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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17 November 2019 
Wuhan Virology Research Institute, China

Rui Guan, one of the Senior Virologists in  Wuhan Virology Research Institute (WVRI) was could barely keep his eyes open. He had spent the last three days in the lab working with only a few hours of sleep and countless cups of coffee and ramen. He took yet another sample collected from the District Hospital and put it the dish for analysis. He had to wait for 3 hours while the sample was analysed and the DNA signatures of yet another sample analysed by the advanced custom built analyser powered by a powerful supercomputer.

Yang Bo, his immediate junior, walked into the lab carrying another collection of samples and started putting them in the vials for analysis. Guan looked at him with a questioning glance, “If you want this crap analysed too, do it yourself. I am going home after the current batch is finished.”

Bo sighed and nodded; he was in the same boat as Guan, “I want the same thing as you, but this comes directly on Director’s orders from Xiagon. Seems like they’ve found the same problem as Xianning and Qichun.”

Guan groaned, “He’ll send samples after samples but not allow us to involve other people in the lab for any assistance. What exactly is going on in his brain?”

Bo just shrugged and started arranging vials for analysis.

WVRI was one of the premier institutes in not just China but the entire world for virology. It was built over 90 acres of land with numerous sections specialising in their own line of work. Chinese government had spared no expense and hired leading experts from all over the world to make the facility as advanced as possible. The institute financed research in many universities and associated labs and attracted the top talent from all over the country. Chinese government directly controlled and financed all the activities in the institute under supervision of a PLA Political Commissar holding rank of a Major General.

During late November, some hospitals in the nearby region had reported increased cases of patients being admitted with flu like symptoms and many more in out patient departments. At first, it was diagonsed as influenza in 2-3 hospitals but it didn’t respond to most traditional treatments. Then a local doctor had shared his experience of seeing the increasing number of such cases on Weibo, the Chinese social media platform. Following his post, a number of doctors and health professionals had posted about similar experiences. When the number of fatalities started to increase, more and more doctors from the province started to share reports of similar cases in their hospitals and clinics. At first, they considered it a seasonal flu, but then a doctor who had a previous history of heart disease died while suffering from similar symptoms. It caused increased activity not just on social media but newspapers too.

Chinese local authorities took notice and the censors deleted such posts after issuing doctors warning against creating unnecessary panic. The information about the possibly new infection was passed on to WVRI few days back which had sent it’s sample collection teams to some of the hospitals which had reported such patients. The collection team had reported up to 30% mortality rates in admitted patients which caused researchers of the institute to take notice. 

After reading initial reports, director of WVRI Major General Wuxi Zhang, ordered a communications lock down between the different wings of the institute and took charge of the whole operation. A small team of scientists involved in research related to infectious disease was given special charge of  analysis of the new samples as they arrived. Their preliminary analysis indicated the presence of a certain type of virus in most of the samples. As soon as they had isolated the suspected virus, they were taken off the case and research about the virus was handed over to the team of Rui Guan and Yang Bo who were tasked with mapping the genome of the suspected new virus.

After this, their access to most of the database of the institute was completely cut off. They could only map the genome of virus, but had no way of comparing it to the existing database of viruses they had catalogued.  After yet another sleepless night, the small team of scientists had managed to map the genome of new virus and had confirmed that all except a handful of the samples had contained the same virus. After this, Zhang had gotten all samples removed from the lab by a PLA team and asked the scientists to delete all data they had collected about the virus. A team of technicians was sent to ensure that every trace of the research was wiped out from the institute and couldn’t be recovered. 

A lot of people in the loop were quite concerned about the actions of General, but kept quiet.  

Few Days Later, Beijing

The small meeting room in PLA headquarters had three people wearing PLA uniforms and one in civilian clothes. He was talking animatedly while gesturing to the large projector screen displaying magnified visuals of biological samples.

Lieutenant General  Chen Youxia walked in to the meeting room leading to everyone standing up and greeting him deferentially. As one of the senior ranked Political Commissars in China, Youxia had been recently promoted in to Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee and outranked everyone in the room.  He acknowledged the congratulatory address to him politely and asked the meeting to start. 

The man near the screen, Doctor Zhao Leji was the deputy director of WVRI. He bowed nervously and started, “Thank you for giving me this chance. I’ll start with the basic work behind this issue and then move on to current events. This whole topic is quite expansive, so I’ll keep my focus only on the relevant issues. If you have any questions, you can ask them anytime.”

He hurriedly cleaned his throat and continued, ”In September last year WVRI was tasked with cataloguing certain categories of viruses present in local wildlife of China and a few neighbouring countries. Our teams of researchers which included students from four central universities, their professors and some scientists from our institute spent months in collecting wildlife samples and extracting virus and bacteria samples from them. Actually the process is still not over as it’s a huge task and will take atleast 3-4 months more.

The animal samples were processed in various local laboratories to isolate the microscopic organisms infesting them and then sent to WVRI for DNA analysis and cataloguing. I want to stress that every living being has countless number and varieties of bacteria, viruses and other organisms like mites in and on its body, even humans. Not every such micro-organism is harmful or even a parasite. Any animal or insect may be a host of a number of such viruses or bacteria which will be completely harmless to it but lethal to a different specie. 

Our task was to identify as many such previously unknown organisms as possible with special focus on viruses. We wanted to collect data related to possible transmission vectors, infection rates and their effects of human and animal physiology. “

One uniformed general spoke, “Is this research relevant for biological warfare?”

Dr Leji blinked rapidly as if he didn’t understand the question and furtively stole a glance at  Major General Wuxi Zhang and replied in a hesitating tone, “Yes, it is possible to use this research to create biological weapons.”

Xi asked another question, “Was it your primary motive?”

Zhang rubbed his neck nervously, “ Our motive was and still is to ensure the safety and prosperity of China. Nothing more, nothing less.”

Another person in the room asked, “What experiments were done with the viruses collected from the wild animals?”

Youxia turned his neck to give that PLA general a look which caused him to stop asking further questions. Dr Leji looked around in confusion for a while then started again, “Well yes, so as I was saying, one division collected and collated data related to virus genome. Another division in WVRI was tasked with studying the effects of viruses on other possible hosts.” He paused with a nervous look on his face and changed the slide to show a list. “This slide on screen lists the hosts which were used to test the effects and infectiousness of some of the microbes.”

Everyone in the room read the slide and exchanged glances, Leji began again, “As you can see, humans were involved in most of the tests. But there is one thing that you must know. The genome of CX virus which is causing this outbreak is only 99.3% same as that of the virus that was used in the human tests.

Additionally, all the tests were done in world class laboratory standards with highest possible safety protocols. It’s highly unlikely that some person or any animal used in the trials could have gone on to spread the virus outside. All the animals were destroyed after testing and humans were kept in full isolation and tested multiple times before being released. We made sure that the human test subjects were carrying no microbes from our tests before their release. ”

“What is the probability that the CX virus mutated during your human or animal trials? Just 0.7% deviation is not that big of a number. ” a voice in room asked. 

Dr Leji was not enjoying the meeting at all. His body language and unsteady voice made it clear to everyone in the room, “In our line of work, a 0.7% deviation is a huge deal, it doesn’t happen very often naturally.”

“But it can happen, can’t it?”

Dr Leji cleared his throat and looked once at Zhang, “It can happen, but chances are extremely rare. And considering that safety protocols that WVRI follows, chances of a harmless virus jumping from humans to another one and causing a pandemic is next to impossible.

The original virus that we tested in the laboratory is related to a family of viruses which can cause influenza like symptoms. But that virus itself can’t cause any such symptoms by itself. It can’t be transmitted from one human to another. For all we know it could have originated in a farm or some meat market which sells wild animal meat and spread from there.”

Another Major General asked, “II also have one question, “What was the primary military purpose of human and animal testing?

“This was part of a military study meant to collect data for  war planning and simulation. We wanted to see if it was possible for our population and livestock could get infected if an enemy nation bombed or disturbed any wildlife habitat causing the animals to enter cities and villages.” Zhang answered a question for the first time.

Youxia seemed lost in deep thought, “So it’s either a bio-weapons research gone wrong or a disease from unregulated meat market.”

 Zhang allowed himself an imperceptible sigh of relief, “As Dr Leji explained Comrade Lt General, chances of former are almost negligible compared to the latter. After going through thousands of pages of data, all the scientists of WVRI are quite sure that the CX virus originated in some natural source or was brought in to China by a foreign entity..”

Youxia scoffed, “Ofcourse they are sure and frankly at this time I don’t care. This disease has the potential to turn in to a worldwide pandemic. I want everyone present in this room to start making preparations to control it’s spread before it becomes a major headache. Major General Lee, I want your Ministry of Health to start taking steps to implement quarantine measures and work with WVRI to develop a cure as soon as possible. Work with our people at WHO to make sure that the news of this virus doesn’t get too much attention and China is not blamed in anyway in case it spreads outside.

Comrade Zhang, I’ll need a detailed report about your research project along with all the data your lab collected on my desk by tomorrow afternoon. You’ll also cooperate with local hospitals to make sure that there is no panic among general public and health professionals. Anyone who goes against this directive needs to be disciplined.”

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8 November 2019

Pano Aqil, Pakistan

Major General Qasim Rizvi entered Usmania mosque dressed in white salwar kameez and white skull cap.  The salwar (pants) was stitched to end two inches above his ankles to meet with the guidelines laid down by Maulana Ilias Yasir, preacher and chief cleric of the mosque.  For the last two years, Maj Gen Rizvi had made it a habit to dress up in the same clothing when not wearing his uniform. Most of the congregation of the mosque was dressed like him too. He liked the uniformity of thought that this mosque and it’s preacher offered. For him, it was a lot like the army, where he had spent the last 35 years of his life. Only less corrupt, more helpful and closer to teachings of quran.

When he had been transferred to Pano Aqil Aqil, he used to go to a large army funded mosque in the cantonment where most of the army men went to offer prayers. But he never liked the servile behaviour of the staff and the debauched behaviour of the congregation in a place which was supposed to be free of all pretensions of rank, power and wealth. He hated seeing the clerics trying to curry favour with uniformed generals and could barely control himself when he saw his co-workers making plans involving alcohol and prostitutes even as they washed up for namaz. 

He had stopped going there after his wife had suffered a stroke and had been bed ridden. The sterlised and groveling sermons made by the greedy maulvi always left a bad taste in his mouth. Few days after her death, he had been aimlessly wandering around the city on a holiday when he noticed the blaring sermons from Usmania mosque over a loudspeaker. The preacher was speaking with conviction, had extensive knowledge of quran and had a strong yet melodic voice that was pleasing to the ears even over loudspeakers. He had entered the mosque which was almost full as if in a trance and sat in a corner listening to the not so old preacher quoting islamic verses and imparting life lessons for a pure islamic life. 

He visited the mosque again after two days to see the same preacher leading the prayers. Then again and again till it became a daily habit for him. Most of the time, he was in his uniform and had a mandatory armed escort.  He couldn’t tell if anyone noticed or cared. He appreciated the fact that the people there didn’t try to get close to him for asking favours or avoided him, just treated him as a fellow muslim. After around two months of regular visits, he went ahead to introduce himself to Maulana Ilias Yasir and request blessings for his only son who was going to leave for higher studies in Canada. Maulana Yasir was courteous and even kind enough to offer a few kind words to sooth the pain of parting. 

Over next few months, Gen Rizvi opened himself to Yasir as suffering person would do to a therapist. His crisis of faith after sickness and death of his wife, lack of faith in Pakistani armed forces and general public, their defeats against kafirs and all around decay and debauchery were all shared with the calm and understanding islamic cleric. It was during one of such long talks that Yasir opened up about himself. He had resigned from his job as Major in Pakistan army over their support for American invasion of Afghanistan and had joined Taliban militants. He had fought against the American marines and Northern Alliance guerillas for four years before being injured and captured in Herat. He spent five years in the hellish Afghan prison without trial before being released. He had utilised his time in the prison to get closer to allah. The shrapnel wounds he had made combat impossible for him. So he served allah in only other way he knew, by spreading his knowledge about quran and way of islamic life.  

Under his influence, Rizvi adopted stricter islamic practices, started praying five times a day compulsorily and even grew his beard minus the mustache. In increasingly radicalised Pakistani society, this was nothing extraordinary. He was already close to retirement and had no interest in lobbying for promotion in an organisation full of  power hungry backstabbers.  He sometimes thought that his lack of further professional ambition and monetary greed made him less of threat to his competitors and he was fine with that. 

He had a loyal following in the lower ranks though due to his fairness in professional matters. With his increasing display of islamic piety, his popularity grew steadily. At first, it was his security detail which followed him inside the Usmania mosque. About a year later, he could see a lot more uniformed men, most of them from his unit praying alongside him. At first, he was concerned that this mosque would turn in to yet another site of sin like the one in cantonment. But to his relief, neither the sermons nor behaviour of Maulana changed.

On that day, he offered namaaz  as usual and sought an audience with Yasir . After the mutually respectful greetings, Rizvi informed the cleric about his upcoming retirement and his plans to go on a pilgrimage. Yasir smiled and congratulated Rizvi but felt that he had something else on his mind. “It seems like that there is something else keeping you awake at nights.”

Rizvi sighed and rubbed his hands trying to think of suitable words to say. Noticing him struggling with words, Yasir invited him to his office and offered him a cup of hot tea. After a few encouraging words from the cleric, Rizvi spoke, “I think I’ve done my job to the best of my abilities, but I can’t honestly convince myself that it’s been enough.”

“Enough for what Rizvi sahib?” Yasir enquired gently.

“Enough for… , “ Rizvi stopped to search for words and then took a hurried gulp of the tea as Yasir waited patiently. “I’ve given all of my life to Pakistan Army. I started as a mere lieutenant, son of a almost illiterate farmer and reached the rank of Major General, not due to my family, corruption or boot licking. But by my hard work, competence and honesty. Well, if I were not honest, perhaps I could have reached higher or maybe even to the top spot myself. But I could never bring myself to be a slave to either my seniors in the army or their dogs in politics. 

I can guarantee you that if a war breaks out today, then most of these generals with kilos of medals on their chest and stars on their shoulders will do everything but fight honourably. These Indians, Americans and even Afghans and Iranians are slapping us wherever and whenever they want. But all these politicians, soldiers and even the Pakistani awam are interested in is squeezing anything they can out of this poor country. I don’t know if I should feel happy or sad retiring like this.”

“Can I ask you a few personal questions General?” Yasir asked gently to which Rizvi nodded yes.

“You blame your comrades in army, politicians, normal citizens of the country as well as foreigners for things that are wrong with our country as well as unislamic degradation. But what gives you the right to be so critical? Outside of your job, have you done anything to change things for better yourself?” Rizvi stared at Yasir pondering over this question. 

Seeing him quiet Yasir spoke further, “There have been lakhs perhaps even crores of us who’ve made huge sacrifices for Pakistan and islam. Many left their families and comfortable lives to fight, many suffered terribly, many died but stayed pious and faithful. Let me ask you general sahib, do you count yourself in the same league as the shahids, the mujahideen and the pious jihadis?”

Yasir stopped and waited for an answer as Rizvi stared off in the distance and answered slowly, “No, I don’t think that I have done enough to be counted in the same league. “

“It’s understandable if you didn’t know your failings and live your life in ignorance. But you do know your shortcomings and still don’t do anything to fix them?” Yasir’s usually calm voice suddenly took an edge. “All around us, you see your incompetent coallegues and politicians doing everything except serving islam and Pakistan. They make deals with our mortal enemies, sell off our lands, snatch everything from the poor to fill their own mansions and drink and fornicate and still decorate themselves with medals. Look at your Army chief. He is perhaps the richest man in the country with more houses and shops in Canada than here. Then look at his Vice Chief, owner of 5000 hectares of land in Pakistan and his underaged sons driving imported Italian cars. While you can barely afford to buy a house for yourself after working all your life. ”

All you can be proud of is that you were not a thief and a fake muslim unlike other generals, air chief marshals and admirals. But search deep inside you and tell me; tell Allah and yourself, have you done enough to serve islam and Pakistan?”

Rizvi sat quietly with the same distant stare in his eyes and then spoke slowly, “Is being a good muslim not enough?”

Yasir sighed and shook his head gently, “Don’t you know the answer yourself? If what you have done till now was enough, then why is islam facing so much humiliation, why is Pakistan almost a failed state and why are we having this conversation?”

Rizvi’s hand shook as he put the cup of tea on table. He spoke weakly, “I am just a single man, weak and alone”

Yasir immediately switched to his soothing calm voice, “Don’t say that General sahib. You are not weak and certainly not alone. There are so many men in my congregation who will follow you to sure death if need be and I am sure there are a lot more. You yourself control the biggest weapon that ummah has. How can you call yourself weak and alone when you have such a powerful weapon and such dedicated followers?”

Rizvi was on verge of tears and spoke with a breaking voice, “Isn’t it too late for this?”

Yasir walked up to Rizvi and patted his shoulder, “It’s never too late. Have faith in allah. He’ll guide you.”

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