As a standoff unfolded in eastern Ladakh in May 2020, with the Indian military mobilising all-out to counter the Chinese build-up of forces as well as their invasion into Indian territory, the Indian Air Force (IAF) pressed its entire transport fleet into service to carry over 68,000 troops, 330 infantry vehicles and more than 90 tanks in addition to artillery guns, according to defence sources.
“The priority was quick deployment of army and air assets to build credible force to tackle the adversary. No one had an idea when there would be a de-escalation and so we had to be deployed there and sustain the deployments. After Galwan, it was felt that there was a need to build formidable force,” a defence source said, giving an overview on the IAF’s efforts during the early phase of the standoff. “In all, over 9,000 tonnes were airlifted in the initial phase of the standoff,” the source added, saying that this also included the airlift of IAF assets, such as radars and surface-to-air guided weapon systems.
Transport fleet fully deployed
The IAF operates a range of transport aircraft: the smaller workhorses AN-32s and AVROs, the IL-76 heavy transports and IL-78 mid-air refuelling tankers from Russia, 12 C-130J Super Hercules special mission aircraft, and 11 C-17 Globemaster strategic airlift aircraft.
The build-up of fighter aircraft included the forward deployment of Rafales, SU-30MKIs and Mig-29s. IAF has airfields at Leh and Thoise in Ladakh, while work has just commenced to extend the runway at the advanced landing ground in Nyoma to be able to handle fighter jets. “We projected an offensive posture so that we are able to tackle any misadventure by the adversary,” the source said.
Operational readiness platforms were maintained, which means that fighters were fully loaded and ready to take off in five to seven minutes. Combat air patrols were conducted, which means that fighters were in the air to dissuade the Chinese from any “misadventure”. SU-30MKI and Jaguar fighters were deployed for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance purposes, in addition to helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles.
Coordinating with the army
The next requirement is strengthening the air defence network, which includes surface-to-air guided weapons and the radars to guide them. These were airlifted or moved by road to forward locations and maintained in peak winters, with temperatures ranging from 15 to 140 degrees celsius, and very windy conditions.
Giving an example of the challenges faced by the IAF as well its coordination with the Indian Army, the source said that the army quickly built a pontoon bridge across the Indus river, enabling quick transportation of heavy radars, which would otherwise have taken four to five days using existing tracks.
As per the existing agreements between India and China, operation of fighter aircraft and armed helicopters is restricted to a distance from the Line of Actual Control (LAC). According to the ‘Agreement on Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity along the LAC in India-China Border Area’ of 1996, “combat aircraft (to include fighter, bomber, reconnaissance, military trainer, armed helicopter and other armed aircraft) shall not fly within 10 km of the LAC.”
However, at the height of the standoff in eastern Ladakh, there have been several air violations with Chinese fighters coming close to the LAC.