DAY 7 + 1900 HRS (L)
CHINESE STRATEGIC AIR CENTER
Feng rubbed his eyes as he sat at the dining table, his food barely touched thus far. His arms were weighing heavy now and a look at the mirror in the washroom outside the dining hall showed him that he had aged several years in the last ten days. His eyes showing the red lines of sleep deprivation. But he had had an easier war compared with the hundreds of pilots and ground-crewmen who had lost their lives under his command in a brutal week of combat operations. Most importantly, he knew he had it easier. Many did not…
He looked around to see a bustling dining hall filled with tired officers and men moving back and forth. A well-organized meal was simply not on the cards at the moment. People were grabbing their food as and when they got time. Many were going through papers and reports while they ate. Under normal conditions this kind of behavior from officers in the dining room was unthinkable. But the times now were different. And Lt-General Chen had ordered the relaxations on normal protocol, much to the chagrin of the senior political commander at the command center. The latter had objected on the grounds that such behavior bred dilution of morale. It had been quickly overruled by Chen.
Privileges of rank… Feng mused as a waiter leaned over to ask him if he needed anything. Feng dismissed him with a wave and returned to staring at his meal in silence.
They were running out of time. Chen had made that very clear in his last meeting. If the war could not be given a positive direction quickly, all control would pass over from the field commanders in the TAR back to Beijing. And war looks very different when it is being fought from thousands of kilometers away…
Feng looked at his wristwatch and realized that the 19TH Fighter Division would have begun deploying to three key airbases north of TAR by now. The 55TH Fighter Regiment, part of the Division, would be deploying detachments of its three fresh J-11 squadrons between Golmud, Urumqi and Wulumuqi airbases. Of these, the one at Golmud was the higher altitude base and would restrict some capability on the J-11s there. But it could not be helped. Besides, the J-11 could take it. It was a much different story with the other second generation fighters available to Feng for the TAR region. Basically speaking, all J-8 variants were barely operational from TAR high altitude airbases and mostly combat ineffective when doing so. The only way they could carry enough payload off the ground at those altitudes was using the kind of massive runways available at Shigatse and a few other airbases. But Shigatse was no more available now; not least after the Indians had removed the S-300 air defense systems in that region more than twelve hours ago. Hotien airbase in western TAR was another such airbase laid waste by the cursed Jaguars while the western S-300 belt along the Ladakh regions had been reduced to a shadow of its former self…
That was the problem… Feng admitted to himself. The air war being fought by the PLAAF was from the very beginning a defensive one from the strategic standpoint. This would be surprising to all except for Chen’s command staff. Despite the media broadcasts and the propaganda, Feng had to admit to himself that he was fighting this war with far fewer aircraft available to him than what Beijing realized. The J-11s and the J-10s and the KJ-2000s made for a glorious pictorial, but the bottom line was that these aircraft represented a small percentage of the total fighter force on paper. A fact lost to most commentators even within the Chinese decision making structure!
A result of what happens when a side starts to believe their own propaganda!
Sure the Chinese force of J-11s and J-10s was bigger than the IAF put together at the beginning of the war, but it was also responsible for protecting a landmass twice the size. Beijing would not release all of the available J-11s facing the Taiwan Theater and had to reserve some for the eastern coastlines facing possible threats from the Americans operating out of Japan or using their carriers. The J-8s, the JH-7s and the other fighter units would be slaughtered without higher level support from the third generation fighters such as the J-11s and J-10s, not to mention the required AWACS and EW support aircraft!
Once India got beyond the initial state of shock following onset of hostilities, it could move massive levels of its IAF fighter forces into the fight. Operating from near sea-level conditions, the fighters could be armed heavier and have longer endurance in combat. They had no other borders to be worried about thanks to a coastline jutting into the vast openness of the Indian Ocean. And as for the Pakistani threat, the same airbases that could be launching strikes against the TAR targets could instantly refocus and launch strikes against targets in Pakistan. And the Pakistanis knew it.
And so the PLAAF depended a lot more on stand-off cruise missiles. And ballistic missiles…Feng forced himself to admit now. The threshold for use of conventionally armed missiles was far lower within the command structure on the Chinese side than the Indian side. And to a certain extent the cruise missile attacks had delivered close to expectations. The Chinese had managed to displace the Indian higher military and political command from the command centers in New Delhi within the first few hours of the war. The airbase at Thoise had been destroyed. And the airbases at Leh, Bareilly and Baghdogra were barely operational and mostly combat ineffective at this point in the war. But the Indians had a lot more available airfields and dispersal options near to the frontlines than the Chinese had in the TAR. When a J-10 needs two kilometers of runway to take off from high altitude airbases, it makes it so very much easier to disable all launches from that base even if the enemy strikes a location one-third the length of the massive runway. Other airbases outside of the Tibetan plateau were too far out to properly concentrate available forces even if aircraft launched from there could make the trip to the Indian targets with enough fuel to fight and return.
The tanker force was the only support option in such cases. And while the Indians were easily doubling the endurances for their fighter patrols because of the close proximity between the airbases and the AO, it was taking a flight of J-11s three tanker refuelings simply to bring the aircraft to the AO and allow it to maintain a decent sized CAP. So how do you concentrate forces between such widely displaced airbases and light tanker units?
You don’t...Feng told his inner voice as he picked at the rice on his plate with his fork.
And cruise missiles were not the answer. They had to be launched by standoff aircraft and now that the Indians had gained a certain level of dominance over the aerial battlefield, they were thinning out the slow moving missile barrages with air-to-air missiles before they could hit the targets. So while some missiles from each barrage were getting through, it was creating an attrition rate far lower than anticipated by Feng and his command staff in all pre-war simulations.
What about the Indians? What was their response? Predicting that was the key for the PLAAF here, wasn’t it? Feng thought to himself as he put down the fork for the final time and looked out the massive windows of the dining hall where he could see the last vestiges of orange-pink skies as the sun went below the horizon to the west. As he wiped his hands and got up from the table he invoked several turned faces and conversations that abruptly silenced as others in the room took notice of the senior commander leaving his dinner behind. Feng was lost in his own thoughts. As he walked over to sill of the window and stared up, he could see the darkening skies above and the reflection of the dining room behind him in the glass of the windows. As he touched the windows he felt the coldness outside as the first snowfall of the night was beginning.
He smiled and brought his hands behind his back in the formal stance but continued to stare out the window. He could now see two J-8IIs lighting up their afterburners as they took to the skies in a paired formation. Followed soon by others, the flight of fighters quickly switched off the afterburners and disappeared into the night sky…
The Indians were not big on the use of cruise missiles the way his own side was, Feng thought once more. No. That was not right. It’s not their willingness to use cruise missiles but their ability to do so that was missing. They had no carrier aircraft other than their newly modified Sukhois to hoist the only credible cruise missile they had: the Brahmos ALCM. The problem with that configuration was that each fighter could only carry one of the supersonic missiles during a single sortie. So that meant a flight of several Su-30s configured for the launch role could launch at best perhaps a half-dozen missiles at a time. Better still, doing so required them to move precious heavy fighters away from the air-dominance role and into the strike fighter role at a time when they could least afford it. By comparison, Feng could deploy six missiles from a single H-6 launch aircraft and not have to divert his J-11 force into this task. The Brahmos ALCM was high speed and low range compared with true tactical cruise missiles. The Nirbhay had not entered service yet, which was fortunate for the Chinese. The Brahmos was a purely SEAD specific missile and had been used as such by the Indians. Then there was the availability of the missiles. The ALCM was new to the Indian inventory and had been acquired only a year ago. Production rates in India did not even compare with Chinese numbers and so they had few missiles on hand when this war had started.
And for all that they had used this small force of missiles effectively, Feng admitted in a moment of candor to himself. The only reason he was where he was now with this air war was because of the effective use of that small force of missiles against his air-defense batteries. Once those batteries had gone down, the same launch fighters had returned to their fighter roles soon enough. But the important factor was that the Indians were now mostly out of their small ALCM inventories. A reserve force was being maintained for use against Pakistani targets if required.
Probably…Feng thought. He really didn’t know for sure. But it was what he would have done in their shoes…
So that meant that the Indians would now be forced to depend on their remaining force on Jaguars for the strike missions against Chinese airbases and other targets. What was nice about that prospect for Feng and the PLAAF was that their airbases were not the main focus of the Jaguars till now. Thanks to the massive ground offensives taking place for the last week, the Indians had dedicated the majority of their Jaguar sorties for the close air support roles on the front-lines and interdiction of logistical arteries of the PLA. And in doing so they had encountered losses. Not enough to make the Indian Jaguar fleet ineffective by any means, but enough that Feng could breathe a sigh of relief and could instead concentrate on countering the Indian fighters instead. But that was days ago.
Tonight the war was on a different footing. The ground offensives had lost momentum on both sides. The Ladakh battlefields were a junkyard of prized weaponry from both sides in return for tactical gains into each other’s territories. Both sides had exhausted their armies in that sector. To the east the offensive into Bhutan had made spectacular gains but was now feeling the heat from the Indian counter-offensive. Frankly, it had failed a strategic objective but had provided a very useful card for the Chinese to play: the Indians could not allow this war to end while Chinese ground forces were embedded deep inside Bhutan. That meant they would be focused on that theater from now on. That made them predictable by pivoting their forces to that theater. Perhaps an advantage lay there?
But unless the situation changed for the better in those hills, Feng had to accept the fact that he now faced a battered, but-not-yet-beaten, Indian deep penetration Jaguar strike force licking its wounds in their airbases in Punjab. He remembered that they had taken the commanding officer of the Indian Tuskers squadron as a prisoner during their strike missions on the Aksai Chin S-300 batteries several days ago. He was still alive and being interrogated…
Feng paused his thoughts and walked back to the table where the waiters were still waiting near his abandoned plate with food. He apologized to them about that courteously and asked for his belongings. A few seconds later his orderly arrived with his winter overcoat with all the ribbons and insignia attached as well as his cap. He put those on and walked out of the room while everybody jerked into a standing attention in the middle of their meals. He did not return their salutes as he left the room. As he left the building entrance and felt the biting cold winds outside, he saw his three-car convoy pulling up to take him back to the command center. In planning to have his meal in the peacetime operations buildings for the Kashgar airbase, he had probably risked it more than he should have anyway. But he had enjoyed the breath of fresh cold air outside as compared with the air-conditioned and temperature controlled air inside his headquarters.
As he got back into the open doors of his black sedan, he saw his ADC, Major K. Li, jumping out of the second vehicle and walking up to greet his commander...
“You should try the food tonight, it is very good.” Feng said to the Major as he buttoned his overcoat.
“Sir, you should not be out here. It is not safe!” the Major said.
“Yes, yes. I know. But I needed the fresh air and to eat alongside the men who I order into combat every day. It was nice to see what their faces look like. When you get to my level of command, Li, you will understand why that is important,” Feng said to the much younger officer. Li smiled at the unperturbed response of his charge.
“And? What was your impression?” he asked.
Feng exhaled a breath of cold air and decided it was time to get into the vehicle. Li got inside with him.
“They looked far fresher than I had hoped. Eager as well” Li nodded at that as he spoke:
“Indeed. The pilots and officers you saw are from the 17TH Air Regiment that deployed here as per your request to General Chen this morning. More are deploying now. And the 19TH Division has been released to our control and is already deploying initial detachments to Golmud and Urumqi airbases as we speak.”
“A lot happened during my meal then!” Feng said and turned to face the young officer. He removed the smile from his face as he spoke:
“But do you think it will be enough, Li?”
“I…don’t understand. You told General Chen that these units are what you wanted.” Li said in response.
“Indeed I did. But there is a difference between wanting from choice and wanting from desperation, is there not? The men I saw today in the dining hall are eager to get into the fight, as well as they should be. But they are also yet to be bloodied by war. The former J-11 units here that we have now withdrawn from combat because of their crippling losses last week were also similarly eager. And they had better equipment at hand when they joined the war. These new units, barring the 19TH Division, are second line units at best and will now be facing battle-hardened Indian pilots on their own battlefields. So what do you expect the outcome to be? Hmm?” Feng said neutrally and then looked out of the darkened window of his vehicle as it went down the entrance of his underground command center. Soon the darkness outside was replaced with lines of yellow color lighting along the cavernous interiors of the center. As the car came to a halt and soldiers opened the doors of the car, Feng turned back to Li:
“Expect the Indians to begin launching strikes against our airbases in TAR and especially here. Put the base on full alert and have a sizeable portion of the available fighter force on two-minute launch warning. The ground offensive will no longer occupy the Indians as we had hoped it would. Their first target will be here. Its dark outside already and if I were the Indian commander, I would be ordering my planes to strike right about now. There are no more S-300s available between us and them anymore. Our only defenses are the fighters from the 17TH Air Regiment. Get them ready to fight for their home base tonight, understand?”
“Yes sir!” Li said and leaped out of the other side of the seat. Feng stood after getting out and looked at the massive red colored Chinese flag draped on the wall at the entrance to the operations center. He nodded to himself as he stared at the flag, for which the sentries nearby exchanged a quick look amongst themselves. Feng yelled back at Li who was already heading into the entrance of the center:
“Sir?” the Major said as he stopped just before showing his identification card to the sentries.
“Where are Generals Chen and Jinping right now?” Feng said as he walked up.
“General Chen is here and getting some sleep. He said he is not to be disturbed for the next couple of hours. General Jinping is at his HQ in Lhasa.” Li said.
“Inform General Chen that I wish to speak to him right away. And get General Jinping on the comms. It’s about time we heard what moves the PLA has left up its sleeves on the ground side of this war. If what I expect to hear becomes true, get the TAR commander for 2ND Artillery on the phone.” Feng said as he pulled Li outside of the hearing radius of the soldiers nearby.
“They won’t cooperate very well, Sir. We are not authorized to contact them directly. It has to come from Beijing. The 2ND Artillery deploys its units pretty much on direct authority from Beijing.” Li said to which Feng responded in several choice expletives before continuing:
“How are we expected to coordinate our forces with theirs if everything has to be routed from a thousand kilometers away? Well, never mind. We will try to get General Chen to call them directly. Perhaps that will work. Once that happens, I want you to personally go to their TAR headquarters north of Lhasa and get embedded with their operations staff. I will manage the other stuff from here with the rest of the command staff. I want you to get them to open up their operational plans for the TAR so that we can maximize their chances of success without things escalating out of hand. Do you understand?” Feng noted to his protégé. Li had nervousness written on his face, as Feng noted instantly.
“Listen to me, Li. This aerial war will go one way or another tonight. But if the Indians lash out at us here, deep inside our own territories as the attempt to shut down our major airbases supporting the Laddakh front, Beijing might take that as a last straw and take control away from General Chen and myself and hand it over to the PLA commanders in the 2ND Artillery. When that happens, I want somebody I know who understands the tactical aviation side of things to be on hand when they begin to deploy. It will make my life a lot easier having you there. You understand now?”
“Good. Then get this done and start packing your bags. I want you set up over there before first light tomorrow morning.”
Li saluted and Feng returned the salute. As Li brisk walked down the corridors and disappeared, Feng walked slower and headed to the operations and comms room. He reached for the doors, sighed and walked inside. The soldiers on either side of the entrance door heard the old balding man with white hair mutter to himself as he walked through: