario where China because the avowed enemy with naval and air bases in Pakistan facing India, then Indian military spending will probably need to jump to 4% of GDP. Most of that money will go to foreign arms manufacturers .

      The air marshall writes that there should be indigenous production “the agenda of augmenting indigenous defence R&D and manufacturing capacities” but Indian defense production has shown itself utterly incapable of doing this.

Comments are closed.