I've been writing a military thriller about a confrontation between India and China, and would like your opinion and tips on how to improve the vermilisitude or realism of it all.
The scene below describes a feint raid by three squadrons of the PLAAF on North East India, and the manner in which the Indians respond to it. I have a lot of friends who are ex Indian military (including a few fighter pilots) who have given me tips on technical issues, but I'd like an international viewpoint on how it sounds - and whether you have any expert tips on how to make it more believable.
Thanks for any help!
It was just past five in the evening, Indian Standard Time, when the initial signs of Chinese air activity were picked up by the Indian Air Force’s mobile observation posts along the McMahon Line that represented the border between the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh and Tibet. The Mobile Observation Posts (MOPs) which consisted of two man teams armed with nothing more than night vision binoculars, infrared sensors, an aircraft identification booklet and a VHF radio remained India’s first and most critical line of air defence even in the 21st century, and even as the Indian Air Force (IAF) rapidly attempted to modernize itself.
For the two men who made up MOP Alpha Lima Fifteen, it had been a bleak and uneventful two months of being holed up in a bunker in the side of Peak 5850, and recording the coming and going of civilian aircraft at the Chinese airport at Nyingchi Mainling – located barely 20 kilometres north of the border with India. Their bunker, located a tenacious forty kilometres trek north from the last asphalted road that led from the nearest Indian town of Yingkiong, offered them an unobstructed view of the Yarlung Zanbo river valley in the Chinese side, which with its criss-crossing highways and rapidly developing settlements posed a sharp contrast to the primitive infrastructure uninhabited mountain-scape on the Indian side. On the Chinese side were housing layouts, army barracks and industrial complexes all linked by a network of roads, while on the Indian side were nothing more than a handful of half deserted shanty towns threaded together precariously with a single narrow broken road that winded through the mountain slopes.
So far, the only air activity that MOP Alpha Lima 15 had dutifully recorded and transmitted to the command post had been the solitary Air China A319 flight from Chengdu that landed every morning at six and which took off promptly an hour later. Their command post was the located at a line of radar pickets some 150 km south of their position in the Indian state of Assam. Then there was the occasional Mi-17 or Harbin Z-6 helicopter operated by the PLA’s 2nd Army Aviation Regiment based at Lhasa meandering harmlessly through the peaks far inside Chinese territory, and which nevertheless had to be reported with detailed coordinates, altitudes and bearings.
But today, the thankless and wearisome job had taken an unexpected turn of excitement, when the two men were alerted from their slumber late in the evening by the sounds of several roaring jets in the distance. Stumbling out of their bunker into the biting cold and the fading light, the men checked their tripod mounted Infrared Search and Track Reconnaissance (ISTR) scanner and gasped in amazement before grabbing their VHF radio receiver and alerting the command post. There, marked by several hazy red blips across the dark scope of the German manufactured ISTR scanner were the tell-tale signs of several Chinese fighter jets, approaching their position from the North-West.
“Alpha Lima 15 to Command Echo Five! Message alert red!” The terse message was relayed by VHF radio with the accompanying alert code that would assign it maximum priority. “Counting sixteen bogeys at twenty eight, twelve zero eight dot nine three and ninety-three, thirty four, one-two dot seven four, bearing ten o’clock, altitude 4000m, estimated speed 450 knots! Bogeys appear to be following the river valley towards Lima-Zulu-Yankee airport.”
At an altitude of just over 4000m above mean sea level, the 16 Chinese aircrafts were just below the line of mountain peaks that separated China from India, and would have been undetectable to ground based radars on the Indian side.
The message raised a flurry of activity on the Indian side. More than a hundred kilometres to the south of MOP Alpha Lima 15, radar clusters located at Chabua, Jorhat, Guwahati and Tezpur in the state of Assam increased the output power on their Soviet era ST68U and P-18/P-19 radars and lit up the mountain peaks north of them, creating a line of virtual radar floodlights that stretched from Bhutan in the west to Myanmar in the east. Along the narrow passes and gaps between the line of formidable Himalayan peaks, and especially at the 20km wide Tsangpo Gorge that separated the two realms, short range Indian made INDRA radars lit up the mountainsides and waited for targets to appear.
“Identification! Joker! Joker! Sixteen numbers Joker!” The MOP continued its message, the sounds of the jets evident in the background in spite of the static.
Joker was the vaguely cynical code assigned by the IAF to describe the Chengdu J-7 Air-Guards that formed the bulk and backbone of China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force. But even as tension built up across the four fully alerted radar pickets across Assam, the radar screens stayed blank, the enemy aircraft staying at extremely low altitudes and well hidden behind the screen of mountain peaks. Meanwhile 500 kilometres away from the MOP bunker, in Shillong, the message about the Chinese military aircraft flying in such vicinity to the Line of Control had just reached the Air Defence Control Centre (ADCC) located there, and the gear wheels of India’s air defences began to move into place.
Shillong, the capital of the Indian state of Meghalaya, just west of Assam, served as the headquarters of the IAF’s Eastern Air Command, and the nucleus of its Air Defence Ground Environment System (ADGES) for the North East of India. As soon as the message was received from the radar pickets, the massive French made cold war era THD1955 radar sitting atop a pyramidal tower adjoining the ADCC building increased its output from the regular 2MW to an astounding 15MW, bringing the whole of Assam, Bhutan, Arunachal Pradesh and large swathes of Chinese Tibet under its powerful glare – but, still, the radar screens stayed blank and devoid of any activity on the Chinese side. All that it received was the peripheral green glare around the scopes that came from the radar beams bouncing off the distant peaks along the international border.
“Jokers climbing!” The voice of the MOP spotter was now on the public address system inside the Control Centre room, as tense radar operators looked up from their banks of computer screens at the large panel displays on the main wall.
“Altitude climbing – 4100m… 4200m… bearing direction south-east-east, altitude 4400m!” The voice went on, like an excited commentator at a soccer match before the damning proclamation hit them. “Sixteen Numbers Joker are in No-Fly-Zone! I repeat! Sixteen numbers Joker are in No-Fly-Zone!”
The spotter then proceeded to read out the coordinates of the enemy aircraft as they streaked up from the valley and soared over the mountain peaks. ‘No-Fly-Zone’ was the term used to describe the 10km buffer airspace on either side of the international border that was supposed to be off-limits to military air activity – as agreed upon in the Sino-Indian treaty signed in 1996.
Almost instantly, all the radar screens across the region registered the Chinese aircrafts and lit them up brightly as they climbed up and above the mountain ranges swooped out towards the border and then turned to fly parallel to it. Somewhere in the control centre, someone flicked open a guard switch and pressed an alarm button that automatically triggered sirens at air bases across Assam. Given the complete surprise with which the Chinese aircraft had breached the No-Fly-Zone, and the speed with which they were travelling, they would have reached the heart of Assam in a matter of mere minutes – which was all the time that the Base Area Defence Zones (BADZ) would have to activate and scramble fighters in the air. At Tezpur and Chabua air bases, pilots hopped into dark blue jumpsuits and then ran across the tarmac towards their waiting Sukhoi-30 MKI aircraft, even as maintenance personnel milled around engaged in a real life enactment of the aircraft scramble drill they had practiced so many times before.
Both air bases were capable of launching fighters and getting the first of them up to cruise altitude in under three minutes.
“Pair Take-off! Abandon SOP Three!” The base commander, Air Commodore Surinder Tyagi, seated in the air control tower at Tezpur ordered into his intercom.
Standard operating procedure (SOP) Three was the mandatory, but controversial, operating procedure that required a one minute interval between aircraft take-offs, which was intended as a precaution to allow dust to settle and prevent foreign objects from entering the engines of the Sukhoi 30 fighters. Tyagi knew that given the limited time he had right now, such precautionary measures were a luxury he did not possess.
At Shillong, it had taken two and half minutes for Air Marshal Ratan Mazumdar, Commander in Chief of the Eastern Air Command to reach the ADCC from his office. As he entered the air conditioned and darkened interiors of the control room, he wondered to himself how expensive those two and a half minutes had been in an incident that had the potential to be over just as soon as it had commenced. He reached his seat, at the head of the room, facing the large control screens.
An operator at the other end of the room exclaimed aloud, “I’ve lost contact with MOPs along the Kangto sector. Something is jamming all our VHF frequencies there!”
“Bring it up on the main screen.” Mazumdar spoke into his microphone calmly, “And get me a status on the Akash SAMs and how many Sukhois we have in the air right now.”
On the screen at the front end of the room, on large integrated panels, a map of Arunachal Pradesh was immediately brought up. Just north of the thick red line that represented the McMahon Line between India and China, was a red triangular symbol that represented the location of Nyingchi Mainling Airport, as well as a close bunch of red blips with tags indicating the current location of the Chinese J-7 fighters as they were being tracked by more than a dozen radars across the region. The aircrafts were flying in a loose formation and were extremely close to the border, flying parallel to it while heading in an easterly direction. Over to the west, near the border with Bhutan, an orange animated circular symbol popped up about twenty five kilometres inside Chinese territory.
“Receiving EW jamming signals from location Orange!” The operator exclaimed. “All VHF radios in that sector are down! Zero contact with MOPs.”
Mazumdar watched with increasing trepidation as the sensors on the ground tracking the location of the jamming signal updated themselves and the circle symbol moved south. There were no radar signals detected around it, which meant that whatever was generating the jamming signal was below the mountain peaks and moving very fast.
An aircraft mounted jammer!
And one that was moving at low altitude rapidly towards the border. Mazumdar knew immediately that the initial raid of J-7 aircrafts had been a decoy, meant to cover for what was probably a much larger raid of much more advanced aircrafts coming in from the west.
“Get me a status on the Sukhois! Why am I not seeing any of our Sukhois on our screen?” He exclaimed into his microphone, the calm tone giving away for a moment to panic, before he steadied himself. “Where are our Sukhois?”
As if in response to him, three bright blue blips appeared on the screen, around Chabua Air base, as IAF Sukhoi-30-MKI aircrafts took to the air, and raced towards the J-7s in an intercept route. As the seconds ticked by the three blue blips were joined by more blips, the altitude figures on their tags rapidly updating as the aircraft climbed up. The area around Tezpur – location of the other Sukhoi 30 squadron – was still blank.
“Where are the hell are the Winged Arrows?” Mazumdar barked again, referring to the nickname of Squadron Number 2 based at Tezpur. “I need the Trisonics from Chabua vectored towards the Joker Seven flight, and the Winged Arrows have to intercept the location of the jamming signal. That jamming signal has to be another Chinese formation! Get me Tezpur on the video link immediately!”
Since 2009, the radars and sensors strewn across India’s borders with Pakistan, China and Myanmar had been linked together with a fibre optic based gigabyte information grid under what had been called the AFNet – a network that allowed command and control centres like the one Mazumdar sat in to receive real-time feeds from hundreds of civilian and military radar installations while interacting through voice and video with air bases, air defence batteries and even with pilots in the air. The core of this Integrated Air Command Control and Communication System (IACCCS) was a massive 3 dimensional digital model of the skies over India.
Before the IACCCS had been set up, radars had to communicate with each other through microwave troposcatter communications, with their information being collated manually and then fed to the control room, before orders were orders were relayed back by the same system. The IACCCS had converted the earlier pyramidal information hierarchy that relied on conserving scarce information into a flat digital model where real-time battlefield information was freely available to all units on the ground and in the air.
But all the real time data links and radar technology could not counter the most important handicap – that the other side of the Himalayan peaks was a glaring blind spot.
At Tezpur, all hell had broken loose.
SOP-3 had ensured that the Sukhoi engines stayed clean of any Foreign Object Damage (FOD) when taking off for mock drills and training exercises – important since any damage could only be rectified by disassembling the engines and shipping them to Sukhoi’s service centre at Okrug, near Moscow. It was an operating procedure meant for training exercises, that was intended to be deliberately ignored in war-time. But that doctrine had not taken into account Murphy’s laws.
The first pair of aircrafts turned in from the taxi-way and lined up against the 150 foot wide runway, abreast of each other. As the launch siren rang, the aircraft on the left lurched forward, followed by the second aircraft barely a second later. As they barrelled down the runway and took off into the air, the second pair of aircraft began turned in and lurched forward, the one on the left following the same one-second lead over the fighter on the right. Then, without warning, just as this pair of fighters had accelerated and reached the middle of the runway, the right side engine of the leading fighter sparked furiously and shot flames – something kicked up by the first pair of aircrafts to take off had hit it!
Foreign Object Damage!
The pilot immediately felt the engine losing power, amidst a cacophony of alarm lights in his cockpit and struggled to decelerate and control the aircraft as it began to veer towards the right – but it was too late.
As Tyagi watched in bewilderment from the control tower, the aircraft on the left veered slightly, then sharply, to the right before ramming its wing into the fighter on its side. There was a streak of flames as the aircrafts made contact with each other, before the two exploded in a blazing conflagration that completely engulfed both aircrafts, resulting in a massive fireball in the middle of the single runway that served the air base. Almost immediately, fire engines and ambulances raced out of the emergency services building at the other end of the base – but the damage had been done: Two aircrafts had been destroyed, their crews massacred in the flames and the runway rendered useless for at least thirty minutes.
“My God!” Mazumdar watched in shock at the live video feed from Tezpur of the burning fragmented aircrafts on the runway. He knew most of the pilots who were based in Tezpur on a personal basis, and the shock of seeing some of them get massacred so brutally jolted him for a moment. But then, regaining this composure, he looked at this operators and issued his next order.
“Have the Mig-27s at Hasimara scramble right now!”
Hasimara air base was located in West Bengal and was the nearest air base with a squadron of fighter jets capable to intercepting the Chinese intrusion. The other air bases at Jorhat and Guwahati comprised only transport aircraft. And while Tezpur was only 120 km south of the border where the Chinese aircraft were expected to turn up, the Mig-27 fighters at Hasimara would have to fly over 350km over Bhutan to reach the area – a pointless task since any Chinese aircraft would reach Tezpur long before they even crossed Bhutan.
And then as the pulsating orange circle representing the location of the jamming signal reached the No-Fly-Zone and climbed altitude, the radar screens lit up with too many red blips to count.
Advance units on the ground that were able to communicate through the AFNet reported in terse tones, “Twenty five plus numbers Abdul – no wait – Abdul -Beta – are over No-Fly-Zone!”
Abdul Beta was the code name assigned to the brand new Chinese J-10B fighters – which as a 4.5 generation fighter were equal to the Su-30MKIs in terms of technology as compared to the J-7 fighters.
A hushed gasp went around the control room. Even if all 25 SU30-MKIs from Tezpur had been scrambled, the J-10Bs would have posed more than a challenge for them, their advanced avionics and on board missiles giving them almost a level playing field against the Sukhois in a close up dogfight. And now with Tezpur put out of action by the air crash on the runway, it was going to be up to the Akash SAM batteries on the ground to counter the enemy aircraft. The only drawback in this was that the SAM batteries had limited range and had been designed to provide only ‘point-defence’ for small and important areas like air bases and missile installations.
In the absence of any credible fighters in the air, the Chinese could fly around Arunachal Pradesh and Assam with impunity, coming under attack from ground bases defences only if they ventured too close to an air base.
“Rohini and Rajendra are tracking bandits!” One of the radar operators spoke into his microphone.
‘Rohini’ was the Central Acquisition Radar (CAR) located at Tezpur and at Chabua that formed the back bone of the ground defences around the air bases there, and which was capable of tracking more than a hundred targets simultaneously. ‘Rajendra’ were the smaller target guidance radars attached to the Rohini that would track individual targets and then guide surface to air missiles to them. “Akash batteries are ready to launch as soon as bandits come in range.” But the intercept range of the Akash missiles was only 30kms, and they would not launch unless the Chinese aircraft came close enough to the air bases they protected.
Mazumdar gripped the arm rest of his chair and watched both groups of red blips on the radars as they moved slowly in a south east direction over Arunachal Pradesh, the few blue blips south of them in East Assam looking woefully inadequate in comparison. He wondered to himself whether the Chinese would really risk a whole squadron of their best aircraft in what could turn out into a completely suicidal raid on Tezpur or Chabua air bases, and whether the Chinese were actually looking for a dogfight with the Sukhois in the skies over Assam.
Most of all he wondered what the whole Chinese attack was about. He had been following news reports covering the Beijing University bombing over the past weeks, and had heard about the shootout at Guiyang earlier that day, and somewhere at the back of his mind, the idea began to rear itself that this was probably China’s retaliation for what it perceived as Indian sponsored acts of terrorism.
Somewhere on the left flank of the control room, a group of telephone operators were already placing calls to the Prime Minister’s Office, the defence ministry and to the Indian army’s control centre. Air headquarters in New Delhi would have already been appraised of the situation over the AFNet, but there were still critical organizations that had to be informed the old fashioned way – with a telephone call.
Meanwhile over the skies over Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, the Sukhoi30s taking off from Chabua came into formation as they headed north and immediately registered the J-7 squadron ahead of them on their powerful Panther radars which had a range of more than 200kms. In contrast the FIAR Grifo-7 radars on board the J-7s had a limited range of less than 60kms. The primitive radar would have made them practically blind in the face of the Sukhois, had it not been for the presence of a Chinese AWACS – an air-borne radar – that circled the skies far north of the McMahon line, feeding them with a clear picture of their surroundings, and of the Sukhoi squadron’s location and bearing.
As the Sukhois climbed altitude, their radars lit up the valleys and peaks beyond the McMahon line – which had been hidden from ground based radars. The resulting feed was immediately reflected on the large panel displays in the Control Room in Shillong, and drew more gasps from the exasperated operators there.
In addition to the two groups of red blips now moving over Arunachal Pradesh, the Panther radars were now registering another group of red blips moving along the valley floor from Langxian, some 100km west of Nyingchi Mainling Airport. The Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) software took barely a second to identify the radar signatures and display the description of the new group of red blips. ’15X, SU27-UBK, NATO desig: Flanker’, the AFNet computer tagged the group of blips with a label, listing their altitude and bearing alongside. The Sukhoi-27 jet fighter was almost the equal of the Mig-29s that the IAF operated, and coupled with the J-7s further south, placed the Trisonics Squadron approaching from Chabua at a fatal disadvantage. As soon as the Su-27 squadron laying low in the valley floor detected the radars of the Sukhoi-30s, they climbed altitude rapidly, coming up above the highest mountain peaks and into full glare of the Indian ground radars on the other side of the border.
Two of the 15 Su-27s, which had been packed with on-board electronic jamming and scrambling equipment came forward and climbed further up than the other aircrafts, and immediately began to throw the Indian ground radars out of action. Except for the few Israeli ELM mobile radars that had been recently deployed, the older Soviet era radars immediately went blank under the intense electronic scrambling, leaving the job of tracking the enemy to the THD1955 at Shillong and to the EW-proof on-board radars of the Su30s. But even these came under pressure as they rapidly changed their operating frequencies to evade the electronic jamming.
If this was the Chinese air invasion that everyone had been predicting for several years now, then the PLAAF was going to completely overwhelm the Indian air defences and lay waste to North East India tonight, Mazumdar thought to himself. And with nothing more than a single squadron of fighters, a jammed radar network and a few air defence batteries at scattered locations, he was completely powerless to stop it. And if there already were so many aircraft in the air, Mazumdar wondered how far behind was the massive missile barrage that had always been expected to prelude a Chinese attack.
Then, just as Mazumdar was mulling over whether to throw the Su30s into a raging bloodbath against the Chinese or to pull them back out of harm’s way, the situation suddenly changed.
The J-7 squadron that had been heading in a south east direction, parallel to the border, changed direction and began to fly east, parallel to the McMahon line, and then, even as two tense minutes ticked by turned further to head north-east, and began to move up the screen, and back towards Chinese airspace. Mazumdar would have guessed this as a feint move, allowing them to move out of the intercept route with the approaching Su-30s and allowing the Su-27s further north to move in. But the Su-27s also began to turn north back into Chinese territory. The PLAAF aircraft here were definitely turning back and heading home before they could come within range of the Su-30 squadron.
Further west, the J10B squadron that had been threatening to fly almost unchallenged over Indian airspace, also began to turn north and back home. In five minutes it became clear that the Chinese air intrusion had been a carefully planned move designed to intimidate the Indian Air Force and send through a threatening message, and which had been pulled back well in time to avoid coming into range of the Indian Su-30s.
Across North East India, radar operators and commanders who had been sweating through the palms of their hands, heaved a sigh of relief and relaxed, as the clusters of red blips began to move back up north, and even as the ground radar pickets began to re-boot in the absence of the electronic scrambling that had blinded them a minute ago. In the east, the Trisonics were diverted from their intercept path and were re-routed along an air patrol route along the border, scanning the Chinese side for low altitude threats, while the Mig-27s from Hasimara who were still halfway over Bhutan were ordered to cover their side of the border in a similar role.
In Shillong, Air Marshal Ratan Mazumdar sat limp in his seat and nervously wiped the sweat off his forehead. What had been an extremely close shave for the Air Force had also revealed its complete inability to deal with what the Chinese could possibly throw at it. A strong and long-time advocate for modernization and increased spending for the Air Force, Mazumdar realized that – nerve wrecking as it had been – the incident had to now be analysed, and its findings used to convince the government that far more had to be done in North-East India to safeguard India’s freedom here.
Next time around, he thought as he looked at receding red blips on the screens before him, would be for real, and that was a disaster that the Air Force had to prepare for.
Next time, he would be ready for them!