After almost two decades, the wider citizenry has been exposed to several facets of how India’s armed forces are deployed in warlike conditions in Eastern Ladakh. The deliberate and decisive deployment of the Indian Army, with its entire range of combat and engineering capabilities including tanks, towed heavy artillery guns, special forces and hardy troops in protective winter gear, has sent a strong message to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
An even more deterrent signal has been the willingness of the Indian Army to occupy tactically advantageous heights along the north and south banks of Pangang Tso. It has forced the Chinese to reevaluate their strategic game-plan, which was expected to unfold by the time winter set in. This strategic pause has helped the Indian Army dig in along the LAC and consolidate its deterrent posture.
However, what has slipped under the radar is the massive effort by the Indian Air Force in enabling, supporting and complementing this effort, both in real terms as well as coercive posturing. Never has so much load and so many personnel been flown into Ladakh by the IAF, not even in 1962. The skies over Ladakh now reverberate with the sound of Sukhois, MiG-29s, Rafales, C-17s, C-130s, Chinooks and Apaches as Leh emerges as among the busiest IAF airfields. Images of Special Forces training with aviation elements of the Army and the IAF in the rugged terrain bear testimony to the improving synergy between the two services.
For decades, the airspace over Ladakh has remained muted with only the bare minimum transport and helicopter support being undertaken for sustenance, stocking and casualty evacuation. Lulled and even intimidated for decades by the strictures imposed on it by the various border protocols and confidence-building measures, Sub-Sector North and Eastern Ladakh were literally quasi no-fly zones for IAF fighters. Whatever little fighter flying comprised mainly of Combat Air Patrols over Siachen and some familiarisation in other parts of Ladakh.
The government seems to have realised two important facets of any future limited conflict scenarios across the LAC, particularly in Ladakh. The first is given the dense and almost mirror-image ground deployments of the Indian Army and the PLA, force-on-force engagements are not likely to lead to any decisive outcomes that could result in an alteration of status quo for either side. With human capacity significantly diminished by altitude and terrain, air power can cause significant psychological degradation in an adversary. The Kargil conflict was a case in point.
Second, given that the PLA’s capacity to absorb punishment in a limited but high intensity conflict is untested in recent times, the ability of airpower to cause significant attrition and destruction of combat potential must be factored in. This is essential if a weaker power (India) is to seize the initiative early on in a conflict to shape a desirable outcome. Given the sparsely populated battle-space, both precision attacks and area bombing are not likely to cause any collateral damage, thereby allowing airpower to operate without any major shackles.
Modern air power is all about targeting and targeting is all about building a proper intelligence mosaic. The principal medium to create this mosaic is space and the platforms used are imaging, infrared, communication and navigation-enabling satellites. It will take decades for India to match China’s superiority in this realm. While India has wisely chosen not to engage in a space race with China, there is a need to accelerate the military segment of India’s space programme. The creation of a Defence Space Agency is a step in this direction. In the meantime, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and other air-based surveillance systems need to fill the gap. Space-based communication and signal intelligence satellites are key to create an electronic orbat (order of battle) of the adversary.
Whatever transpires on the ground during the coming weeks, the aerospace segment of deterrence, intelligence gathering, surveillance and reconnaissance must act as the strategic establishment’s eyes and first responder in any future responses along the LAC, particularly in Ladakh. Air and space power are extensions of the same continuum and that ought to be reason enough to invest more effort and resources in sharpening them.
Subramaniam, a retired Air Vice Marshal, is the author of India’s Wars.