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.
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.
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?
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.