China continues to expand its ground-based combat-support infrastructure in both XUAR and TAR
Prasun K. Sengupta
Contrary to the present-day widespread belief that China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has since 2017 been expanding its ground-based combat-support infrastructure in both the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR) and Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), in reality such efforts have been underway in a sustained manner since 2002 itself, and which began acquiring greater momentum since 2010.
In particular, both the PLA Ground Forces (PLAGF) and the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) have been singularly focussed on the acquisition of airpower-related capabilities and capacities, which had been highlighted by this author in the past (FORCE November 2016 issue, pages 17-21; September 2017 issue, pages 8-11; and September 2019 issue, pages 30-33).
Since the early part of the previous decade, the PLAGF and PLAAF have built six major dual-use logistics support nodes at Linzhi, Ngari, Qiama, Rutog, Seni Nagqu and Yaophu, all of them within TAR and which host storage facilities for both ammunition stockpiles and petroleum, oil and lubricants (POL) required by the Tibet Military District (TMD). Within the XUAR, similar facilities were built at Urumqi and Kasghar, with their supporting forward administrative bases being built at Moldo Spanggur Tso, Tianshuihai and Demchok to the east of Ladakh.
Now an underground, hardened ammunition storage facility at Tianshuihai is being built, which will resemble the South Xinjiang Military District’s ammunition storage facility at Urumqi. Also, in the previous decade dedicated combined-arms training bases and field-firing ranges were constructed; ones located at Lhari to the south of the Nyenchen Tanglha mountain range north of Arunachal Pradesh serving TAR while the Saitulla training base in Pishan County by the north bank of the Karakash River and the firing range at the base of the Tangulla mountain range (at an altitude of 5,000 metres/16,404 feet) within the Nagqu Prefecture in central TAR catering to the formations coming under the command of the South Xinjiang Military District.
New Dual-Use Airports and Heliports
It was in 2018 that Beijing began building what is perhaps TAR’s first dedicated air base (with a 3km-long runway) at the site of the old Damxung Airport in the Damxung County of Lhasa. Built in 1955, the Damxung Airport was the world’s highest airport at that time. In addition, work has begun on constructing the Lhunze Airport in Lhoka (Shannan Prefecture) at an altitude of 3,700m/12,139ft), north of the Upper Subansiri and Tawang districts of Arunachal Pradesh. Another airport is coming up at Purang (4,755m/ 13,205 ft) near the trijunction of Nepal-Tibet-India, north of India’s Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand state.
And yet another airport (4,480m/14,700ft) is being built between the Tingri and Lhatse counties, north of Zangmu, the border post with Nepal. Back in the latter half of 2017, the PLAAF began expanding its permanent presence at the existing dual-use Lhasa-Gonggar Airport (3,570m/ 11,713 ft), Ngari Gunsa Airport 4,274m/ 14,022ft) and Shigatse Airport (3,782m/12,408 ft) by constructing new aprons, tarmacs and parking bays for Mi-171E and Z-8G medium-lift utility helicopters, ZW-10 attack helicopters, CH-5 and EA-03 medium-altitude long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicles (MALE-UAV) and KJ-500 airborne early warning and control platforms.
However, only Lhasa-Gonggar and Shigatse are now getting up to 24 hardened aircraft shelters each for housing the PLAAF’s J-10 and J-11 family of multi-role combat aircraft. In the XUAR, however, the PLAAF has decided to base its bomber assets like the JH-7A and H-6K platforms at a new air base (work on building it began in October 2019) in Keriya, 170km away from the existing Hotan air base in southeast Xinjiang, while work on expanding and upgrading the Hotan air base itself (4,672ft/ 1,424m) had begun in 2018.
Last May, construction of two heliports meant for air maintenance of the PLAGF’s on-site garrisons in the Hot Springs and Pangong Tso Lake areas got underway. Located north of Hot Springs and 155km east of Pangong Tso Lake, they will be similar in design to the two heliports that were built in the 2017-2018 period in the North Doklam area in the eastern sector. These heliports will be used by the 76th Aviation Brigade of the PLAGF, which conducted daylight tactical penetration exercise on June 22 in the Kunlun mountain range in southern Xinjiang. This Aviation Brigade has eight Groups, with 12 helicopters in each Group.
Helicopters in use are the Mi-171E and Z-8G utility helicopters, and the Z-9WZ and the ZW-10 attack helicopters. The Aviation Brigade is headquartered at Xinjiang’s Wujiaqu heliport, under which come the forward bases comprising the Shule/Baren heliport, Shuimogoucun heliport, Tashkurgan heliport and the latest Pishan County heliport in Hotan Prefecture. The presence of such heliports will enable the PLAGF in future to rapidly deploy to those areas in Ladakh that China claims to be its own, thereby seizing the initiative and taking advantage of the element of surprise. In addition, under the TMD, there is the Lhasa-based Liuwuxiang heliport that was commissioned in 2017, the Shiquanhe heliport at Ngari, and the Nyingchi heliport above Arunachal Pradesh while Shigatse Airport too now has a heliport that was built in 2017.
For according hierarchical, layered and in-depth air-defence protection to such ground-based infrastructure, a number of permanent surface-to-air missile (SAM) emplacements have been commissioned near Lake Mansarovar, Lhasa-Gonggar Airport, Shigatse Airport, Ngari-Gunsa Airport, at Pagri northeast of Yadong and at Mainling and Lhunze above Arunachal Pradesh. Weapons deployed at these sites comprise the PLAAF-operated HQ-9 LR-SAM, HQ-22 MR-SAM and HQ-17 SHORADS Regiments, and the PLAGF-operated HQ-16/LY-80 MR-SAMs and HQ-7 SHORADS. These SAM sites are positioned in such a way so as to serve as airspace denial assets against intruding interdictor/strike aircraft of the Indian Air Force (IAF) that are likely to employ terrain-masking flight-profiles while flying out of Ambala or Gorakhpur and cruising through the Lahaul and Spiti valleys of Himachal Pradesh and the China-India-Nepal trijunction towards Ngari and Shigatse, and while flying out of Hasimara in northern West Bengal via the Chumbi Valley towards Lhasa-Gonggar.
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