• 20 June, 2024
Foreign Affairs, Geopolitics & National Security

When India Goes to War With China

Cdr Sandeep Dhawan (Retd) Fri, 17 Dec 2021   |  Reading Time: 6 minutes

It is an open secret that China challenges everything India sets its eyes on, be it cooperation with Quad partners (the United States, Australia, Japan), international organizations like United Nations, WHO, or designating a terrorist organization. India, a Quad member and a close ally of the United States, has become the biggest eyesore for China. The government of India has limited time before China becomes confident enough to collectively challenge India at its northern borders as well as look after its security issues in the South China Sea.

Is India ready to take on China? Is Chinese militarily really that strong what it projects?

The Nuclear Equation

China plans to double its overall nuclear arsenal by the next decade. A large number of these missiles are oriented towards India. In all, an estimated 110 Chinese missiles could strike all or parts of India. These numbers do not include the latest discovery of missile silos in Xinjiang. What I include here are DF-31A and DF-31. Both missiles cover all of India. Another deployment of DF-21s has reach up to New Delhi. Though the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson stated that China doesn’t target the civilian population, knowing China and its track record of not following any norms, nothing can be ruled out. The missiles in Xining and Qinghai Province can target parts of India’s northeast and east coast. These assessments would change as China employs and deploys more road-mobile missiles in the coming years.

On the Indian side, it is estimated that around 10 Agni-III launchers deployed in Assam cover all of the Chinese mainland. Another eight Agni-II deployed in Assam have reach up to central China. Canisterized Agni-P with a reported range of 1,000 to 2,000 kilometers is another game-changer. Agni-P carries a larger payload than Agni-II, though the status of its deployment is not known. Agni-V with a supposed range of 8000 kilometers could be entering service any time soon. As per ‘Arms Control Association’ even supersonic BrahMos could be paired with a miniaturized nuclear warhead. As of November 2021, India has deployed BrahMos in the union territory of Ladakh and the state of Arunachal Pradesh.

As far as airborne nuclear capabilities are concerned, two squadrons of Jaguar IS and one squadron of Mirage 2000H fighters, with more than 50 aircrafts, are nuclear missions capable. These aircraft can reach Tibetan airspace equipped with nuclear gravity bombs. 42 Su-30s have been modified to carry nuclear Brahmos missiles. Strategic Forces Command of India is known to have 216 BrahMos in its inventory. India’s newly inducted Rafale fighters are also likely undergoing modifications to carry nuclear warheads. On the Chinese side, there has been speculation from the United States sources that the Chinese H-6N is intended to be a nuclear-capable platform, but this is yet to be confirmed.

Conventional Indian Forces

The total available Indian Army strike forces near China’s border areas are expected to be around 2,25,000. This includes roughly 3000 personnel attached to a T-72 tank brigade in Ladakh and approximately 1000 personnel attached to the Brahmos regiment in Arunachal Pradesh. The Eastern Command has the highest troops, 1,75,000 followed by the Northern Command’s 34,000 and the Central Command’s 15,000 troops.

The Indian Air Force (IAF) has an estimated 300 fighters and 68 ground attack aircraft across its three China-facing commands. The Western Air Command (WAC), has around 90 fighters and 34 ground attack aircraft, the Central Air Command (CAC) has around 94 fighters, and 34 ground attack aircraft, the Eastern Air Command (EAC) has 116 fighters. WAC, CAC, and EAC each have 5, 1, and 9 Advanced Landing Grounds (ALGs) respectively. India is also converting 20 highways into emergency airstrips for the usage of IAF.

Conventional Chinese Forces

China’s Western Theatre Command (WTC) has an estimated 90,000-1,20,000 troops mainly based at Chongqing and Baoji. However, Western Theatre Command’s ground operational authority does not extend to Tibet and Xinjiang. These areas are designed as Military Districts, Tibet MD 40,000 troops, and Xinjiang MD 70,000 troops.

PLA Air Force has around 157 fighters and a variety of drones. Fighters include J-8F, J-8H, JH-7A, J-10, J-11, J-11A, J-11BS, Su-27UBK, Su-27SK, and J-7IIM. The UAVs include GJ-1/WD-1K precision strike UAVs, WD-1 ground attack and reconnaissance UAVs, WD-1 precision strike UAVs, and EA-03 reconnaissance and electronic warfare UAVs.

The Comparison

The all-inclusive Chinese ground forces in the region at 2,30,000 troops are far less than Indian forces. The Chinese forces include Western Theatre Command forces based in the interior of China and Military Districts of Tibet and Xinjiang. Therefore, in case of a conflict mobilization of these forces from the interiors of China or Xinjiang would neither be easy nor cost-effective. Compared to this the Indian forces are largely in position.

China’s tank strength stands over 3200 whereas India far exceeds this number at over 4200 tanks. China makes do this shortfall with 33,000 armoured fighting vehicles. India has significantly lower numbers at just over 8600.

When it comes to airpower, Indian and Chinese overall aircraft strengths are 2182 and 3210 aircraft respectively. The most significant difference comes in China’s fighter strength which is double of India’s strength. However, India has double the number of fighters already in bases facing China. These fighters are either comparable or superior to Chinese fighters. Despite having a fifth-generation stealth fighter J-20 what worries PLAAF the most is IAF’s 4.5-generation fighter, Rafale. It is equivalent or superior to J-20 in many aspects.

The PLAAF’s inventory of roughly 33 AWACS and airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft far exceeds the IAF fleet of 5-6 aircraft. Chinese KJ-2000 Mainring (based on IL-76), KJ-200 Moth (Shaanxi Y-8), and KJ-500 (Shaanxi Y-9) enhance their capabilities to detect, track, and target threats. On the other hand, IAF operates the DRDO AEW&C system (based on the Embraer ERJ) and the EL/W-2090 Phalcon AEW&C (based on Beriev A-50). This shortfall is enhanced by 11 P-8I Poseidon aircraft of the Indian Navy from time to time.

CH-47F Chinook, Mi-26, Mi-8, Mi-17, Mi-17 1V, and Mi-17V enhance IAF’s heavy and medium-lift capacity. Light Combat Helicopters (LCH) and HAL Rudra are dedicated to combat missions. The recently inducted Boeing AH-64E Apache attack helicopters will further facilitate the IAF to perform day/night, all-weather attack missions. On the other hand, PLAAF operates the WZ-10 attack helicopters, Mi-8, and Harbin Z-9 utility helicopters, and Changhe Z-8 transport/utility helicopters, giving clear-cut advantage to IAF.

The IAF’s strategic air lifters, include the C-17 and C-130J, ensuring rapid transfer of equipment and supplies. IL-76, AN-32, and Do 228 transport aircraft further enhance IAF’s lifting capacity. The PLAAF’s smaller fleet of strategic airlift assets, Y-20, and Il-76 aircraft pale in front of IAF’s capacity.

PLAAF’s training also has gaping holes admitted by many Chinese commanders. They worry that PLAAF pilots are excessively dependent upon ground controllers. In random and ever-changing combat scenarios, this dependence suggests that PLAAF combat proficiency is considerably weaker than often estimated.

PLAAF has air bases and airfields near LAC with India. They have a permanent presence as well as June to September detachments at Hotan, Lhasa/Gonggar, Ngari-Gunsa, and Xigaze. These are high-altitude air bases often encountering difficult weather conditions. Such restrictions limit Chinese fighters’ payload and fuel carrying capacity to almost half. In contrast, IAF fighters are based at airfields unaffected by these geographic and weather restrictions and can carry maximum payload and fuel.

To sum it, India has a robust regional air position, with “a large number of airfields in the eastern and western region. If some of these airfields are down, operations can continue from other locations. IAF can also repair any airfield within six hours with quick-drying concrete. Even if PLAAF incapacitates an airfield for 24 hours, it will require 220 ballistic missiles to complete that mammoth task. PLAAF has under 1200 such missiles in the region. That means PLAAF can not keep even three airfields completely shut for more than two days. Integration of runway replacement fiberglass mats into its base defense systems has damaged China’s capacity to incapacitate Indian airfields. The induction of S-400 air defence systems would further dampen China’s aerial attack capabilities.

Why China Can’t Win

China, due to its unique political requirements has many drawbacks. Shared command responsibility and army-dominated chain of command and force structure severely affect PLA’s flexibility. China’s inexperienced commanders and staff have already shown their mettle in the recent past. Many commanders posted to the Western Theatre Command lacked combat experience. The stress levels for these commanders were so high that three of them have been replaced within 10 months. General Zhang Xudong head of Western Theatre Command died within six months of relinquishing his post. His replacement, General Xu Qiling, stepped down after just two months and has gone incognito ever since.

The underdeveloped Chinese NCO Corps is another cause of concern for the PLA’s commanders. PLA also has multiple generations of equipment in units making them obsolete. Poor training and underdeveloped air-to-ground support are other grey areas.

Despite all these drawbacks, China is still a formidable force. Comparison of forces is just one criterion. Infrastructure, logistics support, technological advancements, grey zone tactics, disruptive technology, indigenization of weapon platforms, etc are some of the other aspects which decide the outcome of a war.

Indian commanders know it well that Quad forces will not fight India’s war. The best they can do for India is to be available in full strength at the station in the South China Sea. This would keep the Chinese assets from other Theatres committed to the east coast. India should keep in mind that Pakistan could be employed by China to utilize the same tactics against India.

PLA commanders are aware of the fact that a war with India would be a stalemate. However Chinese leader Xi Jinping is desperate. His desire to remain supreme leader for life, plummeting economic numbers, stagnant population growth, and his desire to show to the Chinese citizens that he is on the winning side would force China to take this suicidal step, sooner than later. Never forget, Xi is known to do unwise things with enthusiasm.


A veteran of the Indian Navy, Cdr Dhawan served in the Navy from 1988 to 2009. He was a Maritime Reconnaissance Pilot and a Flying Instructor. He is a geopolitical analyst and writes for various online websites and organizations.


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Col Vivek Bopiah (Retd)

Aug 25, 2022
While the author is right in assessing relative strengths he has not discussed the political decision making strengths. In comparison of this aspect China is far more aggressive while we lack political courage. The sad part is none of of our Service Chiefs are part of the CCS and have no direct communication with the political bosses. They now report to the NSA who has proven record as a Spymaster par excellence. But he has no clue on our defence requirements and deployment of our Armed Forces. The fact that the Govt is changing the time tested and proven methods of recruitment and training of recruits shows the poor knowledge by inducting the Agnipath scheme. They do not even have the wisdom of introducing it as a trial measure. Our present Chiefs who have no experience of this system were forced to give out statements in support of it. Political decisions are to be taken by the political powers in the Govt while tactical decisions are to be left to our Armed Forces Chiefs. Sadly presently both are have no vision.


Mar 23, 2022
It is after a long time that Ingot to read such a comprehensive comparison. Thanks a lot.


Jan 28, 2022
With quality and continued buildup of our capabilities, We can easily play defense and do well. The one asset we have to figure out a way to counter is the Chinese long range bombers. Hopefully we have an effective countermeasure.


Dec 26, 2021
China is depending more on propaganda war or non contact warfare. We still need to find our way on that..physical war with missiles and bomb's will be the last and least options.

Nitesh Bhardwaj

Dec 24, 2021
No, doubt china is loosing every war against India at any level Economy, Technology, Public sentiments.

Rajesh Dhawan

Dec 23, 2021
The article is full of lots of figures to show the war strength of each country. For a change it was pleasant to see that you have given an edge this time to India over China. Yes, it is correct that even though China is having more technological advantages over India, it will dare to attack India because of many other reasons. All this is happening now because of change in Indian policy to be agressive than defensive against China. F After few years you will come to know how China is losing in it's trade all-around.

Sukhjit singh

Dec 23, 2021
Very well analysed. The superiority of Indian ground forces is beyond doubt but we seriously lack in capabilities of asymmetric warfare on large scale . Something to seriously act upon

Atul Dewan

Dec 21, 2021
In the event of a border skirmish, face saving is of essence to China, a stalemate on the other hand will be lauded by media and our supporters. Your article has given a good insight into the ground realities of what is possible on our borders with China.

D'Nanda Dunham

Dec 20, 2021
As ever, Commander and friend, appreciation for keeping us informed - and grounded in reality - amid so much speculation and hype.


Dec 19, 2021
Another great writing, Capt! Very interesting; a good perspective on the capabilities of both countries. Foolishness can happen only from China and India would not be ready to forgive anymore


Dec 19, 2021
Well analysed.


Dec 19, 2021
Well researched and written, Sandeep. It is a given that there would be no conventional war between the two countries. It’s through other means, as pointed out by one reader, domestically and worldwide, that it may flex its muscles and this would be more effective as well.

Gaurav Chaturvedi

Dec 19, 2021
An excellent ,well researched ,factual articles which lut brass tracks in front of readers.One more issue which is not in favour of India is the internal dissents which oppose the govts stance at all stages.The efforts of citizen and nation as one force is very relevant.In additions the cyber capabilities and intent to put them in disruptive role ,is one area where India is lagging. My compliments to author for putting these complex issues in a simple lucid manner


Dec 18, 2021
Sir, respectfully, I don’t believe China will try and go for a full scale war with India. China knows that, in case of a full scale war with India, QUAD will be forced to come out in support of India. The US is the biggest player in QUAD and in case of an Indo-China war, it will come to India’s aid, not because it’s concerned about India but because, currently, no US President can afford to display a soft image towards China. Any softness shown towards China will cause serious electoral damage to such a party or politician. Once the US stands by India, Japan and Australia will follow suit. Currently China is going through various crises on fronts such as economy, food security, South China Sea etc.. No matter how unwise Xi Jinping is, he and his power coterie know fully well that a full scale clash with India will result in heightened activities in the South China Sea and that would cost China dearly because such a wide conflict will only exacerbate its internal problems. It was easy for China to suppress data regarding its massive defeat at Galwan but in case of a wider conflict, it will be difficult to suppress such data and that will lead to major internal turmoil inside China which could be the end of the road of Xi Jinping. A nuclear war is, more or less, out of the question because both countries know fully well that it would do irreparable damage to both sides. The Pakistani Military Establishment will not agree with any Chinese proposal for a 2 front war with India because that would invite the wrath of the US and Western countries which will be detrimental to the families and assets of the Establishment which are all parked in the west. At the most, they’ll bleed China for some money in order to keep sending terrorists into India. India’s biggest weakness is the presence of a significant number of liberal ‘intellectuals’ and politicians who have no problems in compromising national interests as long as they are paid well for it. The enthusiastic manner in which they congratulated the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on its centenary anniversary clearly reflected their opinion and line of thinking on China’s treacherous killing of 20 of our brave soldiers at Galwan. The only solution for this weakness is to set aside enough funds in order to extra-judicially terminate such ‘intellectuals’ and politicians.

Dhirender Gaur

Dec 18, 2021
Another great piece! Lt Gen Deependra Singh Hooda points to the deep distrust between two sides on the border. He rules out war, because neither country wants it— an unintended mistake could escalate into a local situation. Says Iqbal Chand Malhotra, author of Red Fear: The China Threat and producer-director of documentary, Chinese Checkers, Tibetan Ambivalence and Indian Delusions, “India and China have had nearly 24 rounds of border talks and signed five treaties with zero results or benefit for India. Surely that is enough diplomatic jaw-jaw?”


Dec 18, 2021
Very nice well researched article by Capt Sandeep ..


Dec 18, 2021
Appreciate your compilation of Indian ORBAT, from the open source I believe! Good way of sensitising young ppl who are interested in security threat from China. Nice way of continuing to add value! 👍🏽

Vinod Sivaraman

Dec 18, 2021
Well done again Sandeep. A good and quick analysis that highlights military points across the LAC. The Chinese would do well to reign it in on their aggro posturing and opt for mutually beneficial tactics instead, with focus on what they're really good at...assembly, facilitation and now even design and production of technologically soaked goods. A war with an unforgiving India that carries a chip on its shoulder from 60 years ago would set it back, in ways it may never recover from. Strategically the Chinese also suffer from a problem of posturing that runs the risk of a bluff being called. That might result in loss of many young lives, which the Chinese do not possess a surfeit of. India has a much greater capacity to absorb punishment in that rather dire arena. Technologically, I suspect India is on the ascendancy and especially after China unleashed the wuhan virus on the world and I'm guessing a lot of effected nations want payback.

Capt PK Misra

Dec 18, 2021
Very well researched and written article by Cdr Dhawan. We need to be cautious all the time. Regards

Srinath S

Dec 18, 2021
Well written. Enjoyed reading it.

satish pande

Dec 18, 2021
Excellent analysis, in my opinion Indian decision makers, are aware of the se situation and all the measures taken do far like becoming a member of QUAD but preventing it from becoming a military alliance, resulting in AUKUS without India, engaging with Russia and China point to a situation that the war with China is inevitable but who will fight it and where it will be fought. My ghussa is India wants it to be fought in SouthChina Sea over the issue of Taiwan or the sea-routes not in her own back yard, we seek a limited role of keeping the front live and if opportunity arises occupy Tibet.

LtCdr. PK Sinha

Dec 18, 2021
Sandeep a very nice and enlightening article, puts the whole issue in a clear perspective. One area where China can be very effective is the cyber capability. With the command and control capability being dependent on a strong cyber infrastructure, I think the Chinese have an upper hand. However the experience on ground, and motivational levels of forces being higher can to a large extent be the deciding factor in a conventional war.

K Sreenivas

Dec 18, 2021
Well written, good to see India's strength is equal or better. Hope the submarine strength is equally good. We need to continually increase the strength and capability as China is doing the same at a swift pace. Keep writing!

Vijay Nair

Dec 18, 2021
An excellent read as always. Well researched and confidently put across. While China & India have the second and third-highest military spends in the world, China spends four times more and has a much better indigenous production capability especially of ammunition and missiles. To my mind our biggest concern is the ability China has to induct reinforcements (personnel and systems) to the points of contact due to far better infrastructure in border areas. Our approach has to be a whole of Government approach and the earlier- the better. Your comparison is so well quantified but could also consider an intangible- the morale, grit and fighting prowess of the Indian soldier- unmatched and incomparable 👍

Raman Gupta

Dec 18, 2021
Strength isn't just the total number of assets, but affected by the factors you brought out here in detail.

Wendell Bruges

Dec 18, 2021
Very comprehensive and detailed analysis. Thank you so much for providing such details to a non-military guy like me in a very simple language. I wish you had put a few maps to show the location of these units, as you had promised in one of your tweets @InsightGL

Anurag Chandra

Dec 18, 2021
I always make it a point to read articles by Sandeep Dhawan. His articles explain the matter at hand in a concise and succinct manner. With no rhetoric, he lays the facts for all to analyse before going on to present his opinion in an understated manner. This article too is thought provoking for anyone with an interest in Geopolitics and Miltary thought

Arvind Tomar

Dec 18, 2021
Amazing Plz add naval comparison also

Cdr Deepak Singh

Dec 17, 2021
Good article as usual. Educating, because most don't have such details of force available. An eye opener for me atleast. China has one advantage. They produce themselves and spares won't be a big problem for them.

Raman Plakkot

Dec 17, 2021
An excellent outlook and a well analyzed viewpoint...


Dec 17, 2021
Fantastic comparison of contemporary issue...on the North & South of Himalayas... Time is ripe to rip apart the falsehood & establish the supremacy by the Bharat 🙏🇮🇳

Corpen Sierra

Dec 17, 2021
A comparison of the surface and subsurface naval assets along with space and EM weapons would give the probable perfect perspective to the crystal gazing with an 360 approach. Just a wild thought.

Gp Capt TR Ravi VM (Ret'd)

Dec 17, 2021
A fantastic comparison and summary which gives confidence that we indeed can take on Dragon China to a Stalemate. Thanks dear Sir, for this fantastic article.

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