China’s Unceasing Build-Up

Besides operationalising three new brigades, it has built underground facilities with missile systems

Prasun K. Sengupta

As part of its continuing force accretions in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), the People’s Liberation Army Ground Forces (PLAGF) had begun operationalising three new medium combined armed brigades (CAB) that will come under the command and control of the PLA’s Western Theatre Command’s Tibet Military District (TMD), while the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) has expedited the construction of two greenfield dual-use airports that will enable it to house more than 120 multi-role combat aircraft (MRCA) of various types within TAR.

New PLAGF medium CAB HQ in Gyantse
New PLAGF medium CAB HQ in Gyantse

Previously, the TMD had under its jurisdiction five combat formations, which included:

  • 52 Mountain Brigade (located at Bayi village, Linzhi County) or Unit-77675, comprising an artillery regiment (located at Nixi, Bayi village, Linzhi County) or Unit-77678; 1st Battalion (Bujiu village, Linzhi County); 2nd Battalion (Yongjiu village, Linzhi County); 3rd Battalion (Yongjiu village, Linzhi County); and the 4th Battalion (Bujiu village, Linzhi County).
  • 53 Mountain Brigade (Linzhi City, Milin County) or Unit-77680, comprising an artillery regiment (Jiage village, Linzhi City, Milin County) or Unit-77683; 1st Battalion (Wolong village, Linzhi City, Milin County); 2nd Battalion (Gangga village, Linzhi County); 3rd Battalion (Linzhi County); and the 4th Battalion (Wolong village, Linzhi City, Milin County).
  • 54 Armoured Brigade (Lhasa City, Duilongdeqing County) or Unit-77625, comprising an artillery regiment operating PCL-09 22.5-tonne 122mm motorised howitzers, three mechanised infantry battalions equipped with ZBD-04 tracked infantry combat vehicles (ICV); medium battle tank battalion using Type-96As; and a chemical warfare battalion.
  • 308 Independent Artillery Brigade, armed with PCL-181 155mm 52-cal motorised howitzers, which was raised in the latter half of 2017 at Linzhi.
  • 651 Independent Anti-Aircraft Artillery Brigade at Bayi Nyingchi.

The latest brigade-sized combat formation raised is Unit 77626, which is located at Gyantse County, Shigatse Prefecture and was operationalised on December 25. The construction of barracks for the brigade HQ had begun in the latter half of 2020 and is located 100 km north of Sikkim. Earlier on December 15, this new medium CAB began receiving its ZTQ-105 light battle tanks and ZBD-04A tracked ICVs that arrived by rail at the Yangbajain railway yard at Damxung County, located north of Lhasa.

PLAGF armoured vehicles arriving at Yangbajain railway yard

Last November, the PLAGF had commissioned into service an underground facility (UGF) south of Lhasa, near Xianzu Island, for housing both tube and rocket artillery hardware. Concurrently, at both Gyantse and Shannan counties, the PLAGF has constructed UGFs meant for housing tactical ballistic missiles and surface-to-surface battlefield support missiles (SS-BSM), whose principal targets are likely located in Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. Located adjacent to such UGFs are permanent long-range surface-to-air missile (LR-SAM) deployment sites.

The PLAAF, in addition to expanding its air base infrastructure at existing airports in Lhasa-Gonggar, Shigatse, Gar Gunsa and Bangda (which collectively can presently house about 60 MRCAs, will next year begin operating from brand-new air bases being built within two new airports that are now coming up at Tingri, north of Nepal, and at Lhunze. Both these air bases will have co-located LR-SAM sites. In addition, the air bases at Lhasa-Gonggar, Shigatse and Lhunze will in future have hardened hangars capable of housing the airborne early warning variant of the Shenyang Divine Eagle high-altitude long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicles.

WZ-9 Divine Eagle AEW HALE-UAV-2
WZ-9 Divine Eagle AEW HALE-UAV-2

In a related development, the PLA Rocket Forces (PLARF) from its Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre (a space vehicle launch facility located in the Gobi Desert, Inner Mongolia) for the very first time conducted a ballistic missile test on November 21, whose impact area was located in northeastern Aksai Chin. It is believed that the missile was a DF-27 intermediate-range ballistic missile armed with a hypersonic glide vehicle. It was perhaps as a riposte that a tweet appeared on the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) Twitter handle on December 9 that announced that ISRO along with India’s HQ Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) had jointly conducted trials of a hypersonic vehicle, claiming that such trials had achieved all required parameters and demonstrated hypersonic vehicle capability.

The only known hypersonic vehicle being developed by ISRO is the Scramjet Research Vehicle, previously known as the Hypersonic Air Breathing Vehicle with Air frame integrated system. It is a lifting body hypersonic vehicle integrated with a scramjet engine, which is boosted by an ADMIRE booster to an altitude of 44 km and then glides down to 25 km altitude at a speed of Mach 6.



PLAGF artillery storage base near Xianzu Island near Lhasa
PLAGF artillery storage base near Xianzu Island near Lhasa



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