The Dragon’s Stealthy Moves

PLA’s Western Theatre Command has finally taken shape

Prasun K. Sengupta

Following the conduct of OP Bandar by the Indian Air Force (IAF) in the early hours of February 26 at Balakot in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) has been gradually ramping up its periodic deployments of combat aircraft within Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) of the type not witnessed before. For instance, two of the PLAAF’s Xian Aircraft Corp-built (XAC) H-6K bombers were deployed to Shigatse dual-use airport between March 2 and 12.

PLAAF H-6K bomber with AKD-20 air-launched cruise missiles

They were observed on the eastern alert ramp of the airport, along with a new rotation of CH-5 unmanned aerial systems (UAS). Although both the H-6K and CH-5 had been observed at Shigatse in 2016 during their field evaluation trials, this is the first time that extended operational deployments of these two platforms have been observed. The CH-5s have since replaced the Guizhou Aviation Industry Group-built EA-03 Xianglong high altitude long endurance (HALE) UAS that are now located at Yishuntun airbase in Jilin province near China’s borders with Russia, and at Lingshui air base in Hainan Island on the South China Sea.

Since 2011, the H-6Ks have been operational with the PLAAF’s 10th Bomber Division’s 28th Air Regiment of the Eastern Theatre Command at Anqing and the 22nd Air Regiment at Shaodong; the 8th Bomber Division’s 24th Air Regiment of the Southern Theatre Command at Leiyang; and the India-specific 36th Bomber Division’s 108th Air Regiment of the Central Theatre Command at Wugong (from where the two H-6Ks were sent to Shigatse).

All H-6Ks come armed with K/AKD-20/CJ-20 ‘Long Sword’ subsonic air-launched cruise missiles. XAC has also developed the H-6KH variant, which features two additional underwing pylons for KG-800 escort jamming pods. Satellite imagery of the XAC airfield in Yanliang, China, shows an H-6KH with unidentified pods and a belly-mounted KD-63 data-link pod. A new variant of the Xian Aircraft Corporation (XAC) H-6K long-range bomber has entered service with the PLA Navy Air Force (PLANAF). This variant (known as H-6N, which made its maiden flight last December) is equipped with a nose-mounted fixed aerial refuelling probe. All H-6Ks feature lightweight composites, new fuel-efficient D-30-KP2 turbofans, advanced mission avionics (like a nose-mounted search radar and chin-mounted optronic sensor), and a full glass cockpit.

China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp’s Caihong 5 (CH-5), or Rainbow 5 medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) UAS, has an endurance of 60 hours and its range is in excess of 10,000km. Powered by a 330hp heavy-fuel engine (HFE), the UAS has a service ceiling of 30,000 feet (7,000 metres). Heavy-fuel is denser and contains more energy than regular petrol, which translates into greater endurance and range for aircraft limited in their fuel volume. The CH-5’s maiden flight was conducted in Gansu province, China in August 2015. The flight lasted for about 20 minutes. A prototype of the new UAS was publicly displayed for the first time in November 2016. The CH-5 has a wingspan of 21 metres and can carry a payload of up to 1,200kg. Overall, the CH-5 can carry up to 16 air-to-ground weapons, including Lan Jian-7 (Blue Arrow-7) laser-guided air-to-surface missiles, TG-100 laser/INS/GPS-guided missiles, and AR-1/HJ-10 anti-armour guided-missiles. The CH-5s at Shigatse were flown from the PLAAF’s Uxxaktl air base in Xinjiang, while an additional detachment is located at Asku/Wensu air base of the Western Theatre Command.

The two KJ-500 airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) platforms deployed to the dual-use Lhasa-Gonggar Airport since mid-2017 hail from the PLAAF’s 26th Special Missions Aircraft Division’s 76th Regiment at Wuxi/Shuofang air base. The only other combat-support platforms of the PLAAF that have yet to be deployed to TAR are the Y-9JB ELINT and Y-9G EW platforms that are operated by the PLAAF’s 20th Air Division’s 58th EW Regiment at Guiyang/Leizhuang and Jiaxing air bases, and the 59th EW Regiment at Zunyi/Xinzhou air base.

In another development, the PLA Rocket Force has expedited the commissioning of permanent ballistic missile bases in both Sichuan and Yunnan provinces that lie alongside India’s Northeastern states. For instance, a base housing DF-16 tactical ballistic missiles has come up 15km east of Yibin town in Sichuan province. Its construction began four years ago and it presently hosts eight missile storage garages, with six of them being interconnected. Yet another facility houses the 622 Missile Brigade in Yuxi in Yunnan province, to add to the 626 Brigade in the same province. Yunnan is also home to the CJ-10 ground-launched cruise missile Brigade in Jianshui.

The above-detailed deployments can be contextualised only after analysing the respective threat perceptions of both China and India along the LAC. While those pertaining to the eastern sector have already been detailed (see FORCE August 2019, pages 34-43), there have been significant developments in the western sector since 2005, which are worthy of being highlighted.


Threat Perceptions

In early February 2009, the then Indian defence minister, A.K. Antony issued a classified formal directive to the Chiefs of Staff Committee: prepare for a ‘two-front’ war. Consequently, in mid-2009, the Indian Army’s HQ Northern Command carried out a series of war games — codenamed ‘EX Divine Matrix’ — aimed at analyzing the PLA’s threats to Ladakh. These war-games were based on inferences drawn from the PLA’s 2004-2005 series of exercises east of Ladakh. India’s HQ Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) subsequently made an assessment of how the PLA would fight India in case of a war in a 144-page document called ‘PLA War Zone Campaign’ doctrine. According to the PLA’s appreciation, there are two routes to Aksai Chin, of which the major and easier route is through India’s sub-sector north (SSN).

The other route, called Hot Spring, is via Ladakh’s Panggong-Tso Lake. The lake, spreading 135km in length and 5km in breadth and 210 metres in depth, has 90km of its length under China’s control and the remaining 45km in India. Located at a height of 14,500 feet, the lake is exactly at the Line of Actual Control (LAC). In order to open the SSN route, the control of Daulat Beg Oldie is required. The PLA’s war-game plan of 2004 showed Beijing’s perception of how the Indian Army would move its mechanised infantry and armoured elements while launching an offensive from SSN. China’s fears of an Indian military incursion further increased when the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) started building a 255km-long road to SSN, thus giving easy access to the area from Leh. Called the Darbuk-Tangtse Road, it skirts the Panggong-Tso Lake and goes up to Daulat Beg Oldie and is slated for commissioning by 2022.

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