In March 2017, China opened an airport in Nyingchi, Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), only 30 kilometers from the Line of Actual control (LAC) with India. This is the second largest airport in TAR and is closer to LAC than any other airport in the region. While the airport terminal is meant for civil aviation, it is known that Chinese airports, especially those in TAR, are essentially ‘dual-use’ – meant for both civil and military use. As Xinhua had announced in 2015, China is carrying out an ‘integration’ of civil-military airports in order to ‘strengthen aviation safety and combat support capabilities’. This will include joint maintenance of airport support facilities, joint flight safety support and joint airport management. Incidentally, one of the first airports to implement the aforesaid ‘integration’ was the Lhasa Gonggar Airport in TAR, having completed the process in 2015 itself. It can therefore be said that Nyingchi airport gives the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) an additional operational base in TAR, and one that is right opposite the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh Overall, this development is in keeping with the recent increase in the tempo of PLAAF activities in TAR.
Rising PLAAF activities in TAR
In the early 2000s, with its airfields at an average height of 4,000 metres, PLAAF did not have any marked presence in TAR and refrained from permanent deployment. The two Air Divisions under the erstwhile Chengdu Military Region (MR) [Now merged with the Lanzhou MR to form the Western Theater Command] that had responsibility for TAR were located at bases outside TAR, and PLAAF used to deploy small detachments of four to six aircraft during good weather conditions for short periods. The deployments were usually of not more than two weeks in duration and were primarily to Lhasa Ghonggar airfield. This pattern continued till about late 2010. However, the situation started changing with an August 2010 exercise conducted by the PLAAF Logistics Department that sought to validate an enhancement in its operational capabilities by using the Qinghai-Tibet railway line for movement of ‘combat readiness materials’ to Tibet.
As such, both the size and deployment period of PLAAF detachments started increasing from 2011 onwards. Detachments of six to eight aircraft now began to be deployed to TAR for a period of three months. Also, deployments were now being made to two airfields at a time, reflecting increased PLAAF capabilities to conduct operations in TAR. It also helped that PLAAF had begun to operate newer combat types such as the J-10 and the J-11 that have much better hot and high capability than the J-7.
The year 2012 would see PLAAF carry out weapon firing trials at high altitude ranges in TAR for the first time in an integrated exercise- incidentally, the exercise involved ‘capture of passes in high altitude regions’. Winter operations were also carried out for the first time in 2012, and by 2014 PLAAF was conducting up to 1400 sorties out of TAR, a manifold increase as compared to the pre-2011 era. Presently, two regiments of 24 aircraft, made up of a mix of J-10s and J-11s, operate on a virtually permanent basis from TAR airfields.
In December 2012, on the sidelines of a major PLAAF exercise based out of an undisclosed airbase in Chengdu MR, Zhan Houshun, the then Chief Commanding Officer of the drill and Deputy Commander of the Military Command Air Force, stated that ‘there was only one runway for taking-off and landing at the airports of the PLAAF in the past, which could only support relatively few types of aircraft to simultaneously implement combat and training missions. But the airports with two runways for aircraft to take off and land at the same time can not only simultaneously support the flight of various types of active fighters, but also be used for the taking-off and landing of all types of domestic civil airplanes.’
This same perspective lies behind the dual-use identification of Chinese airports in TAR.
Giving out further details of China’s increased capabilities tested during that exercise, China Military Online asserted that the aircraft took-off and landed on the double-runway for 12 sorties within 10 minutes. It also said:
‘At the same time, more than 200 support vehicles of various types and hundreds of officers and men were making preparation before aircraft’s taking-off and carrying out maintenance after aircraft’s landing for various types of aircraft on the parking aprons on the east and west sides of the airport.’
Further underlining the apparently unprecedented nature of the effort at the time, the report went onto state:
‘The aircraft throughput per hour for the first drill was one third more than that at the airport in the past, and the peak throughput was even doubled, exceeding the aircraft throughput per hour at the civil airport with the same size, which was beyond the imagination of an old pilot with more than 20 years of flying experience like me.
Besides combat jets..
During the same PLAAF exercise, ground based air defences in the form of HQ-12 medium range surface to air missiles of the PLAAF’s Chengdu-based 11th Anti-Air Artillery (AAA) Brigade were also deployed. PLAAF has also been using military helicopters in TAR for patrolling purposes since at least 2013. The new Changhe Z-18 medium-lift helicopter has been tested for high altitude operations in TAR, making it only the second military helicopter in China’s inventory to operate out of the high-altitude Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Incidentally, a PLAAF Z-18 established a new altitude record in 2015, when it flew over Mount Everest at a height of 9000 metres above sea-level.
For aerial surveillance, PLAAF also has radar stations at Ganba La near Lhasa and Shigatse with the Air Defence Reporting Centre being co-located at Ganba La. In addition to this, PLA Ground Force (PLAGF) operates acquisition radars at Ngari and Qamdo Bangda Airports and a SIGINT station north of Bum La.
Should we expect more?
As we know, China has reorganized its erstwhile seven Military Regions(MR) into five Theatre Commands or Zones. As stated above, Chengdu MR has been merged with Lanzhou MR to form the Western Theatre Command which has under its ambit more than half of China’s land area, 22 percent of its population and more than a third of its land-based military forces. In May 2016, China also raised the status of Tibet Military Command (TMC), by putting it directly under the jurisdiction of PLAGF, a move, which according to a Chinese analyst quoted in Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece Global Times meant that ‘China continues to strengthen its military presence in the autonomous region and aims to allow the military command to shoulder more combat assignments’.
What these ‘combat assignments’ could be, has not been publicly clarified, but it is likely that increased PLAAF activity will accompany whatever they turn out to be.
Colonel Mandeep Singh(Retd) joined the Indian Army in December 1982 and was commissioned into Air Defence Artillery. He commanded an Air Defence Group during Operation Parakaram and also commanded his Regiment along the Line of Actual Control with China. Besides Regimental service, he has experience in several Staff appointments. He has written extensively on various in-service subjects and contributed to technical journals.
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