A satellite image from May 2020 showed combat jets on an existing aircraft apron. An image from May this year showed a new runway and a new apron under construction, at least 30 new hardened aircraft shelters, and new support buildings.
Satellite imagery from recent years has shown the construction of underground facilities south of the Lhasa airfield, as well as a radar and electronic warfare unit and an air defence unit.
The developments observed at these three airfields and others along the border region clearly indicate “China’s strategic intention to bolster its military capabilities and offset India’s advantages in the area”, said Damien Symon, geo-intelligence researcher at The Intel Lab.
“The ongoing construction activities, along with significant and diverse deployments at these sites, including the use of UAVs and advanced aircraft, underscore China’s efforts to enhance its offensive capabilities, especially in light of the active border situation with India,” he said.
“It is crucial to recognise these developments fundamentally transform the dynamics of air warfare, extending China’s operational range and presenting challenges to India’s deterrence strategies,” Symon added.
Air Vice Marshal (retired) Manmohan Bahadur, an aviator who served in the Ladakh region, said the Chinese side has used the past three years to find ways to counter the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) comparative advantages in the region.
“The IAF could carry the war to them because of these advantages. Most of the Indian airbases are along the foothills and the aircraft could take off with larger [weapons] payload,” Bahadur said.
Lt Gen (retired) Rakesh Sharma, former commander of the Ladakh corps responsible for Kargil, Siachen glacier and eastern Ladakh, said many Chinese airfields across the LAC initially didn’t have hardened aircraft shelters, long runways or ammunition storage facilities.
“They have got over this problem. Their runways are longer, the aircraft are safe and can take off with heavier payloads,” Sharma said.
“This is all part of a planned move. There are reports that the Chinese side has positioned a substantial number of cruise missiles in this area that can be used against targets up to 2,000 km away,” he added.
Bahadur said China has created a large number of airfields along the LAC, from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh, plugging the gaps which existed between military airbases. “This also leads to an improvement in their redundancy factor,” he said, referring to the capability of having more airfields to take over in the event any airbase is knocked out in an enemy attack.
Both Bahadur and Sharma described the construction of hardened shelters as a significant development. “Earlier, the number of hardened shelters was literally zero. They have also set up radar and surface-to-air missiles systems, increasing the risks for the IAF to go [across],” Bahadur said.
Sim Tack, geo-intelligence analyst at Force Analysis, said hardened shelters at each airbase may impact India’s efforts to deter or defend against Chinese air power. “Not only do these shelters provide survivability to Chinese aircraft deployed within range of disputed territories, increasing the complexity of strikes against them, but another important consequence is that they help obscure the actual presence of fighters. By storing fighter aircraft under cover, China is able to better conceal its deployments, or lack thereof, to these forward airbases,” he said.
This can result in India expending additional resources to assess Chinese air power in the region, he added.
The Indian side, Bahadur said, depended on “deterrence by punishment” and the new and expanded airfields and air defence capabilities would dilute this capability.
The Chinese facilities, Sharma said, have changed the character of air warfare in the region. “From Kashgar [in Xinjiang], Chinese jets can overfly Gilgit-Baltistan and Srinagar is in range. The airfields in Tibet Autonomous Region are a bonus that have taken away a portion of India’s advantage,” he added.
India and China have been unable to resolve all friction points in Ladakh sector of the LAC despite more than two dozen rounds of military and diplomatic talks, and external affairs minister S Jaishankar has insisted that bilateral ties cannot be normalised without peace and tranquillity on the border.
Source- Hindustan Times.