South-West Tibet

Rinchen crawled slowly on his knees and elbows and stopped just short of the edge of cliff. He was wearing three layers of insulated clothing under his special snow and ice camouflage, yet icy wind still managed to chill his bones. The fact that he was lying on an ice cold rocky surface didn’t help either. He cleared his throat softly and wiped his nose under the mask. 

“So tell me once again Pema, why are we freezing our ass off here on this icy cliff for two days in such suicidal conditions when the same job can be done by UAVs and satellites.”

“If you manage to not get us killed in next 4-5 hours, you’ll see for yourself.” 

“Oh believe me you jerk. I certainly don’t wish to die here on this cold as fuck mountain. I do have a girlfriend I’d like to see again back home.”

“Yeah and maybe lose your virginity too.”

“I lost that with your girlfriend. Didn’t she tell you?”

“I’ve only had a boyfriend, that’s you.”

The idle chatter of two SFF soldiers was broken by sight of a small dust cloud in the distance. 

“Target in sight.” The attitude of two soldiers changed instantly to mission mode. Pema adjusted the focus of his high power binoculars to get a better look while Rinchen reported the update via a secure communications console. Feed from Pema’s binoculars was being fed to the communications console and streamed to Indian intelligence centre hundreds of kilometers away. They watched the convoy come closer over the mountainous roads and stop at an open flat spot in between the mountain peaks. 

“4 launchers, 5 what seem like radar vehicles, 14 supply trucks, 3 troop transports, 6 mounted ack-acks, (slang for anti-aircraft guns) and they are all stopping in the reported coordinates. So one whole S-400 battery to defend just this sector.” Pema spoke softly.

“I hope that they don’t ask us to go and destroy all that stuff there now.” Rinchen put gloves back on his hands and rubbed them to get them to warm up again. It was difficult handling the small buttons with thick gloves, so he had taken them off. 

“Well, if we want to stop Chinese supply lines and hit them where it matters, SAM batteries like these need to go. By the way, did you notice that they have a full company worth of soldiers deployed just for perimeter defence? I can see a few RPGs too. They’re not taking any chances. ”

“Yeah, let’s just hope that they don’t feel like coming in our direction or deploy their UAVs over us.” 

A handful of Indian reconnaissance teams like them had placed a few cleverly hidden sensors on  surrounding peaks over the last few days. Many years back, CIA had employed Tibetans to deploy sensors to spy on Chinese nuclear weapons program. “Somethings really don’t change much.” Rinchen thought to himself and switched on the console again after observing completion of radar deployment process by the Chinese crew. The sensors collected whatever radio frequencies Chinese were using for radars and communications and sent it to the console operated by Rinchen. The data was then encrypted, compressed and transmitted via satellite to Indian control center at random intervals. Whole thing had been planned carefully over months to prevent the enemy from detecting the transmission and it’s source. Even if they managed to detect the radio traffic by some blind luck, they were more likely to dismiss it as some normal radio interference or reflections rather than a spying device. Indian familiarity with this series of missiles helped a lot. 

With tensions rising everyday both India and China were doing their best to be prepared for war. This reconnaissance mission was just one of many such similar ones under progress of being planned by both sides. Indian police in Sikkim had arrested three men a few days back under suspicion of being Chinese spies.Chinese too had arrested a number of people in Tibet as well as a few other provinces under charges of spying. Some of the arrested people were spies indeed, but most were not. In China, with no proper justice system, it didn’t matter much. Suspicion and circumstantial evidence was more than enough for years in a jail or even execution. The best the two men could hope in case of capture was a firing squad. 

It had been made very clear to all the recruits on their first day of training. Out of forty volunteers and after a year of training, only eight had been chosen for cross-border operations inside Chinese held territories. Each one of them had accepted the mission knowing very well that their chances of dying were much higher than that of survival. Pema and Rinchen had been operating in Tibet for two weeks and expected to stay for perhaps four more. 

This mission of monitoring Chinese anti-air assets was one of many in their list. Now that they had completed it, they were free to move on to the next one. The two man team would leave the equipment behind to let it operate for six to seven months before it needed a new battery.

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5 March 2020. TAIWAN

First Lieutenant Kuan-Lin of Republic of China Air Force (RCAF) adjusted his back slightly and stretched his legs in cockpit of his Mirage-2000. He was scheduled to finish his mission in fifteen minutes and then land back at Hengchun airbase after flying for 90 minutes. Sun was getting low on the horizon and Li could see sunbeams being reflected off from the ocean and ground below. Visibility was extremely good and he craned his neck to get an eye on his wingman FLt Chia-Hao flying 2000 m above him. He was  happy to get some flying hours in his Mirage 2000 before a final decision was taken to retire it. There were some problems with the fleet which were attributed to French reluctance to provide upgrades and proper repair services at a reasonable price. There were murmurs that the French were deliberately denying Taiwan their services because of Chinese pressure. 

Republic of China (ROC) or Taiwan has been a bitter enemy of People’s Republic of China (PRC) or China ever since the end of Chinese civil war in 1949. It was fought between Communist Party of China led by Mao Zedong and Chinese Nationalists (Kuomintang), led by Chiang Kai-shek. After their defeat Chiang transferred his regime to Taipei calling it Wartime Capital. Nearly 2 million refugees from China poured into Taiwan which had only 6 million population before the migration. 

ROC was considered a legitimate government of China till 1971 when the UN had voted to shift it’s recognition to PRC. India along with it’s mortal enemy Pakistan had voted in favour of China. This came  after 1962 war, 1967 border conflict and an imminent war just months later in which China was providing full support to Pakistan against India. 50 years later India was in an informal military alliance with Japan, USA and Australia which had voted against PRC. India had formed formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan only a few weeks before along with USA and most of NATO allies. Chinese image and list of allies had gone much shorter due to Corona Virus pandemic and the bullying behaviour. So the list of countries interested in having diplomatic relations with Taiwan was only getting longer with each passing day. 

China was not happy and they had shown their displeasure in multiple strong statements, warnings and actual actions. A wave of cyber attacks originating from North Korea and Chinese mainland had hit the technically advanced island nation causing some economic damage and panic. Taiwan had taken security measures to bring most of vital national infrastructure under a special act in 2018. But progress was slow and Chinese had managed to find some unpatched vulnerabilities in some of older networks. As a result, parts of southern Taiwan had suffered due to bad electricity supply and user data of a few companies was leaked causing panic selling in the stockmarket. Most of the hardening measures worked well overall and the country’s basic communications and power infrastructure stayed functioning even during the worst period of attacks.   

These cyber attacks were accompanied by aggressive military posturing and multiple incursions in to Taiwanese waters by PLAN as well as PLAAF. A number of military and civilian ships carrying Chinese flags had performed aggressive maneuvers  in multiple sectors and had even intruded in Taiwan’s waters. PLAAF fighters were doing similar harassment in air with multiple air intrusions and targeted  jamming of Taiwanese communication channels, military and civilian alike. Just minutes before he climbed in to his plane, Lin had watched news about Chinese jets flying only tens of meters above a few Taiwanese civilian ships south of Penghu Islands.  Intelligence reports suggested that  China planned to take control of these islands and use them as staging ground for further attacks on Taiwan.

The defences on the islands had been fortified recently with 1 armoured brigade, 1 infantry brigade along with an amphibious reconnaissance battalion. Two missile batteries each of latest Sky Bow 3 SAMs and  Hsiung Feng II anti-ship cruise missiles for anti-air and anti-ship roles had been placed on full alert. To make matters worse, PLAN had announced military exercises in Taiwan Banks area involving their Liaoning aircraft carrier along with most of the carrier wing ships on what was declared as anti-piracy and coastal defence exercises. The fact that most of aircraft sorties from Liaoning poked Taiwanese territory proved otherwise. 

RCAF had been flying near continuous patrols to keep a watch on increasingly belligerent PLAN and PLAAF activities for last eight days. Some of PLAN activities had become almost routine over the last week. A flight of two J-15s would take off from the carrier, fly at an altitude between 500-800 meters and whenever they spotted a civilian ship heading towards Taiwanese ports, they’d do 1-2 low flying passes making a point to show off YJ-83 anti-ship cruise missiles (AshM) hanging from their fuselages. US Navy had deployed it’s own carrier task force in Philippine Sea and was observing the Chinese exercise with it’s own assets.

An export version of the YJ-83 had already seen combat few years back. In 2006, Hezbollah fired 2 YJ-82 at an Israeli corvette scoring one hit. The ship had turned off it’s radar and defence systems temporarily due to presence of friendlies in the area and suffered serious damage. In 2016, a guided missile destroyer of US Navy came under attack from same missiles fired by a Houthi group. But none of the missiles scored a hit.

J-15 was a Chinese knockoff of Russian Sukhoi 27K (commonly known as Su-33) and had a somewhat troubled history. While fully fuelled, it could barely carry two tons worth of weapons from the ski-jump of Chinese aircraft carriers.  It’s Chinese made WS-10 engines were notoriously unreliable and it had to use Russian AL-31F for most of the fleet. A later variant of WS-10 was supposed to replace the Russian engines, but progress was slow. There were numerous other technical programs and atleast four crashes had forced China to look for a new naval fighter. 

Taiwan had raised alert level and deployed 2 La Fayette-class frigates and one Cheng Kung class destroyer Su Ao to monitor Chinese activities. One of the La Fayettes was it’s specialised submarine hunter Kang Ding class and other was Formidable class.  They were supported by two squadrons of F-16s, Mirage-2000 fighters, 3 P-3C Orion and 2 E-2K Hawkeye Airborne Early Warning (AEW) aircraft flying near continuous sorties. Lin and his wingman Hao cruised slowly around the slower Orion  as it’s escorts. Hawkeye that was scheduled to be in air at the time had developed some problem with it’s landing gear and the replacement plane was being readied causing a gap in the deployment. A pair of F-16C was supposed to escort Hawkeye and they were not airborne yet either. The three ships were somewhere west of the islands out of his visual reach. 

Lin looked at his fuel gauge and noticed 15 minutes to bingo fuel (minimum amount of fuel left to reach back homebase). His replacement jets for the escort were undergoing pre-flight checks on ground and were expected to reach the patrol area shortly relieving him for the day. He looked at the general direction of his landing strip towards the east trying to see if he could spot it on the unusually clear day. He could see the lone Orion around a 1000 m below him on his starboard side flying low and dropping sonobuoys in the water.  It could carry around 90 active or passive sonobuoys and was almost finished deploying last of them few km south of Penghu islands. 

Sonobuoys are usually disposable sensors which can be deployed by naval vessels or aircraft for detection of enemy ships and submarines. They are usually deployed over a certain area and they keep monitoring till recovery or till battery runs out.  The data from these sonobuoys can be transmitted via a radio link to the aircraft that deployed them or to some other receiver within range. That day, Orion was supposed to stay in the area for 2 more hours monitoring the incoming data for signs of any Chinese submarine activity near Taiwanese coast. He had made a few friends from the crew of bigger aircraft in last few days.  “Stay there Mace 1, I’ll save some Chiayi for you .” he thought while remembering the night’s menu..  

Voice of the mission controller pulled him out of his somewhat relaxed mood, “Ground Control to Walker flight, we have noticed one, possibly two fast moving contacts at bearing Two-Two-Zero, altitude 600 m moving towards you. Move in front of Mace 1 and investigate the bogeys. Stay within 30 nautical miles of coast and do not turn on your radars. You are not weapons free.”

Lin and Hao noticed the Orion take a sharp turn and move to the safety of land based air defences. Further chatter on radio confirmed F-16s of 21st Tactical Fighter Group scrambling from Chiyai as the two Mirages-2000 moved forward to shield the retreating Orion. Ground control had marked the incoming bogeys as Pirate 1 and  2 and they could see them as two red triangles in one of the screens in the cockpit marked nearly 100 nautical miles south west of their position.  Before the days of data links and sensor fusion, pilots didn’t have the luxury of such degree of situational awareness even with their radars on. The data about friendly and enemy assets was being collected from a network of sea and land based sensors and beamed to them via secure communication links. Had the Hawkeye been operational, they’d have a warning much sooner. But it was not due to whatever reason at the time and they had to make the best of it. 

Based on approach vectors, Taiwanese were pretty sure that the two bogeys were J-15s from Liaoning  positioned south-east of Hong Kong. Previously a flight of two or sometimes four J-15s had come within the sniffing distance of Taiwanese waters, made a show of their presence over civilian vessels by flying low and then flew back. It was a dangerous game and even a small mistake could cause immense damage.Lin was quite aware of it and was not particularly relishing the idea of being the first one from his side to dive in to hostilities. He was pretty sure that the Chinese ground based as well as air-borne radars would have been monitoring their movements and sending updates to J-15s as well even as they flew in with radars switched off. One dangerous thing about this was that some of the Chinese Air to Air missiles like PL-15 didn’t need to be guided or provided targets by the planes themselves. The targeting data could be provided by another fighter or AWACS and the missile could be guided to target without the plane ever turning on it’s radar.  

Moments two new red contacts came alive on Mirage-2000 screens  around 70 nm from Chinese mainland and mission control informed them of two more Chinese fighters lying roughly 200 m above sea in direction of 3 naval ships. The F-16s were still just about a minute away from takeoff. Seconds later, Pirate 1 and 2 suddenly changed their bearings and turned west and then north again bringing them on a bearing towards the ships. Mirages maneuvered to intercept them, but overshot and turned around to get a bead on J-15s again. Now they were within visual range and Lin could see sunlight’s glint on the canopy of J-15s flying 2000 m below him.  

Lin noticed with concern that the Pirates were within firing range of their AShM and then heard on radio that they had turned on their tracking radars. That was the first step to acquire a target, gather data about it’s position, bearing etc, provide the data to missile and then fire it. The ships reported the same from two J-10s who were within 70 nm of them and getting closer with each passing second. Neither of the Chinese fighters could get a lock because of intense jamming by the ships as well as ground based assets. This defensive measure was only temporary and he knew that as soon as the fighters got past the burn through range, they’d have a radar lock on the ships.   

Lin noticed a tinge of excitement in mission controller’s voice as he changed weapon status to Weapon Hold. This meant that the Mirages and ships were free to attack when under attack, but they still couldn’t fire the first shot. Walker flight turned on their radar and both of them locked on to the J-15s racing below them immediately. Just then they noticed another fast moving bogey racing in at near Mach 0.9 speed  from bearing 180 flying 20 meters above water. Intrepid’s computer detected it as a YJ-83 missile coming in it’s direction and launched three RIM-66 missiles at it.  

The two J-15s in front of Mirages suddenly tried to gain altitude and Pirate 1 tried to turn to face the Mirages. Lin had him on his targeting radar and fired off one Matra Magic AAM at it before J-15 had a chance to do anything more. The missile locked on to the sizeable heat signature of twin engined J-15 and exploded a few inches away from it’s port engine shredding it and tailfins with hundreds of small shrapnel. That engine flamed out immediately and the sudden loss of power and control plunged the aircraft in to the sea before the pilot had any chase to control it. 

Even as the Magic hit the J-15, Lin could hear screaming voice of MC telling him to disengage. Intrepid had fired it’s SAMs on a ghost, the target had vanished a second after the missiles had left their launcher. Bandit flight too had turned back immediately after the missile launch. Nobody knew for real what exactly had happened and the voice channel was full of people asking for information and passing instructions Lin had a dreadful feeling that he might have started a war.

Global Network News

Tensions rise between China and Taiwan over shoot down of Chinese jet

Taiwanese defence minister Wang Shizhen has rejected Chinese demands for an apology and compensation for shooting down a Chinese naval plane last week. Taiwanese defence forces had shot down one Chinese J-15 fighter jet after a pair of them had flown close to their naval vessels and performed threatening maneuvers. Blaming China for the incident, the minister claimed that two Chinese planes performed extremely dangerous and provocative maneuvers which led to Taiwanese forces believing that they had launched missiles before they were shot down in self-defence.

He also said that Chinese navy was harassing Taiwanese civilian vessels and violating territory in the guise of an extremely aggressive military drill. Taiwanese defence forces had practised extraordinary restraint but had only defended themselves. 

A spokesperson from Chinese defence ministry termed these comments as lies to cover up wanton aggression and unprofessional behaviour of Taiwanese defence forces. He claimed that Taiwan was being egged on for a conflict with China by certain foreign powers who are jealous of Chinese increased military and financial stature. He refused to answer who these countries might be but said that Chinese stance over the issue remains unchanged and that Taiwan should render an unconditional apology.

Ties between the two countries have become extremely strained and there have been multiple anti-Taiwan protests in China. CCP has threatened a trade embargo on Taiwanese companies but whether they’ll follow through on their threats remains to be seen. Any such action is likely to hurt China as much as Taiwan.

In the meanwhile, two American ships including one advanced Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer docked in a Taiwanese port for what was termed as a routine refueling and resupply mission. A  powerful US naval fleet led by aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan is expected to be in the area in the next few days  which may raise tensions even further. Although it’s passage was declared many weeks back as routine freedom of navigation exercises which US performs often, it may be seen as a provocation in China where tempers are already running high.

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1 March 2020

23:40 Hours IST, Palam Airport, India

 The gray Embraer ERJ-145 aircraft had landed at Palam in the increasingly cold and foggy night. Some new crew got in and a few got out quickly as a refueling truck filled up the tanks and air force technicians did the customary checks..

Within an hour of landing, the plane was up once again on a northern bearing. Some aviation enthusiasts noticed the flight with interest on their tracking softwares and aviation websites.  Flights of Indian Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) were a semi-regular thing and only the hardcore defence enthusiasts among the aviation trackers paid much attention to it.  But only a handful of people knew about the changes done to this particular aircraft in last few days. 

A small team of scientists from Electronics and Radar Development Establishment (LRDE) had worked tirelessly to replace and flight test some of the Electronic Warfare (EW) systems of the aircraft with some new ones which were still under prototype stage. As soon as the basic testing was completed, the new equipment was fitted on one ERJ-145 in possession of Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO).

Primary use of such aircraft is as an airborne radar which has an extended range uncluttered by ground reflections and limited line of sight which limit ground based radars.  Depending upon their capabilities, a handful of such aircraft can monitor aircraft movement over a large area which’d take dozens of ground based radars. Mounting radars on planes also makes them a harder target for the enemy compared to mostly static land based ones. In addition to tracking airplanes and missiles, these planes can be used for managing military resources, electronic warfare like radar jamming and electronic signals intelligence.   

Attempts to build a indigenous airborne radar and warfare platform in India had started with a project called Airborne Surveillance Platform, code named ‘Airawat’ in early 1980s. India had tried to shop around for this technology after learning lessons about the changing face of air warfare in 1971 war. After unsuccessfully trying to buy the technology or suitable systems from abroad, it was decided to develop the technology inhouse.  

A Hawker Siddeley HS-748 license built by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited was chosen as the platform to carry the radar. A number of advanced technologies like the airborne radar, secure datalinks, power generation systems and a few others were developed from the ground up. The program showed a lot of promise but suffered a setback when the sole flying prototype was destroyed in a crash during a test flight in January 1999 killing eight people on board. In any other country, the setback would be acknowledged, cause of crash analysed and work resuming on the project as soon as possible.

But Indian attitude to local weapons procurement meant that the project and most of the advanced technologies developed from scratch at huge cost were put in cold storage. By this time, foreign countries had started to show willingness to sell their own systems. In 2004,, India paid Israel around USD 1.05 billion to purchase their Phalcon radar system which used Active Phased Array Electronic Scanning Technology mounted on Russian Il-76 planes. It’s interesting that this system was meant for sale to China, but USA got Israel to cancel the deal forcing Israelis to sell it to India. 

IAF calls ERJ-145 platform based radars as Airborne Early Warning and Control System while the bigger Il-76 based radar system is called Airborne Warning And Control System. Both have mostly similar functions, but bigger size of latter enables larger crew size and it can serve as a better mobile command post.  

Surprisingly, Indian project was restarted again in 2004 with a very different set of design goals. Jet powered Embraer ERJ-145 was chosen as the platform in place of prop-engined HS-748 which had been out of production for quite some time. Instead of Mechanically Scanning Antenna housed in a Rotating Radome which looks like a fluffy ‘chapati’, the new radar mounted on ERJ-145 was chosen to be a static Active Electronically Scanning Antenna which had a few better characteristics than the older radar but only 240 degrees of coverage unlike a full 360 degree coverage of older design.

With these two major changes a lot of the older technologies had to be abandoned and redeveloped  leading to more wastage of resources.  It took a long time to bring the aircraft upto ever shifting standards of Indian Air Force and the new system named NETRA (Eye in Hindi) was finally awarded Initial Operations Clearance (IOC) in February 2017. After hundreds of crores spent on customisations and development, and  requirements of IAF, one would have thought that  atleast 10-12 of the platforms would have been inducted to make all the investment worthwhile. But only 2 of the systems were built before Embrarer was blacklisted over corruption charges. 

No company can hope to sell weapons in India without bribing politicians, bureaucrats and military personnel involved in the purchase process. Yet only the companies are punished while the people who enforce corrupt practices in India go scot free.The people involved in setting up requirements also come up with insanely preposterous ideas such as Indian Army asking for guns which can fire bullets of two different calibers, carbine with two triggers and IAF asking for an AWACS system which can also function as an aerial refueler. Most such tactics are meant to delay or cripple development of local systems to favour foreign imports. It’s not that Indian defence laboratories and production facilities are perfect or even competent as evident from workings of Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) enterprises . Mostly Indian defence procurement is nothing more than a huge circus of semi-legalised corruption and incompetence which gets rewarded.  Only people who suffer are honest tax payers and military personnel who actually put their lives on the line almost daily. 

The embargo resulted in production of only 2 AEW&C aircraft while the requirement was for much more. In normal operational conditions, military aircraft usually have serviceability rate which is never 100%. This means that in a fleet of 10 aircraft with serviceability rate of 70%, only 7 can be in flightworthy condition, while the rest are grounded for repairs at any time. How many Netras could be used in wartime is anybody’s guess. So while any other country the size of India would have inducted such a system by dozens, India had only two and the scientists had just one spare aircraft to work with for improvements and upgrades. 

The third aircraft in possession of DRDO had only a few systems common with Netras in IAF service and no IAF personnel had been fully trained in their operation. So three scientists from DRDO were assigned to the mission to help train the IAF personnel while on live missions. They had flown in the plane dozens of times during the development trials, but none of them ever expected to fly in to a live mission just like that.

The aircraft codenamed Lochan took a leisurely turn as it gained altitude to reach 4000 meters and started cruising towards Indian border with China Occupied Tibet in Laddakh and northern Lahaul Spiti sector. Normally most invading aircrafts will fly at as low altitude as possible to avoid being detected by enemy radar. As mentioned earlier, ground based radars have a limited line of sight and a minimum and maximum detection altitude. By flying low, invading aircraft can escape detection by radar waves emitted by the antenna. Flying close to the ground also enables them to use terrain features of earth such as mountains as cover. 

Since flying so close to the ground is dangerous, most aircrafts use a Terrain Following Radar to make the task of pilot easier.  In many such aircrafts, waypoints (coordinates in the path followed) can be programmed in and altitude adjusted automatically at different places according to requirements.  Lochan had no such radar, but the two Jaguars which joined it over east of Dhualdhar mountain range did. Neither of the aircraft had their radars switched on and they were too far off to be detected visually. But pilots in all the aircraft knew the exact position and bearings of each other via the secure datalinks which connected them to each other and  multiple ground control stations via satellite links.

There are two types of modes of radar operation, Active and Passive. Active mode is when the radar is transmitting a radar pulse and looking for reflections from targets to collect data like distance, velocity, altitude and bearing. Passive mode on the other hand involves collecting radar emissions falling on their sensor and gathering information about targets emitting them. Passive radars can use emissions from a third source like TV, microwave or radio broadcast signals to gather information about a target of interest,  This is better for stealth than active mode as no signal is emitted by the radar.  But this has limited use as if the other radar is in passive mode too, then  it’s much harder to know about the existence of the other.  Active radar mode has no such limitations, but it’s bad for stealth as it alerts everyone to it’s presence as soon as it’s switched on. One can think of Active mode as a person searching for another person in the dark using a torch and Passive mode as searching for other people without turning on own. Sonar in ships and submarines follow the same principle. Only major difference is that Sonar uses sound waves instead of electromagnetic waves of radars.

As it neared the border, Lochan increased it’s altitude to 5000 meters to get a better look at Tibetan territory under Chinese occupation across the Himalayan mountain ranges. It took a sharp turn and started flying in a loop over the skies staying a few km inside India.  Once Lochan was in position, the Jaguars given code names Sparrow 1 and Sparrow 2 dived close to the ground and started flying towards the border. Lochan had a limited number of contacts in Chinese territory as it was flying at 4000 m, but as soon as it went over 5000 m and mountains blocking it’s line of sight went below, the consoles lit up with multiple contacts. 

On a normal day, an AEW&C would’ve put it’s radar in active mode and started tracking the area around it by sending it’s own radar emissions. Then there’d have been dozens of contacts on the screen instead of just a handful.  The flight computer analysed the signals and marked them automatically. There were a quite a few active radars in the Chinese side including some for civilian use such as weather, civilian airports and a smaller number of military radars. One mobile radar source was detected around 250 kms away in roughly the same bearing as them, which the computer identified as Chinese built KJ-200. 

This is the closest Chinese equivalent to Netra with a few key differences. The type of radar is similar but the platform is slower and larger 4 engined Shaanxi Y-8 turbo-prop built in China and based on Russian AN-12. KJ-200 too had suffered a lethal crash during development which had killed 40 people, but unlike Indians, they had persevered and instead of abandoning the project inducted 10 of them in a short period of time. 

At this distance it was not likely that KH-200 radar could have detected any of the Indian aircraft as the radar returns would be too weak and scattered for the antenna to collect and it’s computer to process. But it could change any minute if and when any of the aircraft got too close. In addition, there were a number of ground based radars which could detect Indian planes once they got high enough. This happened just a few moments later when there was another active radar contact on the consoles. 

One of the contact was identified as a Type 305B search radar employed by Chinese HQ-9 Surface To Air Missile (SAM) batteries. HQ9 is a copy of lethal S-300 SAM system of Russia which also has a limited anti-ballistic missile capability. Both India and China have S-300 and were inducting S-400 (in 2020), it’s advanced version. So Indians had a good understanding about S-300 systems worked. Since Chinese had copied a very similar S-300 system with only a few modifications, Indians knew most characteristics of it’s radars and missiles. Lochan’s mission today was to test the newest technology developed by Electronics and Radar Development Establishment (LRDE) against the Chinese copy of S-300, HQ-9.

A SAM system generally uses more than one radar to track incoming aircrafts and missiles. The primary is called a Tracking Radar which keeps on scanning a certain area assigned to it for any possible targets. Once it finds a target of interest, the data is passed on to another radar  called Fire Control Radar (FCR) or Illuminating Radar (IR). It’s job is to  gather data such as range, bearing and azimuth of the target. This data is utilised by the control center which allots a best firing solution with data like best firing angle, time etc  to the missile or gun used to attack the intruder.  

In certain types of systems, the missile is guided up to the target by the same radar. In a few other’s the radio frequency or heat based seeker within the missile take over after launch which then guides itself to the target. Additionally, there are certain radars which combine all these functions in just one radar system instead of fielding so many. This is just a simplistic explanation and there are many variations even within same families of SAM systems

The civilian technician felt his heart skip a bit as a chirp announced that the plane was being tacked by the HQ-9 SAM’s long range search radar and then another just a few seconds later which was identified as KJ-200, nearest competitor to Indian Phalcon AWACS. It was still a few minutes away from  being detected by it, but once it range, it could accurately provide intercept instructions to fighter jets or surface based anti-aircraft assets. The smaller KJ-200 had probably landed already or switched off it’s radars as it’s signals hadn’t been noticed for some time. Lochan kept flying in straight bearing for a while then dived below the tracking cone of Type 305B to break the track. Symbols of most ground based radars on the Tibetan plateau went dark soon but that of KJ-2000 stayed. Lochan gained altitude again not too far and turned to repeat the pattern. Again there were multiple radar chirps and their old symbols lit up again. The plane’s crew was hoping for a bit more activity to incite Chinese to turn up as many radars and other assets in order to collect as much data like location, radar signatures, ranges etc as possible. 

As the plane moved in a north western bearing along the border, it detected a few more radar emissions from two other military radars but the contacts vanished soon as the plane probably got out of their line of sight or a mountain peak at some distance blocked the view. 

All of these radar positions were marked and transmitted to Jaguars and ground control. A few possible approach vectors were calculated and the one with most chance of success chosen and provided to the pilots. A few minutes later, the Jaguars popped up in line of sight of HQ9 radars and started following the waypoints provided to them. There were audio and visual alerts in Jaguar cockpits as the 305B tracking radar immediately picked them up. 

On a normal mission, Jaguars would’ve masked their approach behind mountains and flown as close  the ground as possible before reaching a suitable altitude to drop their ordinance on the target. But on this mission, they were just carrying fuel tanks and prototypes of an advanced Electronic Warfare pod. Few seconds after getting in the range of 305B, the Jaguars started flying in an 8 shaped pattern with a portion of it inside Chinese border. Crew in both flights noticed multiple radar contacts coming online as the Chinese got alert of a possible incursion in their air space. 

Of around a dozen plus active radar contacts, Indians were interested in HT-233 Fire Control Radar of the HQ9 battery which turned on fairly late compared to the rest. Unlike what many people think, not all the radars are turned on all the time. It’s done to save power, extend usable life and reduce possibility of tracking and analysis of signals by the enemy.  The positions and time between detection and turning on was recorded and the next phase of mission started. Sparrow 1 turned on it’s yet unnamed EW pod and Sparrow 2 turned away in the opposite direction flying a flight path roughly parallel to Lochan but just  inside Indian territory. They didn’t want to provoke Chinese in to shooting them down by deep incursions just yet. 

At this time, Lochan crew noticed the KJ-200 heading in their direction. They knew that it’ll have an escort of minimum two fighter jets armed with long range surface to air missiles which couldn’t be detected till they turned on their own radars. Mission Controller in Lochan pored through the data being displayed on his screen and allowed himself a wry smile. They had collected all the data they had come for and it was time to go home. 

The new EW pod deployed on Jaguars and it’s bigger version on Lochan had done their jobs as well as expected. They had managed to spoof multiple powerful Chinese radars in to thinking that Indian planes were 10s of km away from their actual positions. LRDE had managed to pack it all in a small pod 3 m long and 0.5 m in diameter deployable on a fighter jet. This Range Deception Jamming technology could come in handy in case Chinese ground based Air Defence (AD) network had to be beaten. 

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9 February 2020

Pokhra, Nepal.

Padam Giri took an appreciative bite of Tbetan Balep bread smothered with butter and chased it down with hot butter tea at his cousin’s small guesthouse in the hills. Normally, it’d be full of tourists but Corona virus related restrictions had been bad for business. Only two servants, one cook and another cleaner who also worked for the household remained on the payroll out of usual six.  His cousin was somewhere in the farm pruning trees since early morning. Even if tourists were missing, the farm work afforded no breaks. 

Rajat Sinha, the only other guest in the establishment came in to have another cup of chai in the small dining area overlooking the beautiful mountain farm. He sipped his tea meditatively watching birds jumping around from one tree branch to another. Giri took a seat at his table and offered him a cigarette. “It’s been a long time Sinha sahab. Haven’t seen you for a while.”

Sinha smiled and shook his head, “So long that I’ve stopped smoking.” Giri nodded and put the pack back in his pocket, “Maybe I should try stopping too.”

“Your lungs will thank you for this.” Sinha inhaled deeply. “The air here is much better than Kathmandu.”

“Perhaps, it’s all the same to me.”

“That’s one reason why you should go slow on cigarettes.”

Both men sipped their tea in silence for a few minutes and watched the scenery. The cook came in to clear their tables and left another pot of freshly brewed tea. Sinha filled their cups and asked, “How’re things at work?”

“You know, more of the same. Some people are quite happy, some are very sad and some don’t know what to feel. The usual circus.”

“But stable I hope?”

Giri took a sip of tea and sighed appreciatively, “As stable as the snow you see on those mountain peaks. It’ll stay as long as the temperature remains cold, some rock doesn’t shift or whatever wind or sun allow.”

Seeing Sinha smile he added further, “And I am guessing that you want a bit of warm weather?”

“Not really, unless it’s absolutely necessary. But there are some people who are making things worse than they need to be.” 

“Kedar Rana, Srijan Mathi and associates? You know who actually controls them. Uttam Maharaj hasn’t been the Prime Minister he expected to be for quite some time.”

“Northern neighbour must be paying well enough.”

“They also have his balls locked up somewhere in the middle kingdom.”

Sinha chuckled and leaned back in his chair, “We need him to get those back. We want him to either help us or stay out of our way. Things are going to get hot and we can’t afford an enemy stronghold in Kathmandu.” 

Giri shook his head, “Haven’t you tried already? He is more like a viceroy rather than a PM at this point.”

“It leaves us with only one option.”

“Don’t forget about Dutta family.”

“That’s been taken care of already. The young Trilochan has always been way too indiscreet for his own good.”

Giri finished his cup of tea and scribbled something on a piece of paper. “Amounts and accounts. Should take around 12-14 days once I get the go ahead.”

Sinha read the note,”It’s quite a lot you are asking for here.”

“Chinese spent twice this amount during the elections.”

Sinha folded the paper and put it in his pocket, “I’ll have to get approval of my seniors for this.”

“Sure, but try to make it quick. By the way, which agency do you work for, I don’t know anyone who knows. Is it RAW, IB, NIA, CBI or CIA, ISI , which one is it? 

Sinha  laughed politely, “I’ll tell you if you take off one zero off this figure.”

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2 January 2020

New Delhi.

CDS Rajinder Singh spoke, “I don’t believe that Chinese are very interested in a full fledged war right now. Some of their leadership is aggressive, yet the overall mood is against starting a major conflict right now .”

The emergency meeting was called in after reports of three nearly simultaneous incursions by PLA troops in Laddakh and Sikkim. When challenged by ITBP troops in SIkkim, Chinese had turned belligerent and tried to use their vehicle to run over the Indian soldiers. This had led to an ugly brawl between the two parties with multiple injuries on both sides. News channels in India were already hyper-ventilating with every news anchor and random panelist picked from Facebook and Twitter turning defence and strategy experts overnight.  

DM had been surfing through a few such shows on his way to the meeting and asked  “What do you think they want?”  

“They have multiple reasons for land grabs in Indian territories. Major one is ofcourse creating and maintaining tactical superiority by capturing strategically favourable locations all along the border. They hope to neutralise threats of our land and air invasion by this. They have already more or less succeeded by capturing all of Tibet. Now most of these incursions are meant to consolidate their positions.

It also puts military and economic pressure on us all along the border.  For example, if China or Pakistan manage to wrest control of Siachen and nearby areas from us, they have a virtually free run in to our territories up to Srinagar. From there, it’s just a matter of weeks, till they can reach Indian plains. We not only lose strategically vital territory, but also major sources of  quite a few important rivers. 

We need to defend our positions in all these sectors, for more than one reason. Not just for defence of border areas of J&K itself.

Additionally, with their expansion of their China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), they feel that it’s important that we can’t interfere. We’ve tried playing nice, but just like Pakistanis only language they understand is that of force. If we concede these unpopulated areas now, they will feel emboldened to grab our towns after a few years. We can’t allow that.

They are trying to grab as many territories as possible in multiple sectors for numerous reasons including their concept of national pride and historical boundaries. But one of the main strategic reasons is their desire to keep the Han homeland safe from a future conflict. Most of their population centers and economic strongholds are near their eastern shores. By grabbing islands in South China sea and beyond, they are consolidating their defences against their neighbours as well as NATO. 

In case of a naval or air conflict, their enemies will have to deal with dozens of their defences on the islands before they can reach the Chinese mainland. There’s also the issue of security of sea lanes, natural resources etc, but you know about it as well as I do.

There is another factor which we need to pay attention to and that’s Chinese internal politics. Zheng Jun has declared himself president for life, a dictator for all intents and purposes. This hasn’t gone well with a fairly powerful faction in CCP. Some members in Politburo (group of 25 most powerful members of CCP) were against this move but were overruled, some by bribery, blackmail and threats. He has filled Central Military Commission and  Standing Committee with his loyalists and expelled a most of dissenters. He control all aspects of Chinese armed forces directly through his title as Commander-in-Chief as well as numerous ‘committees’ he has created to overlook the different commands. Even the Chinese PM has been divested of whatever little powers he had and he has been increasingly sidelined from most of decision making So in order to look strong internally, he is picking up fights to divert attention from his internal political problems.”

“What can we do about it?”

“All along the border there are some sectors where they are in stronger positions and some where we are. If we want to defend our sovereignty, we can’t let them do whatever they want at our borders. One plan of action we have wargamed with some success is that if push comes to shove, we capture some of Tibetan territories where we are stronger and use it as a bargaining chip to get Chinese to vacate our lands.“

“Are you sure that it will work?”

“If we want to deter them for this kind of land grabbing, this is the only possible choice which can work without assurance of a full fledged war. We’ve tried almost everything else apart from force till now and this is the way of application of least amount of force.”

“What if they refuse to vacate our land and escalate the conflict?

“There is a fair chance of it happening.”CDS conceded. “That’s why we have deterrence of conventional and nuclear forces of our own. If they escalate, then we fight back.”

“Do we have enough weapons and resources for it?”

“We’ll have to fight with what we have. Like I’ve said before, we lack enough fighters, a proper Mountain Corps and not enough cruise missiles. But there have been some improvements since last few months.  In any case, we have a good bit of buffer for most of our ammunition, fuel and most other needs. If we can keep Pakistan from interfering,then our job will be a lot easier.  Without them trying to run interference, we can concentrate most of our forces on the Chinese border.“ 

DM shook his head, “Fat chance of that happening! Pakistan now is all but a Chinese colony for all intents and purposes. If Chinese ask them to jump, only question they’ll ask is how high. It’s just my personal opinion, but we should be preparing to fight war on both fronts. China will not let all it’s money, weapons and diplomatic capital it has invested in Pakistan stay idle in case of a war.”

“There is no certain way of avoiding Pakistani interference, we can only try to reduce it. Like if we take advantage of terrain and weather. Most of our possible land conflicts with China can happen only in summers when those zones are not covered in snow. If we can find a way to nuetralise Pakistani threat in winters, there’s not much that China can do to help them. With assurance of Paki support on western front gone, PLA will be in a comparatively weaker position.”  COAS General Gurunath added.

“Excuse me for the stupid question, but what does nuetralising Pakistani threat mean? Are we talking about a surgical strike kind of thing, full scale war or some diplomatic or economic measures?” DM seemed confused.

CDS took this question, “Ideally it should be a bit of everything. They can fully rely on only China for weapons, ammunition and some money. Rest of the things like fuel, majority of the finances required to run the country and foreign investments come from US and Saudis. They may get some weapon systems, new and second hand from Turkey and 2-3 other muslim countries, but that’s it. If we can convince their main financiers to put a squeeze on them, restrict fuel supplies, decrease subsidies for their industry, put them on a few watchlists for supporting terrorism and so on, their war fighting capability will be severely affected without us firing a bullet.

As far as military action is concerned, we have a few battle plans ready which can be executed at the right time to curtail their war fighting capability without crossing the nuclear threshold.”

“Yes, of course! We are already doing that for quite some time now and results are starting to show. US senate is likely to pass a bill restricting supplies of spares and support for their F-16 fleet. We have convinced Saudis to go slow on their cheap loans for oil too. Pakis are not going to get anymore oil from them on deferred payments unless they pay off pending amounts first. World Bank is going to announce the same thing next month citing their support of islamic terrorist agencies. They need 4-5 billion USD by end of next month to prevent defaulting on two major loans. Their economy is going the drain slowly but gradually.“

NSA Dhumal had been reading the intelligence reports coming in from China desk for better part of the week, “We’ll still have to take care of People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) from coming to aid of Pakistanis. Even if their air force is not fully combat ready due to lack of proper airfields, weather etc, they can still cause serious damage with their cruise missiles and ballistic missiles. It seems like they are not short on them.”

ACM Maadhav answered the query, “We have some new batteries of Akash, S-400 and local Anti Ballistic Missile System (ABM)  coming online soon. It’s next to impossible to defend against a saturation strike or sneak attacks, some missiles will inevitably pass through the strongest of defences.  But China cannot perform multiple such strikes without running out of their missiles meant for their eastern front. Our defences against their cruise missiles are going to be fairly robust once we finish plugging the holes in our air defence net.

As far as ballistic missiles are concerned, S-300, S-400 and ABM used judiciously can provide a fair degree of protection. It’s not perfect by any chance, but they’ll need to launch a lot more missiles to score a hit and they don’t have that high number of them. “   

PM had attended raising of a new LCA squadron in Jodhpur in May and had detailed discussions with Air Marshal Swaroop Shastry  and ACM Maadhav about IAF’s state of preparedness. They had again raised the issue of shortage of fighter jets and a few other items. Lack of good budget, dependence on imports and corruption had taken their toll. Things were improving but war didn’t wait. Indian armed forces suddenly had to face prospect of war at two fronts just when they had begun to get back on track. He was going through the discussion he had in his mind. He addressed  ACM Maadhav “Isn’t it true that we have some advantage over PLAAF due to location of airfields?”

“Yes, the airfields they have in Tibet within operational range of their aircraft are at high altitudes and most of them don’t have hardened shelters. Even in best of conditions, their planes can’t carry their full loads and have a handicap against us.  They certainly have some good fighters in their arsenal like J-10, J-11, Su-30MKK which are not easy to beat. They also have a big lead in heavy bombers, more AWACS and tankers. But most people don’t realise that there are only a handful of bases in Tibet where these platforms can be deployed against us. We certainly need upgrades of our own, but IAF can handle most of what PLAAF can throw at us.”

RAW  had shared reports of increased maritime traffic from Iran to China and people in the room were not very happy about it. India didn’t have that much leverage over Iran as in the past and China didn’t have to try hard to bring the sanctions ridden country under it’s own sphere of influence. They had managed to strike a deal for cheap oil in return for infrastructure projects and favourable payment terms. India had partially vacated that position under sustained US pressure and to get more influence with the Saudis and rest of Arab world..

Every tanker of oil from Iran to China increased their fuel reserves for a war by half a day. Additionally, they were planning for a oil and gas pipeline from Iran through central Asia or Afghanistan and Pakistan. India had abandoned similar plans over security issues of line passing through Pakistan and high cost of undersea pipeline completely scuttled the project.  

He addressed Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Jayant Suman, “Can we do something about Chinese shipping through Malacca Strait.”

CNS Admiral Suman was expecting this question, “With INS Vikramaditya carrier group and 2-3 submarines, we can dominate the region. However, any interference with movement of sea vessels can be taken as declaration of war. Once we attack or interfere with Chinese shipping, we must be ready for a high intensity conflict. Additionally, we also have to consider loyalties of Malaysia and Indonesia along with the effect such a move can have on global economy..”

PM read through the list of possible Chinese naval assets  in the region with a frown on his face. “Admiral, what can we do in case of a full scale naval conflict?”   

“We can handle our own over waters around Indian peninsula, but we are not strong or big enough for expeditionary missions in South China sea. If China dedicates majority of it’s naval forces against us, then we will have a tough fight. Sheer number of ships and submarines that they have will keep us very busy. But if a few other countries like Japan, US, Australia tie up some of their fleet in Pacific and South China sea, they’ll be on backfoot. With all the anger due to Chinese mishandling of Corona virus, territory grabs and belligerent behaviour, they don’t bank on support from any other countries apart from Pakistan and North Korea.”

“A man is known by the company he keeps. In this case, a country.” EAM muttered half to himself.

CNS nodded, “True, they have a lot more enemies than allies around them. We have wargamed this scenario a few times in naval exercises. PLAN is powerful, but quite beatable under right conditions. We’ll be in a much stronger position once INS Vikrant becomes operational.”

“What’s stopping it from being operational?”, PM asked.

 “Sea trials! We are still in testing and troubleshooting phase. Only a few systems on the ship have been cleared for operational use. We have accelerated the pace, but it’ll still take around 9-10 months for it to be ready for deployment.”

“The war maybe over by that time.” DM interjected.

“Perhaps. If we skip some procedures, we may be able to launch the aircraft carrier directly without undergoing extended trials. Air wing, escorts and trained crews are ready. If we are given permission to accelerate and skip some trials, we can  deploy INS Vikrant carrier wing in Lakshdweep Sea or Bay Of Bengal with some restrictions in 5-6 months. Pakistani navy can be handled with our western fleet and maritime Jaguars and Sukhois. “

“Do you think that it’s worth it? What about it’s airwing” PM didn’t seem fully convinced.

Admiral Suman was unfazed, “We have enough air assets for the carrier. Even if the it’s air fleet is working at two-thirds of it’s full capability, I think that having two aircraft carrier groups in the sea instead of just one is worth the risk at these times.

PM looked at CDS who nodded. “All right Admiral. We’ll trust your judgement on this. INS Vikrant will be operationally ready in 5-6 months, right?”

Admiral Suman cracked a rare smile, “Yes sir.”

PM nodded and addressed EAM Vajpayee, “What do you suggest about proposal of Tibetan PM Kalsang Gyatso? I think we should take some steps about it now.”

EAM considered his words for a moment and spoke,”This will be taken as a major provocation by the Chinese, but I am personally completely in favour. Chinese have occupied our lands and are trying to grab even more, they don’t respect sovereignty of any single nation around them. It’s time we return the favour. My only concern is military fallout, but the people in this meeting are better judges of that.”

PM looked at the faces of three service chiefs and saw quizzical expressions. “I am assuming that you are not aware of all the details, right? Vajpayee ji, if you would please give a summary of our discussions with Tibetan leadership.”

“Well, as most of the people present here know that TIbetan leadership has been requesting that we discard the One China policy and give recognition to Tibet as a fully sovereign nation. They also want us to sponsor a motion in United Nations over this. There are a few hurdles but nothing that can’t be handled by us.There’s another reason for the timing of their request and that’s the failing health of Dalai Lama. Chinese have kidnapped and either killed or hidden his successor and things will get complicated when he passes away. So they feel that having a central authority will be important to keep things under control. 

 We wouldn’t know how many countries will support us in UN till we do it. I am assuming that most wouldn’t for fear of upsetting China. And as most of you know that not just CCP, even the majority of Chinese public will be very unhappy over this. We can handle most of political, diplomatic and even  economic fallout of such a move. But we need your opinion and advice whether to go on with it or not?”

All service chiefs considered the words of EAM carefully. Gen Gurunath was first to speak, “This will be good move only if Tibet can back it with some military muscle.  As of now, any independent Tibetan regime doesn’t have any military power to defend itself apart from our troops from Special Frontier Force and a few intelligence personnel operating in Tibet. They too are our men for all intents and purposes. If Tibet has to be an independent nation, just the teachings of inner peace will not be enough.

Before we do anything like that, we should create an army or atleast a guerilla army consisting of Tibetans only. It’ll give some legitimacy to their struggle against the Hans. If we provide political support and also fight the war for them, then it’ll not work out well. What worked against Pakistan in 1971, can also be utilised against CCP with some modifications.    

“That’s a valid point. What do you suggest?”

“In simple terms, help Tibetans create an army for themselves. I’d suggest atleast 2 brigades for starters. It can have a few battalions for special operations and regular infantry and limited anti-air roles if we can spare some resources. We can assign a few operatives from SFF, ITBP and AFSOD in each battalion as advisors and observers. If we start the process right now and enough Tibetans volunteer for this, we can have these two trained brigades ready in around one year.  Chinese are financing and training dozens of terrorist groups against India. This would be a nice enough payback for all the blood they’ve spilled on Indian soil.”

“If we recognise Tibet and discard One China policy, then we might as well do it for Taiwan too. They can be a useful ally for us in many ways.” DM added.

“We’ll consider Taiwan too. But Tibet is our immediate priority and it has to remain top secret till we’re ready.” PM said and then addressed the army chief,  “Can you assign a senior officer to liaison with Tibetans for this? We want him to be a member of our panel during our meeting next week.”     

“Yes sir!”

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