Dragon’s Air Power over TAR

India should be worried about China’s efforts to build three new airports in Tibet

Prasun K. Sengupta

The 73-day Sino-Indian standoff at Doklam between 16 June and 28 August 2017 provided unique insights into the rapid response capabilities of People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) and PLA Air Force (PLAAF) formations commanded by China’s Western Theatre Command (WTC) and its subordinate Tibet Military District (TMD) and Xinjiang Military District (XMD) in the event of a future round of hostilities between China and India along the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

A PLAAF J-10C at the Shigatse-Heping airport

PLAAF Deployments

During the standoff, all PLAAF combat aircraft assets that were deployed to the dual-use airports of Ngari-Gunsa, Shigatse-Heping and Lhasa-Gonggar, hailed from the PLA WTC’s Ürümqi Base (formerly 37th Air Division) and its 109th Brigade at Kashi and Hotan, 110th Brigade at Ürümqi South (Wulumuqi), 111th Brigade at Korla-Xinjiang and Hotan, and 112th Brigade at Malan/Uxxaktal.

The 109th Brigade distributed between Kashi and Hotan is equipped with J-11A.B and Su-27SK/UBK heavy-MRCAs, while the 110th Brigade at Ürümqi South (Changji Wulumuqi) is equipped with J-8II interceptors and JH-7A bombers. The Korla-based 111th Brigade is equipped with J-10A medium-MRCAs of the 16th Air Regiment and 111th Air Regiment (located at both Kashi and Hotan), while the Malan/Uxxaktal-based 112th Air Brigade is equipped with J-8IIs. The Western Theatre Command’s Chongqing/Baishiyi-based 98th Air Regiment and 99th Air Regiment with Su-27SKs and Su-27UBKs, and the Yinchuan-based 16th Air Regiment with J-11As and J-11Bs did not send any aircraft into the Tibetan Plateau.

Located less than 80 miles from the LAC in Aksai Chin, the PLAAF’s Hotan airbase has seen larger deployments since 2013. Sixteen Chengdu J-10As arrived at the high-altitude airbase between June and September 2014, replacing a small flight of six Nanchang Q-5IIIC ground-attack aircraft. The J-10s remained at the airbase at least until February 2015, after which the airbase’s concrete surfaces were repaired and a new link-taxiway was added. An expanded terminal was also constructed on the civilian side, while a new fenced secured area complete with two aircraft shelters was added to the southeast.

In August 2015, a larger flight of 18 Q-5IIICs returned to the airbase. They were observed not far from two MALE-UAV primary satellite control antennae. By October 2015, overhead recce imagery captured a flight of 10 Shenyang J-11As to replace the Q-5IIICs. These expanded rotations involving the J-10As and J-11s began after the 6th China-India Strategic Dialogue, which took place in Beijing during April 2014. By late 2015 there were eight J-11s at Hoping, three at Hotan and 12 at Kashgar. By February 2016, the WTC began developing a joint operations framework after bringing in experts together from more than 100 military academies/schools to focus on a joint operations roadmap.

Overhead recce satellite imagery acquired during July and August 2017 showed up to eight J-10As parked on the apron at Shigatse-Heping. They arrived between March and April after at least five J-11As had departed. The J-10As were joined in late June by four Mi-171 medium-lift utility helicopters brought from the PLA Army Aviation’s Shule Baren helicopter base in Xinjiang. At least two of the four Mi-171s had stub-wings, suggesting that they could perform air-assault roles. By August 6, the first known deployment of an EA-03 Xianglong Soar Dragon HALE-UAV (FORCE December 2017) took place at Shigatse-Heping.

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