As we have discussed in the previous article about the ground forces of PLA, this article is a continuation in which we are going to discuss the PLA air force (PLAAF) and compare it against the Indian Air force (IAF) beyond numbers of fighters, bombers, attack helicopters, etc. We will also discuss the scenario of a hypothetical war between IAF and PLAAF with any external power’s interference (though in case of a war China would likely find Pakistan’s and North Korea’s support whereas India is likely to get support from NATO, the Quad, all the countries claiming portions of South China sea however Russia’s stance may remain neutral)
As a result of Chinese propaganda machinery, PLAAF on paper looks very powerful and invincible. However, there are many areas where PLAAF is vulnerable and has many disadvantages which can be wisely exploited by adversaries like India in case of a war. Though the number of fighter jets and other aircraft are quite impressive and assuming that the pilots highly trained and their motivation and skill can match the level of Indian pilots, PLAAF would give a tough fight to IAF in case of a war where the skill and training of pilots from both the air force would be tested to their limits.
So, beginning with the inherited shortcoming of PLAAF, i.e. lack of experience. PLAAF had seen actual combat last in the Korean war, almost six decades ago. Though according to some reports Chinese and soviet pilots were involved in the Vietnam war and assuming them to be true, PLAAF has not seen any real combat for over 40 years. Air combat has drastically changed from what it used to be in the 1960s and 1970s.
Though PLAAF conducts regular air exercises none of them is with external powers. Thus they have just evolved tactics themselves which has never been tested in real combat or even against any major military power in any military exercise.
Comparison with the Indian Air force
On the other hand, IAF has gathered up a significant amount of experience. IAF was formed on 8th October 1932 as an extended arm of Royal Air force. Since its formation, IAF has seen many wars and has played significant roles in them often being the key factors of victory. In modern times IAF regularly participates in joint military exercises with almost all the major military powers in the world.
IAF has seen actual combat less than a year ago when Dassault Mirage 2000H of IAF conducted airstrikes in Balakot in Pakistan in response to Pulwama terror attack. It also participated in a dogfight in the following day where it made history when a Mig 21 Bison shot down a Pakistani f 16 with an R73 (archer 11 as reported by NATO) missile. Though that very Mig 21 was subsequently shot down and its pilot Wg Cdr Abhinadan Varthaman was taken POW and later returned. He, later on, received Vir Chakra, India’s third-highest wartime gallantry award. Apart from that IAF has always been part of peacetime operation such as search and rescue, providing relief in case of natural calamities etc. We do not find anything like this in the modern history of the Chinese Air Force.
Command Structure Of Chinese Air Force
Another major limitation of the Chinese Air Force (PLAAF) is in its command structure. PLAAF is the air arm of People’s liberation army (PLA) (though it should be called People’s Suppression Army or PSA) and thus its top commanders are from Army. PLAAF would have been more effective if it was an independent and autonomous organisation. Due to its dependence on the Army’s leadership, its operational capabilities are likely to be affected in case of a war. Talking about IAF, it’s an independent organisation with high efficiency and an excellent record. Time and again IAF has proved its worth and its efficiency.
Fighter Jets of Chinese Air Force
Now coming on to the fighters, PLAAF has large numbers of fighters. But at the same time, we have to keep in mind that most of the fighters, around half of the entire fleet it outdated 2nd and 3rd generation fighters which do not fulfil the modern operational requirements.
Another point is that due to Beijing’s aggressive foreign policy, India is not the only adversary to worry about. China has border disputes almost with its every neighbour thanks to its salami-slicing policy. Thus, as a result, only the Western theatre command of the Chinese Air Force is dedicated to issues with India. Other assets in other theatres are reserved for other challenges and adversaries such as the US in south China sea or Russia at the north. Thus the assets available in western theatre command are very limited and moreover outdated as the best part is reserved for northern theatre command and south china sea.
J7 : Chinese copy of MIG 21
In western theatre command, the backbone of PLAAF is Chengdu J7, the illegal copy of Russian Mig 21. The history of this aircraft is also very complex.
At the beginning Russia agreed to transfer the technology of Mig 21 but before the transfer could be completed Sino-Soviet split occurred and Russia refused to transfer any further technology and also refused to provide any technical assistance to China. From there china had to develop the fighter on its own which made it inferior to the original Mig 21. Later on, many improvements were made and were even exported to many other counties but till this day it remains inferior to the upgraded mig 21s. IAF’s Mig 21 bison is way ahead of Chinese Chendu J7.
Su 27 SK and Su 27 UBK
Other than J7 the western theatre command comprises of Sukhoi Su 27 Sk and Su 27 UBK. It also has some j 11A and J11B (some upgraded with indigenous AESA radars)(Chinese version of Su 27) but in limited numbers.
If we look at Indian side resources are limited here as well. But India being very small when compared to China in terms of land area, all the resources can be used for a single purpose. On the Indian side, there are Su 30 MKI, mirage 2000H and Mirage 2000 TH, Jaguar Daren II and Daren III, mig 29 UPG and Mig 29 K, mig 21 bison, Tejas MK 1 and few rafales (yet to be delivered). China’s most advance fighters such as Su 35, and Su 30mkk, J 15 and J16 are deployed in interior parts of mainland China and it will require some time to mobilise them to forward bases along LAC.
China also has a few geographical disadvantages. The Chinese forward bases along LAC are situated on Tibetan plateau. As we move up the density of air decreases. Thus, the air at Tibetan plateau is thinner as compared to Indian side due to its higher altitude. As the density of decreases, the thrust produced by the engine of an aircraft also decreases. As a result, the lift also decreases. Thus, the aircraft at the Chinese side has to compromise with its payload and fuel because the aircraft on Tibetan plateau cannot take off with full fuel and payload due to reduced lift.
Moreover, due to reduced lift, the aircraft would require a longer runway. These will also suffer from increased V1 and V2 as well as increased stall speed. Increment in these parameters beyond a certain limit can be dangerous for the aircraft. PLAAF fighters will have to depend upon in-flight refuelling. On the other hand, Indian airfields are at a much lower altitude and thus are not affected by these factors.
Espionage and Reverse engineering
Another factor which goes against the Chinese Air Force is that most of its new fighters are either reverse-engineered from Russian counterparts or are stolen through cyber espionage from the western world. For example, J15 is reverse-engineered from Su 30 MKK. The J 10 is developed from Israeli IAI Lavi. The links between J20 and Mikoyan’s project 1.44 are quite undeniable.
Thus, these technologies are illegally stolen and the quality is highly doubted. Moreover, these have never been tested in combat. On the other hand, IAF uses world-class technology legally acquired from leading manufacturers such as Israel, Europe and Russia. Israel’s lighting pod used on most of the aircraft of IAF is the best targeting pod in the world. Thus, it is quite clear that IAF has technological superiority.
PLAAF vs IAF: Hypothetical War
Now let us analyse the situation of a hypothetical war between PLAAF and IAF. During any conflict, the first responders would be the fighters deployed at frontline bases. We will use the information which is available on public domain only.
The Su 27 SK deployed on the Chinese side comes with N001E radars whose range for 5-metre square RCS target is roughly 100 km. Moreover, these fighters are not capable of firing R77 BVR missiles. These fighters are inferior to the Indian non-upgraded mig 29.
Su 27 UBK is dedicated ground attack aircraft and thus will be limited to close air support roles only. Some J10s are also part of western theatre command.
On the Indian side, we have Su 30mki, one of the best dogfighters in the world. Su 30 MKIs comes with Bars N011M which has an alleged search range of 400 km and track range of 200+ km. These radars are the transition between AESA radars and PESA radars. These radars are so powerful that these can function as mini-AWACS. There were reports that Su 30mki even detected Chinese J 20 (self-claimed 5th generation stealth fighter of PLAAF which is not operational yet).
PLAAF boasts of its PL 15 missile which has a range of 300 km. But one should note that this range is for non-manoeuvring targets such as helicopters and large transport aircraft. Right now PLAAF has an upper hand in BVR combat with its P12 and PL 15 missiles, but as soon as IAF receives Rafale equipped with meteor BVR missiles, IAF would have the upper hand. Initially, PLAAF would suffer heavy casualties and IAF would have air superiority.
Casualty on the Indian side would be mainly due to Chinese air defence systems. Su 27 and J7 and J10s don’t pose any serious threat to IAF’s Su 30 MKI. However, when other assets like j 15, j16, Su 35 reach the frontline, the situation will be balanced and the side having better pilots and strategy would win. The entire situation and outcome of the war would depend upon the quality of pilots and their training. We hope that this hypothetical situation never turns out to be a reality.
It is very clear from the above analysis that though the Chinese Air Force has plenty of resources but is not using the resources to the optimum level. Due to Dragon’s hunger for land, its list of enemies is also very long. IAF won’t be PLAAF’s only worry. Moreover, the IAF has one of the finest pilots in the world with unmatchable skills and passion.
The course of the war and air-superiority will be decided by effective leadership, good resource management, effective deployment and obviously by the courage and skill of our pilots.
The result of any kind of war is unpredictable but it can be assured that our great Indian armed forces will do whatever it takes to safeguard our national interest and sovereignty.