|Russian Tupolev Tu-160 White Swan Strategic Bomber|For nearly six decades after Independence, the major threat to India’s security came from Pakistan, with four wars being fought between the two countries. But over the past two decades, Pakistan’s conventional threat to India has diminished. The country’s continuing economic degeneration forced its generals to focus on low-cost terror warfare, than conventional war. Although Pakistan owns nuclear weapons, those are now more to act as a deterrent rather than for offensive use, since any such misadventure could lead to the erasure of Pakistan from the world map. But that’s not why Pakistan continues to be a danger to India’s security. Pakistan is now a de facto vassal of China, leasing vast tracts of land to Beijing for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and the Pakistani establishment now has reduced itself to threatening India with a ‘China card’. And while Pakistan’s conventional military might continues to be formidable, its security situation has been compromised with the return of Taliban rule in Afghanistan. The Pakistani Army, which hoped for its western neighbour to become its ‘strategic depth’, now faces a potential foe. To that extent, the Pakistani army’s problems have multiplied, and it cannot risk a conventional war with India, leave alone an unthinkable nuclear exchange. That leaves China as the main military threat to India, given the intractable border dispute between the two, not to speak of an unspoken battle between the two Asian giants over Beijing’s efforts to assert predominance in Asia.
But, The Dragon Is Roaring In The North
India and China have had a difficult relationship, mainly because of the intractable border dispute in the Himalayas. China contests the McMahon Line drawn by the British being the border with India and continues to occupy Aksai Chin, a region India claims is part of Kashmir, and therefore belongs to it. The unresolved border dispute has not prevented the two countries from having burgeoning trade, but the political rivalry is sharpening. China, which views the US as its main threat, perceives India’s increasing engagement with the West and its participation in the US-led Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, as an additional threat. In the recent past, China has increased the militarisation of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) which forms the de facto border in the Himalayas, building infrastructure including roads that enable the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to move armour right up to the border, airfields in Tibet and in Ladakh as well as in the eastern sector that can be used by heavy military aircraft. In other words, China is preparing itself for a conflict, when and if it arises. China also has the Xian HS-6K strategic bomber, and one of them was reported to have flown in the Ladakh area during the Galwan Valley clash in June 2020. It could have been a move to test India’s air defences in the sector or could have been a definite move to station a few of them in the Xinjiang-Xizhang Military Region, China’s euphemism for the Xinjiang-Tibet military sector. It is these developments that seem to have finally persuaded Delhi to go in for a strategic bomber option. India’s defence planners, logically, assume that the scenario of the next conflict with China could have unforeseen consequences – including an intensification that could call for deep strikes into Chinese territory. That is where the Tu-160 strategic bomber, which India is likely to lease or purchase from Russia, comes in. The ‘White Swan’ as it is called by the Russians, and ‘Blackjack’ by NATO, can carry battle loads of 40 tonnes, including nuclear weapons, if needed.
But, There Are Still Doubts On Tu-160’s Usability
There are various arguments for and against the acquisition of the Tu-160 bombers from Russia. One school of thought is that strategic bombers are a relic of the Cold War past and do not offer a military edge to India and that they offer a large radar signature and could be intercepted or interdicted in flight. The critics also argue that the cost of acquisition and maintenance of these giant aircraft is not worth it. The opponents of that theory argue that the Tu-160s are a strategic asset that fill the gap in India’s offensive capability matrix. They could be a deterrent that was much needed. But India’s acquisition of Tu-160s from Russia, with which both India and China have close relations, should give China food for thought. China is aware of India’s nuclear inventory, as also the conventional might. The incorporation of Tu-160 heavy bombers should make the war planners in Beijing pause before they make an aggressive move against India. To put it in a nutshell, the White Swans will offer India insurance against any Black Swan moment vis-à-vis China.