Thursday, March 09, 2017

Y-20 Aircraft Will Transform China’s Strategic Combat Capability

Executive Summary
China’s PLA Air Force inducted its first two Y-20 strategic heavy-airlift transport aircraft (out of probable 400 more) in July 2016 to provide a considerable boost to China’s expeditionary and long-range power-projection capability.

Y-20-1 in PLAAF Service (Pic-


On 6 July 2016, the Chinese Air Force inducted its first two Y-20 transport aircraft into the active service at Chengdu-Qionglai Air Base. Made by the Xi’an Aircraft Corporation, Y-20 is the largest transport aircraft built in China. It is a four-engine, high tail cargo aircraft with maximum take-off weight of 220 tons and can carry 66 tons of payload to about 4500 km. This all-weather aircraft can take off from short runways and can be deployed to transport heavy equipment and troops during military assault, peacekeeping and humanitarian assault/disaster-relief missions. 

Y-20 Design Inspirations (Pic -
Yunshuji-20 or Y-20 (nickname ‘Kunpeng’) is a long range heavy transport aircraft which China has been developing indigenously. The idea to develop a heavy strategic transport aircraft was considered during the 10th Party Congress of China in 2004, when the PLA decided to transform its air force into a ‘Strategic Air Force’. Therefore, the need for air superiority and long range strike capability, beyond 100 miles, required the development of a suitable airlift aircraft. Consequently, China started the Y-20 development programme in 2005, which evolved into an urgent requirement after the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake. The earthquake and China’s lack of adequate airlift capability turned into a major embarrassment for the Chinese regime. During the post-earthquake relief programme, American C-17 aircraft and Russian IL-76 aircraft transported hundreds of tons of relief material into Sichuan earthquake zone while Chinese Air Force lacked suitable airlift aircraft as well as adequate number of trained pilots to fly into the disaster-struck region. In the aftermath, the Y-20 development program received phenomenal support from the Chinese government. Finally, the Xian Aircraft Industrial Corporation (an AVIC subsidiary) produced the first prototype aircraft by December 2012 which flew in 2013. The prototype was a result of indigenous technological development, coupled with substantial external design help from Ukraine

Recent Developments 

Rep Image - Future Y-20 Tanker
At the 2016 induction ceremony, the PLA Air Force Spokesperson Shen Jinke marked the induction as a crucial step for improving China’s strategic power projection capability. It is here that this aircraft’s unique role in the PLA’s modernisation programme becomes crucial. The aircraft can not only perform suitably as a heavy airlifter but it can eventually be configured to perform as an airborne-early warning and control aircraft (AEW&C), aerial-refueller, electronic warfare aircraft, drone mothership and other force-multiplier missions. These are missions where Chinese capability is severely limited due to the lack of a large transport aircraft. 

Y-20 Glass Cockpit (pic-Focus)
The PLA Air Force has less than two dozen Russian IL-76/78 in its inventory at present. A larger order to induct 30 additional IL-76 and 8 IL-78 aircraft was cancelled in 2008 due to the failure of price renegotiation between Russia and China. After the 2008 earthquake, however, China decided to procure ten used IL-76 aircraft from Russia which was delivered starting 2013. Even so, these two dozen heavy airlifters are inadequate for transporting requirements of a two million strong PLA. In addition, due to the western embargo, China is unable to purchase an airlifter which is equivalent to American C-17 or C-5 aircraft. 

Y-20 FLIR (Pic -
Y-20 HUD (Pic- CCTV-4)
Thus, China had no other option but to develop an indigenous aircraft for the purpose. The Y-20 aircraft uses fairly modern technologies in terms of ‘supercritical aerofoils, integrated avionics, glass cockpit, head-up display, FLIR and composite materials in the fuselage’. Although, Y-20 has been using Russian D-30KP2 engines so far, a drive to develop Chinese aviation engine for the aircraft, named WS-20, is in the process. The Y-20’s 66-ton payload capability will provide China a capability to move majority of its combat and support platforms to the battlefield, including its heaviest tank, the 58-ton Type-99A2. The aircraft can haul lighter loads such as paratroopers to more than 10,000km, while at 40-ton payload, it can reach 7,800 km. Additionally, the aircraft is capable to take-off from short runways and dirt-strips which opens access to various remote battlefields. Additionally, Chinese scientists are studying possibilities to launch 200-kilogram satellites in low earth orbit from this aircraft. 

ShenLong under H6(Pic - Tiexue.Net)
Y-20 Cargo Hold (Pic- Focus)

Chinese experts expected in 2007 that the development phase of Y-20 aircraft will conclude in about 8-10 years and large scale deliveries would begin in 2017. The development program has so far maintained the schedule. Chinese experts expect that the PLA requires anywhere from 400 to 100o Y-20 aircraft for long range power projection and strategic airlift. However, the final production of Y-20 aircraft may remain in single digits for a foreseeable future. China has embarked on the development of four transport aircraft simultaneously, namely, Y-20, Comac C919, ARJ-21 and Y-9 aircraft. A large number of skilled personnel are required to run these simultaneous manufacturing programs, which is not available in China. It is possible that China would prioritize one or two of these aircraft, however that would depend upon the demand and possibility of sale of civilian transport aircraft in the market. 


Y-20 Cargo Hold (Pic - Focus)
The induction of Y-20 transport aircraft is a significant event for China’s logistics support capability. From tactical, China is embarking towards the build-up of a global combat logistics capability. The induction of hundreds of these aircraft into the PLA Air Force will provide it a strategic support capability in terms of air transport, air-refueling, electronic warfare and intelligence support. This aircraft will become crucial in sustainment flying missions at Djibouti, Gwadar and others in future. China can further export Y-20 aircraft to friendly nations such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and many other countries in Asia and Africa. If Y-20 can be built at cheaper prices than Russian IL-476, then China can sell the aircraft to many other countries. In sum, Y-20’s induction in the PLA Air Force will increase the range of its strike aircraft and extend China’s reach into global battlefields.

Y-20 Induction Ceremony (Pic

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Sichuan-Tibet Railway: Growing Connectivity in PLA’s Western Theater Command

Originally published on 20 June 2016 on ICS Blog.

On 27 January 2016, Losang Gyaltsen, Chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) government, announced in the TAR’s Tenth People’s Congress that his government would accelerate the construction of the Sichuan-Tibet Railway in the 13th Five Year Plan (2016-20) period. His government promised to start a preliminary survey and research to build the Nyingchi-Kangding railway section, in the current year. Yin Li, the acting Governor of Sichuan, sent out similar messages a week earlier at the Sichuan People’s Congress. These statements from the top leadership of both provinces reflect the importance of this rail project.

Second Rail-Link

China built the first rail route to Tibet (Qinghai Tibet Railway–QTR), connecting Lhasa with Golmud in Qinghai province, in 2006. This rail route significantly enhanced China’s access to its southwestern province and created enormous scope for tourism, commerce, governance and military logistics. Nevertheless, Lhasa remained relatively isolated due to the lack of a rail connection with either Chengdu or Urumqi, its traditional trading destinations. Both Lhasa and Chengdu are connected with the Sichuan-Tibet Highway (part of G318), however, the road trip (2,149 km) takes three-four days and passes through some of the highest snow-covered mountains in the world. The current train journey, a circuitous one through Qinghai, Gansu and Shaanxi provinces, takes about 44 hours covering 3,070 kms. In contrast, the new rail line, which is expected to be built by 2025, will reduce this journey to less than 15 hours. In addition, as Chengdu has been declared the Joint Command Centre for the newly-formed Western Theatre Command, after the recent military reorganisation, it also makes military sense to build a rail connection between both these cities.

This rail connection will be an elevated corridor and hence, it has been termed as the second ‘sky road’ to Tibet after the QTR. The 13th Five Year Plan termed it a key construction project on which, the planned speed would be 160 kmph. The distance of this entire route is 1,629 kilometres, out of which, about 1,000 km is in Tibet. Each kilometre of rail construction on this route will cost US$15.87 million.

Map 1


The project has been divided into three sections: Lhasa-Nyingchi, Nyingchi-Kangding and Kangding-Chengdu. Work on the western portion is in full swing and the eastern section’s construction has also started. Only the middle section awaits the preliminary survey and research. In addition, the rail route will navigate through high mountains, major rivers and seismic fault zones, at an average of 2,000 meters above the sea level. Chinese construction workers on the sites have complained of low oxygen, high altitude and complex geography related dangers.

The rail route is quite important for China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI/OBOR) as this rail line can be extended to connect the Chinese mainland with Europe. Chengdu is a key node on the Yixin’ou Railway Corridor that intends to connect China’s Pacific Coast with Europe. Initial travel was done by a train that left Yiwu in December 2014, reached Madrid and returned to China in 2015, after completing a 26,580 kms journey on this corridor. Therefore, China has justified this new rail-link as crucial in the economic upliftment of its backward western region.

Map 2Red line – Existing route, Blue line – Rail routes yet to be constructed

Source: created by author

Additionally, the Chinese government has dismissed all claims of potential environmental damage and cultural danger to ethnic Tibetans, due to this upcoming rail line. Sonam Dorje, a director of the Tibetan Regional Committee in the CPPCC reiterated that the rail line would help boost tourism and economic growth of this region. He argued that Tibet has enormous deposits of solar power, hydropower, wind power and geothermal power but only one percent has so far been developed. Therefore, Tibet requires development not protection of its resources.

Furthermore, the rail route has significant military importance as the link is crucial for the PLA, which is undergoing major organisational transformation at present. With the Western Theatre Command’s Joint Command Centre in Chengdu and the army command in Lanzhou, a rail connection will facilitate rapid mobilisation of troops from Chengdu, for suppressing internal disturbances, humanitarian assistance/disaster relief missions and for potential military action on China’s southwestern borders. Keeping in mind the Chinese tactical military principle in Tibet of “lighter in the front, heavier at the back”, the rail route can be extremely helpful in the movement of motorised combat units and artillery units including China’s rocket forces. Additionally, this railway line would, in logical certainty, be followed by a rail connection between Lhasa and Urumqi. That would connect Chengdu to Urumqi through Lhasa, amplifying Indian security concerns because this could well run parallel to the border with India or even through Aksai China.

Finally, the construction of this rail line will facilitate the extraction of raw materials from Tibet to the industrial heartlands in east and south China, which would further encourage the demographic shift of Han people to sparsely populated but culturally sensitive southern Tibetan highlands. Therefore, the Sichuan-Tibet railway line and other major infrastructure projects on Tibet’s permafrost will likely transform the Himalayan strategic landscape and South Asia’s ecological balance.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Relevance of Pakistan: India’s Foreign and Security Policy

Pak Air Force Mirage Fighters (Source: PAFwallpapers website)
It’s hard to believe that Indian military and foreign policy makers tend to consider Pakistan as a central factor in policy-making. The discussion of Pakistan’s centrality itself is misleading as it militates against facts and the reason. It’s difficult to find a similar situation globally. To make the absurdity clear, imagine a hypothetical situation where the US foreign and security policy would consider Mexico as the main factor.

Geographically, Pakistan is not even one fourth of India’s size and consists of a population which is smaller than one sixth of Indian population. India’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is nearly eight times bigger and the military expenditure about five times higher. Consider this, when Indian military expenditure is not even 2 percent of its GDP, Pakistan spends more than 3.2 percent to sustain its military. The following table explains this issue with clarity:

Table 1: India and Pakistan

Geographical Size
3.28 Million sq km
0.796 Million sq km
1.2 Billion
0.18 Billion
1.84 Trillion
0.236 Trillion
Defence Budget
36 Billion
7.6 Billion (est.)
                           (Source: SIPRI, IISS, World Bank Reports, Daily Times)

However, the main difference begins with the nature of the state and quality of life-style in both countries. India is a peaceful democracy with regular elections, consistent economic growth, young and aspirant population which wants to unshackle its economy and entrepreneurship capability and make it an economic and political power. India is also one of the strongest military powers in the world and its ground, air and naval forces are constantly rated high.
Church Attack in Pakistan (Source: Islamic Voice Website)

Compare it to Pakistan which is the wretched example of a weak unstable democracy with frequent military coups and dictatorships. In last 67 years of its existence, it has remained under military dictators for 35 years and only the last government, led by Asif Jardari, became the first civilian government to complete its full term. This country is full of anti-social elements, from fundamentalist radical mullahs to Islamic terrorists, insurgents, suicide bombers, journalist killers, you name it, they have it. The government is in cahoot with these elements and constantly tries to confuse the civilian population by differentiating between “good terrorists and bad terrorists”. Moreover, years of frustration against political oppression, dampened economic growth, persistent insurgency and terrorism and misplaced Islamic fundamentalism has degenerated even the civilian population to the extent that no ethnic or religious minority is safe in Pakistan today, whether Christians, Shias, Ahmadiyyas, Iranians, Afghans, almost everyone is being either killed or persecuted under its shady blasphemy laws.
Pak Electricity Problem (Source: Pakistan Today Website)

Economically, it’s a diseased country where even the basic electricity shortage has turned into a crisis. In fact, Islamic fundamentalists and terrorists are Pakistan’s most successful export product at present, fighting their so called “Jihad” in Syria, Yemen, Mali, Afghanistan, India, China and wherever possible. India-Pak trade, despite a decade of efforts of Indian Prime Minister Dr MM Singh, has remained stuck at USD 2 billion annually. Moreover, unsavoury characters in Pakistan have tried to use the trade route to bring illegal fake Indian currency and intoxicating drugs and once caught on the border, Pakistan government defends them, losing all its credibility.
PNS Hurmat (Source: Defence.PK website)
Additionally, Pakistan’s military is manpower intensive and owing to its feudal and Zamindaar (landlord) oppressed society, serving in military becomes a crucial method to improve social and economic status. That explains its half-a-million manned army with 13 corps and equal reserve formations. However, situation in sister services is not so promising. Pak Air Force consists of 18+ squadrons with about 380 fighter aircrafts. However, barring 125 F-16 Falcon and JF-17 Thunder aircraft, rest all fighters are obsolete and ready for retirement. Similarly, its aircraft strength in terms of force multipliers is hopelessly inadequate. The situation is not very different in Pakistan Navy as well whose largest combat vessel is a second hand US Navy retired Oliver Hazard Perry Class frigate. This Navy doesn’t have any combat naval aviation or destroyer type principal surface combatant or other three-dimensional naval assets. Pak Navy’s surface element consists mainly of eleven frigates out of which five are over 40 years old and should have retired long ago. It has five submarines in total, out of which two (PNS Hashmat & Hurmat) are about 35 years old and unsafe for open-sea patrol.
PNS Tariq (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Therefore, Pakistan as a military power is not a threat to India. There are two aspects of Pakistan which India needs to address in particular. One is Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and other, its export of terrorists. In whichever situation possible, Pakistan would commit harakiri if it ever uses its nuclear weapons on the Indian sub-continent as the Indian retaliation would ensure the demise of Pakistan. Even though, Pakistan has maintained the ambiguity in its nuclear weapons use policy, leading to grave doubts among Indian policy makers, no Pakistani worth his salt would afford to endanger his country’s entire existence by taking a nuclear misstep.

However, the issue of cross-border terrorism is not so straight forward. As long as the Pak Army remains a principle actor in Pak politics, it would keep terrorism as a tool for unconventional warfare and a pressure point. No matter which dispensation is ruling in Islamabad, the terrorism would remain central to Pakistan for a long period. No Pakistani ruler has shown any resolve to take on this monster, whether it’s Asif Ali Jardari or Nawaz Sharif and the future is also not very promising.

China's helicopter Based LORROP Camera for Border Surveillance (Source: Trishul Blog)
Nevertheless, dealing with terrorism internally, while defining red-lines in bold colour, would certainly help contain this problem. Terrorists infiltrating to India can be eliminated with the help of a cooperative framework between security agencies and effective intelligence network. Reinforcement of border security through electronic monitoring, helicopter based LORROP Camera monitoring, drone based surveillance and military modernisation can effectively reduce the threat. In addition, it needs to be made clear to Pakistan that any repeat of Mumbai-Style terrorist attack would immediately invite a severe punitive measure. No bilateral discussion or outside intervention would be able to save Pakistan in such event.

In sum, looking for quick solutions, historic agreements and other similar sentimental outcomes from India-Pakistan relations would be unrealistic and a strict adherence to the reciprocity rule needs to be followed. Pakistan is not a major threat to India and hence, it should be relegated to its worthy status in the Indian foreign and security policy at the earliest. India should do everything possible to reduce tension with Pakistan and increase the bilateral trade as that is the need of the hour. However, eagerness for bilateral trade should not be replaced by a sentimental approach to solve all outstanding issues with Pakistan in a jiffy. In case, nothing works, just IGNORE Pakistan for a while. India’s government has to solve numerous issues of its own and Pakistan can wait.


Tuesday, May 13, 2014

India inclines towards the Indo-Pacific: Focus on Indonesia, Vietnam, Japan and South China Sea?

[Chinese Navy Flotilla near Somalia (Source: Sino Defence Forum)]

India’s Look-East Policy, which shaped its foreign relations with countries of the Indo-Pacific Region since 1991, has outlived its utility. For efficient promotion of its strategic and economic interests and to maintain its stake in the regional security, it’s imperative for India to increase its role in resolving disputes in the Indo-Pacific region and deepen relations with regional countries. Therefore, India could begin by increasing its role in resolving the South China Sea dispute, which has the potential to disrupt peace and safety of the entire Indo-Pacific Region. Simultaneously, India needs to strengthen its partnership with three crucial Indo-Pacific countries in particular, namely, Indonesia, Vietnam and Japan. By virtues of their demographic dimension, economic profile, geostrategic location and willingness to defend common regional security principles, these three countries hold special importance for India. A close relationship with all three could help India strengthen the regional security and cooperation framework and ensure peace and safety in the Indo-Pacific.

So far, India has avoided taking any conspicuous role in the South China Sea dispute, barring few anodyne and statutory declarations. Although, Indian government fully understands that if the dispute takes an ugly turn, its consequences would be disastrous for India’s economic and strategic security. Nevertheless, the shyness owes its origins to seemingly strong but dubitable and unsubstantiated reasons. The atavistic fear is the main reason, if not the strongest, that if India played a prominent role in the South China Sea dispute, China would be deeply offended. China could then, in theory, create problems for India by establishing creative alliances in the Indian Ocean Region, where India prefers to believe that it has the upper hand.


[Chinese Nuclear Attack Submarine Shang Class in Indian Ocean 2014 (Source: Sandeep Unnithan, India Today)]

Regrettably, this policy is erroneous and ill-suited for the regional security as it neither enhances Indian profile in the Western Pacific nor restrains Chinese aspirations in the Indian Ocean Region. The policy has failed miserably in preventing China from permanently deploying its naval fleet in the Indian Ocean, sending its submarines on patrol near mainland India and most important, from creating “places not bases” arrangement with Indian Ocean Rim countries. Hence, in 2014, Chinese naval flotilla refuels and resupplies from ports in Seychelles (Victoria), Oman (Salalah), Yemen (Aden), Djibouti, Pakistan (Karachi, Gwadar, Pasni), Sri Lanka (Colombo, Hambantota), Bangladesh (Chittagong), Myanmar (Kyukpyu) and Singapore, amongst others. In addition, a Chinese Naval flotilla is permanently forward deployed near the Somalian Coast while other ships have begun conducting naval exercises in the Southern Indian Ocean. In contrast, the Indian Navy has hardly any role or deployment in the South China Sea, East China Sea or anywhere significant in the Western Pacific.

Given this situation, a realistic assessment demands an increased Indian role in the Indo-Pacific Region, especially in the South China Sea. India’s 55 percent trade flows through the sea lines of communication (SLOC) in the South China Sea and Indian trade with Japan, China, South Korea, ASEAN and Russia is dependent upon these SLOCs. In addition, Indian oil companies are investing substantially in oil exploration ventures near the Vietnamese coast and India imports oil from Sakhalin Oilfields in Russia through this route. Moreover, about 40 percent of seaborne crude oil and 50 percent of the global merchant fleet passes through this region. Hence, the freedom and safety of navigation through the South China Sea is crucial for the world economy. Any disruption in navigation would be disastrous, leaving the global and Indian economy at the mercy of the hegemonic power over the South China Sea, which India can’t afford to let happen. Hence, India cannot stay away from this dispute without considerably harming its core national interests. Thus, it’s imperative for India to increase its role in resolving the dispute while simultaneously creating closer relationships with key naval powers of the region, namely, Indonesia, Vietnam and Japan.

[Indonesian Islands under Chinese Claim]

Indonesia is a crucial Indian neighbour and lies adjacent to the Indian island territories in the Indian Ocean. At present, it is looking for ways to reduce potential hegemonic domination in the Indo-Pacific through external balancing. In particular, Indonesian anxiety of Chinese intentions in the South China Sea has increased in last few years after China expanded its “nine-dash line”, incorporating Indonesian Riau Islands. This led to substantial up-gradation of security arrangements of these islands and consequent deployment of latest Sukhoi-30 fighter jets and naval warships to guard against any future threat. In addition, Indonesia has become quite vocal about China’s power play in the South China Sea dispute and its absolute disregard for international law, multilateral treaties and conventions. Chinese Navy’s frequent naval exercises, especially amphibious warfare ones, and nuclear submarine deployments have especially raised Indonesian concerns. Most of these Indonesian concerns are similar to Indian apprehensions.

Vietnam is another country which has been at the receiving end of the regional power play. A sizeable chunk of Chinese diktats in the South China Sea is directed towards Vietnam and the trend has followed through fishing ban announcementoil-rig dispute and a probable declaration of Air Defence Identification Zone. Vietnam is compelled to remain always on guard and often deploys its fighter jets and submarines to safeguard its interests in the region. In an ominous trend, Chinese newspapers have been increasingly advocating for a short war with Vietnam to punish it and set an example for other regional countries.

Finally, Japan has bore the brunt of China’s anger and provocation in the last decade. The threshold of a conflict between China and Japan has been reducing with every passing day and naval stand-offs between both navies have occurred regularly. Japanese concerns for their national security have grown multi-fold, leading to the removal of restrictions over its defence exports and strengthening of its efforts for the “normalisation” of its military in the Japanese Constitution. These actions have met with only a feeble opposition in the Japan’s pacifist society which indicates its seriousness. Japan is also a large industrial power with a growing profile in the Indian economy so a close partnership is an absolute necessity. Unfortunately, though the Indian Government under Manmohan Singh strived to create a close partnership with Japan, most of its overtures were half-hearted in nature, owing to left-liberal leanings of the Indian ruling party. Hence, much needs to be covered in this relationship.

In sum, India has arrived at a historic opportunity to enhance the security of the Indo-Pacific region, while safeguarding its own national security, by increasing its role in the South China Sea and creating close-cooperation with Indonesia, Vietnam and Japan. Arguments for better relations with Singapore, Philippines, South Korea and others can also be advanced. However, many of them have concluded bilateral security treaties with America to check the domination of any regional power. Indonesia and Vietnam do not enjoy such security guarantees and though, Japan remains under the US security umbrella, no Japanese government would afford to keep all its eggs in one basket. Hence, India can immensely enhance the Indo-Pacific regional security by playing a prominent role in the South China Sea dispute and creating close and creative partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region.