The 2013 edition of the Science of Military Strategy of China states that “the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) is accelerating its modernization and transformation from an aviation force into an integrated air and space force, from a mechanized air force into an informatized air force, and from a supporting air force into a strategic leading force.”
One can find such vivid lines in all important texts of China especially related to the military. These lines portray nothing but Chinese intentions to convert its Air Force as a symbol of air power to an aerospace power. Well, the document was published in 2013 but China have had intention to build a world class air force long before especially after the gulf war in 1991 when full potential of a modern air force was displayed by US Air Force.
Keeping political views aside, the war saw unleashing of 3000 precision-guided bombs on Iraq the force being commanded from thousands of kilometers away. Having realised the importance of technology in winning war, China hence started focusing its reforms towards making PLA ‘from men intensive to a technologically developed force.’
The Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) Gen. Bipin Rawat recently stated Air Force as just a support force in lines of Army artillery, engineer support etc. His assessment can’t be more wrong! In case a conflict happens today, the Air Force shall be first among the services to be called. As it is believed that air power has become a preferred medium for the launch of offensive operations as it offers the advantage of inter-continental range, short-notice employment, and high speed of delivery having high accuracy of weapons with low collateral damage. The Air Power will be required to dominate the Tactical Battle Area (TBA), followed by the Army.
The changing nature of warfare all over the world suggest that air power is taking the front seat rather Army. China continuing with its legacy of defence reforms has resorted to major reforms in its military which included giving priority to expand its Navy and Air Force to enhance its influence beyond the borders while cutting down three lakh troops of the PLA Ground Forces (Army). The PLA Navy, Air Force, Rocket Force and Strategic Support Force (PLA SSF) – now together make up more than half of the Chinese military overtaking the Army, which has traditionally been the dominant service.
Reportedly, Xi Jinping has aimed to cut PLAGF strength to half this move will possibly make Indian Army as the largest ground force in the world, an achievement not to cherish! As heavy dependence on ground forces shows lack of technology implementation especially in backdrop of covid era where there is crunch of state capital provided in defence budget majority of which goes in paying salaries and pensions in Indian case.
In order to exploit the capabilities offered by the modern air power to dominate today’s TBA, China has been keen to transform PLAAF into a 4th Generation fighter Air Force. PLAAF has committed that it will have about 2000 fighter aircrafts in its fleet by 2030 and majority of them will be 4th and 5th generation fighter aircrafts.
It’s not only about numbers; the trend suggests most of the advance militaries around the world are trying converging traditional air dominance elements with space dominance elements, as in case of China, an idea which is bolstered by introduction of PLA SSF in 2015. The US has already operationalised its 8th uniformed service branch the US Space Command under its Department of Air Force, other countries also have got similar set-up operationalised in recent years like for E.g. the France has the French Space Command as a formation of the French Air and Space Force.
China, the country which is India’s major external security concern is well on its way trying to achieve global precision strike capabilities. This can be understood by looking into some of its very ambitious space projects. China has already achieved global Positioning Navigation Timing (PNT) (Aka. GPS) coverage with its Beidou satellite constellations became fully operational in late 2018.
Once its Jilin satellite constellation turns active it will provide China ability to monitor whole earth with just 10 minutes ‘revisiting time’. China is also focusing on achieving global communication coverage with a plan to send 300 small satellites into space.
On the other hand, Chinese military industry is focusing on achieving technologies of strategic importance trying making its air force and space force capabilities more deadly. They have made serious strides in counter-space missiles, Directed Energy Weapons (DEWs), lasers, quantum, cyber and electromagnetic domain which have relevance both on air and space domain, latter brining convergence enabling force multiplication.
It is reported that China’s EW experts are providing emphasis on developing High Altitude Electromagnetic Pulse (HEMP) bombs deliverable through artillery shells, rockets, Ariel bombing, and missiles. In 2017, Chinese media celebrated the development of a miniaturized microwave weapon that could evolve into an orbital anti-satellite system.
Keeping evolving threats in view, the IAF cannot limit its resources to certain geographical commands.The idea of integrated commands doesn’t suit the requirements of an effective Air Force at least in the Indian context. We are already short of resources when it comes to air power, far away from achieving the desired strength of 42 fighter squadrons (number of fighter aircrafts required to fight a two-front war). Therefore, at this juncture, division of air force resources as part of integration will lead to sub-optimal force effectiveness. The objective should be to utilize maximum out of the existing pooled resources rather bifurcating them.
Moreover, the delineation of IAF Area of Responsibility (AoR) based on certain integrated commands shall eventually lead to reduction of operational space available to IAF. The IAF by nature does centralised planning for allocating roles, missions, tasks and resources therefore exceptions shall be required for IAF. Consider the fact that China in 2015 announced creation of Western Theatre Command (WTC) as one of the 5 theatre commands; the WTC AoR is larger than that of the Indian landmass! Therefore, it is still advisable that to get real integration among the armed forces, India should adopt only those changes which suit it in light of the peculiar geography/terrain, threat perception, resources and technological threshold.
Former Air Chief Marshal and COSC Arup Raha notes that “the 21st century belongs to aerospace power.” Moving beyond network-centricity, the near future awaits for the convergence of more air-space offensive elements in actual battles to be fought. Therefore, the future warfare requires IAF to gradually work towards eventually transforming itself into an aerospace power.
In this direction, the IAF needs to propose a better way of integrating with rest of the services rather allowing delimiting its resources based on certain commands which itself are pioneered on land-oriented understanding of military geography. Not only that, to recognize as the aerospace power of the future the IAF must be prioritized to lead the responsibility in the upcoming Integrated Air Defence Command and the Defence Space Agency (DSA).