-Kunal Varshney

As relations with China have remained severely tensed since April and is at its peak after the Chinese taking control of Foxhole point aka Finger 4 at Pangong Tso followed by the massive buildup and deadly clashes in Galwan Valley on June 15, 2020. Since then constant provocative actions and counteractions taken by both sides have brought both sides extremely close to a potential conflict which can become a major war between the 2 biggest regional powers of Asia. In such an event many people fear  Chinese massive arsenal of Ballistic and cruise missiles. The primary targets of these are airbases, army bases, radar installations, defense industrial setup, strategic buildings etc. But among these, the priority targets for initial strikes are generally air bases, SAM sites, and Radar installations. So let’s understand the Chinese Missile arsenal and its threats to IAF bases.

IAF Airbases V/S PLAAF Airbases

AirPower is an area in which India has a clear edge over China when it comes to a short term high-intensity war. India not only has an advantage in terms of the number of bases, but it also has on average more protected and better-designed bases.

The design of the Indian airforce bases in the region is way better than that of PLAAF bases in western theater command bases. (I can talk about the design in great details but let’s keep it for some other day )

The terrain also favors India with Indian airbases located more towards plains while Chinese bases are at relatively high altitude which puts a heavy operational penalty on aircraft operating from those bases in terms of payload capacity and maintenance.  This means IAF can launch sorties more swiftly and at a faster rate. However, China is trying to close the gap by upgrading its current airbases and building 3 new airbases i.e. Tashkurgan, Keriya, and Damxung.  Still, the balance of power in the air is with India and China will try to close in with Preemptive strikes on Indian airbases using various resources in its disposal but primarily with a barrage of ballistic and cruise missiles.

IAF Bases within 400km Radius of LAC

PLAAF Bases within 500km Radius of LAC

Chinese massive missile arsenal

Table displaying Chinese conventional ballistic and cruise missiles

(Estimated figures compiled from various open source platforms)

DF15/A/B/C  500+600-900km500-750kg30-300mSRBM
DF 1650+1000km1000kg30–50mSRBM
YJ Series i.e. YJ18/63/12 etcN/A can be 500+150-550km300-500KG10mLACM

Chinese missile range map taken from US DOD report to congress

*CEP or Circular Error Probability depends on the type of guidance used i.e. only INS, INS with GPS, or INS with GPS & terminal guidance.

  ** SRBM- Short Range Ballistic Missile, MRBM- Medium-Range Ballistic Missile, IRBM- Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile, LACM- Land Attack Cruise Missile, HGV- Hypersonic Glide Vehicle.

Other than these, Missiles like DF31/DF41/JL2, etc are not taken into consideration as those are strategic missiles for the nuclear role, here only those missiles are taken which can be used in a conventional role.

However, as per the 2020s DOD report to US congress put the Chinese missile arsenal more conservatively at:

  • SRBM – 600+ units
  • MRBM – 150+ units
  • IRBM – 200+ units
  • Ground launched LACM – 300+ units

However, these figures are very conservative as compared to the same report in 2019 which somewhat matches our estimates.

Understanding the real threat

 As per various estimates, in all China have around 1800 to 2000 Ballistic missile that can be used for conventional roles and another  1000 Cruise missile. That put the total missile arsenal at around 3000 missiles. Looking as a whole the picture looks quite scary, but the question is, whether China can actually deploy its whole missile arsenal against India? China has created enemies nearly on all it’s borders and has fought a war in past with most of its neighboring nations. Especially to its east, China presently locks horn with the US, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, and many other ASEAN nations over its bizarre claims over the East and the South China Sea, which even the International Court of Justice has rejected. However China’s constant disregard for International law and its overly aggressive attitude has put tensions at their highest not just with India but with Taiwan, the US, and Japan supported by countries like France, Australia, and the UK. Also, China doesn’t seem to budge down there too with constantly increasing deployment and regularly violating Taiwan’s Air Defence Identification Zone. Considering all this some expert estimates that China at best deploy 30-40%  of its missile arsenal against India while keeping rest to counter adversaries to its east. But even at 40%, it will mean a massive arsenal of 1200 missiles. But here comes another point how many of these can be used for precision strikes? Basically only missiles which have some sort of terminal guidance can be used for precision strike. Missiles with GPS guidance can also be used for such a strike but will require a salvo of multiple missiles per target. Most early variants of Chinese  SRBM namely DF11, DF12, and DF15 had very high CEP and only later versions started coming 1st with Baidu based GPS system and then terminal guidance like RF seekers. Other than that not all these missiles can be used for a conventional strike as china will have to keep a sufficient number for the nuclear roles. Also, expect missiles like DF26, DF17 to be US-specific and unlikely to be brought to Indian theatre.  So we estimate missiles available for precision strike against IAF bases at around 400-500 ballistic missiles and 400 cruise missiles. But that doesn’t mean all of these can be launched at once. Generally, the number of launchers is less than the number of missiles as some missiles are kept as reloads which means the number of missiles that can be launched simultaneously is even lower.

Missiles needed to achieve complete destruction of an Air Base?

 An airbase is made of multiple elements which include command & control structure, radar installation, SAM site, aircraft shelters, hangars, parking aprons, ammunition dump, fuel storage, repair & maintenance areas, runway, taxiway, etc.  in all multiple structures to target. Also, these are designed in a way that if 1 structure is hit, it does not result in collateral damage to other structures out of a single strike. This means you will have to allot 1 missile per structure at a minimum.  As per one estimate by a US-based research group, it will take some 30-50 ballistic missiles and another 30-50 cruise missile to achieve a 90% kill probability against an airbase, with ballistic missiles destroying aircraft on open aprons, air defense unit, radars, C&C buildings, and cratering runways to make them inoperable and cruise missiles targeting aircraft shelters, hangars, ammunition dumps, fuel storage, etc. So as per this estimate, you need a minimum of 60-100 missiles to destroy an average airbase. However this estimate probably counts 1 missile per target but that doesn’t guarantee you sure shot hit, so in order to achieve a hit probability of 90% you will need at least 2 missiles per target. Also, Indian airbases were designed and upgraded over the years learning from experiences it gained over the years fighting multiple wars and are better designed than average airbase. As per some estimates, it will take more than 200 missiles to completely destroy an Indian airbase. For example, a 2017 US missile strike on Shayarat Airbase, Syria, involved the use of 59 Tomahawk cruise missile with 450kg warhead resulting in the destruction of 44 structures, which included  15 aircraft shelters, 10 ammunition dumps, 7 fuel storage, 5 elements on 1 air defense site and 7 workshops. Syria lost some 9 aircraft to the strike, however, the attack was not significant enough to halt operations at the airbase and the flying operations at the base resumed within few hours of the strike. 

Google Earth view of Shayarat Airbase, Syria

Possible IAF defenses

IAF has some 15 squadrons of old but upgraded S-125 Neva/Pechora, 8 squadron of Indigenous Akaash SAM, and 9 squadrons of Spyder SAM. Also, another 7 squadrons of Akash SAM is in order. Other than these, IAF also has an unspecified number of MR-SAM aka Barak 8 in service, with more on order. Though above SAM can intercept cruise missiles, only MR-SAM provides limited anti-Tactical Ballistic Missile capability. Generally, 1 squadron protects an airbase.  Considering each squadron having 2 batteries of 12 missiles each of SRSAM and a typical 2 interceptors per incoming target, around 12 cruise missiles can be intercepted per base. This will provide a certain level of protection to aircraft shelters, ammunition dumps, and hangars which requires the accuracy of a cruise missile to hit. Anti-Aircraft Guns with radar guidance can also take down sub-sonic cruise missiles. Other than these EW sensors can be used to spoof seekers of the incoming missiles to force them to miss the target. But this still doesn’t provide sufficient or full-proof defense against a barrage of missiles, other than that India has no defense against Chinese ballistic missiles. To compensate this IAF will prefer distributed deployment of its air assets around various forward airbases and airbases deep in central India.  This will ensure that even if an airbase or number of airbases are hit, The damage sustained to air assets remains minimum. As for Airbases, they can be brought back into operation with 24 hours to 1 week depending on the damage sustained, as forces always have contingency plans like making of makeshift command and control structure, quick repair of runways, etc.

Conclusion Though China’s missile arsenal looks quite huge as a whole, the fact is that they cannot bring its whole arsenal to fight India. Also with a vast number of airbases spread over thousands of kilometers with air assets distributed among them and a relatively high number of missiles required per base to achieve complete destruction, it is to be seen if it will be really effective and viable for China to launch Preemptive missile strike on Indian airbases. For example just to hit 5 airbases with 150 missiles each, they will end up using 750 missiles with IAF not sustaining what we can say a crippling blow. Also, 150 or 200 missiles per base will still not guarantee to make an airbase completely inoperable or destroying all assets on that base as missile can malfunction or can miss the target. So we can say Chinese missiles are a reasonable threat to India Airbases but this threat should not be blown out of proportion.     

By Alpha Defense

Alpha Defense initially a solo venture but now a defense group by people from various demographics of India covering defense news and updates. We believe in unbiased analysis of every subject in hand. Our mission is to provide simplfiied defense information to the public.

4 thoughts on “Chinese Missile Arsenal: A serious threat to IAF Bases?”
  1. During the Syria camping the us launched nearly 60 to 70 cruse Missile on one of its airbases and the airbase was started on the next day.

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