China arrays aerial firepower along Indian border

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ANI special feature

TENSIONS between China and India along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), which boiled over into a deadly melee on June 15, have seen armies on both sides building up their strength in the Ladakh/Aksai Chin sector. Airpower is an important consideration in case of any potential military confrontation, and China has certainly increased its air activity near the LAC.

Overall, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) has focused on building ground-based air defense networks and network-centric operations rather than trying to match the Indian Air Force (IAF) in terms of straight fighter numbers along the border. All air assets fall under the Western Theater Command of the PLA, the largest geographic region of China’s five military theater commands.

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Andreas Rupprecht, author of Flashpoint China: Chinese Air Power and Regional Security, wrote, “At first sight, the military importance of this [Western Theater] command might appear limited, since it covers the most sparsely populated parts of China … However, its main importance lies in its proximity to the disputed border with India.”

Rupprecht continued, “Bearing in mind this tense situation, one might expect numerous bases close to India. However, due to its mountainous terrain and difficult weather conditions, the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) area features barely any permanent major PLAAF bases. Nevertheless, China has established a dense airport network within the TAR, as well as a series of forward operating bases that could be used in a conflict.” 

The PLAAF is thus at a numerical disadvantage to the IAF along the border, faced with daunting climatic and high-altitude challenges. A report published by the BelferCenter at the Harvard Kennedy School estimated there were 157 Chinese fighters and armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) in the Western Theater Command, although some are earmarked for Russia-directed missions. It listed 101 fourth-generation PLAAF fighters available against 122 comparable Indian fighters.

The report’s authors, Frank O’Donnell and Alexander K Bollfrass, counted eight Chinese airbases and airfields (a good portion are dual-use civil-military airports) that are relevant to strike missions against India. Yet PLA aircraft operating from the Tibetan Plateau can only carry half their designed weapon and fuel payloads, for instance, and the PLAAF has only about 15 air-to-air tankers available nationally.

Rupprecht added, “Although no frontline PLAAF elements are permanently based here, regular rotational deployments to the TAR are an important part of training doctrine, and these units usually come from the former Chengdu Military Region. This means that, in the case of a war, combat aircraft would first have to be deployed to the area, probably in coordination with a large-scale deployment of PLA ground forces with the help of the PLAAF’s transport aircraft as well as civilian airliners.”

O’Donnell and Bollfrass assessed, “In any India-China conflict, the PLA cannot launch an attack without the support of the PLAAF. To address its force shortfalls in the event of war, China could surge air and ground forces from its interior toward the border. However, what our analysis suggests is that the IAF’s superiority would mean that critical logistical routes – such as airbases and military road and rail links – could be cut by bombing or standoff missile strikes, limiting the extent to which China’s position could be reinforced. Such a Chinese surge would also attract attention from the United States, which would alert India and enable it to counter-mobilise its own additional forces from its interior.”

In fact, the PLAAF regards the IAF as an offensive arm, especially as it can rapidly deploy to conflict zones and be operational with little advance warning. Yet China would be forced to concentrate its aircraft in just a handful of airports, increasing risk in time of war. Furthermore, Indian pilots have more experience in high-altitude operations, including in combat.

On the other hand, China’s strengths over India are its overall air force size (more than 2,000 combat aircraft), its possession of long-range bombers and strategic assets such as airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft and UAVs. Although the PLAAF’s strategic airlifters are relatively few in number, the PLA certainly has an advantage in terms of air defense.

Which, then, are the most important Chinese airbases for operations near Aksai Chin and the Indian border?

Hotan and Ngari-Gunsa are the closest to Ladakh, but also relevant are Lhasa/Gonggar and Shigatse in Tibet. However, Tibetan airfields are vulnerable to Indian strikes, with no hardened shelters at Ngari-Gunsa or Shigatse. Lhasa now has hardened shelters for up to 36 fighters, with only two believed to exist at Hotan. If these airfields were put out of action in a conflict, the PLAAF would have to operate from bases much farther inland with corresponding payload/fuel burdens. The PLAAF has little redundancy to fall back on, making it weaker than the IAF in terms of regional airstrip infrastructure.

We may look more closely at each of these four airports in turn. Beginning with Hotan, about 600km from Ladakh and situated at an altitude of 4,672 feet, a report by the China Aerospace Studies Institute, a wing of the USAF, stated that the PLAAF typically holds twelve J-11 fighters there alongside CH-4 UAVs and an air defense battalion. Actually, Hotan does not have permanent units, but it regularly hosts detachments of J-11, J-8 and J-7 fighters, as well as AEW aircraft and UAVs up to regiment in size.

Satellite imagery dated 14 June revealed that the PLAAF had deployed an extra 24 aircraft to Hotan, although it is unclear when exactly they arrived. Present were an additional 12 J-11s (or J-16s) and six J-8 fighters, two Y-8 aircraft (possibly Y-8G electronic intelligence variants), two KJ-500 AEW aircraft and two Mi-17/171 helicopters.

A report by the China Aerospace Studies Institute, a branch of the US Air Force, noted, “This mix of aircraft provides the PLAAF with a wide range of capabilities should tensions escalate. PLAAF aircraft currently in theaterare capable of conducting defensive and offensive counter-air missions as well as limited ground attack missions. The various special mission aircraft and UAVs also provide ample electronic warfare as well as intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities for both air and ground forces.”

Hotan also hosts a division-level command post that allows the PLAAF to command and control air operations in the theater from there. This same report assessed: “Thus, despite Hotan’s remote location, there is already an on-scene command element present to oversee local operations. The PLAAF is now prepared for a wide range of contingencies, regardless of the probability of escalation along the Sino-Indian border. This preparation is borne from a reality that any escalation between India and China may not necessarily be restricted to the mountain passes of the LAC. PLAAF forces in theater may already be providing local PLA ground forces with airborne ISR and are almost certainly acting as a quiet conventional deterrence force looming in the background.”