Fangs of the Dragon

Long range artillery accretions opposite Ladakh

Prasun K. Sengupta

In the third year of the on-going military stand-off between India and China along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh Union Territory, the People’s Liberation Army Ground Forces (PLAGF) are constructing heliports under the PLA Western Theatre Command’s South Xinjiang Military District and the Tibet Military District (TMD). these heliportst will also house underground munitions storage deports containing both medium tube artillery and long-range rocket artillery multi-barrel rocket launchers (MBRL).


It may be recalled that between March and April 2020, the PLAGF’s medium tube artillery regiments and long-range MBRLs had been stored in areas adjacent to the PLAGF heliport at Shiquanhe opposite Ladakh. Later on, they were forward deployed to locations at Rutog (facing Pangong Tso Lake and Chushul), Zhaxigangxiang (facing the Depsang Plains), and at Zanda County facing both Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand.

In addition, by August 2020 construction of two heliports meant for air-maintenance of the PLAGF’s on-site garrisons in the Hot Springs and Pangong Tso Lake areas Had begun. Located north of Hot Springs and 155km east of Pangong Tso Lake, these heliports have underground munitions storage depots in their immediate vicinity. In addition, the PLAGF has been constructing a heliport in Tianwendian, east of the Daulat Beg Oldie ALG. Survey work for this heliport had commenced in August 2019 and civil engineering works began in October the same year. The heliport is at an altitude of 16,700 feet and is likely to have a 1,000 metres long runway. A taxiway-cum-apron in semi-circular inverted-D shape has been constructed, along with a 600-metre apron parallel to the runway. Eight large areas are being prepared for construction of possibly 24 hangars around the taxiway. China is also making efforts to harden the heliport by building an underground command-and-control centre, work on which began in August 2020.

Altogether, eight such heliports are now either under construction or already operational throughout South Xinjiang and the Tibet Autonomous Region. These include the ones at Gesha, Gerze, Nyima, Pishan, Rutog, Seni and Tianwendian. In addition, under the Tibet TMD, Lhasa in Tibet has the Liuwuxiang heliport that was commissioned in 2017, the Shiquanhe heliport at Ngari, the Nyingchi heliport north of Arunachal Pradesh, and the Shigatse heliport. The PLAGF’s 84th Army Aviation Brigade is located at Wujiaqu, Xinjiang, while the 76th Aviation Brigade is now at Golmud, the 77th Army Aviation Brigade is at Nyingchi and the 85th Army Aviation Brigade of TMD is at Liuwuxiang. Each such Aviation Brigade has eight Groups, with 12 helicopters in each Group.

On May 8 this year, the PLAGF deployed several mounted gun systems (MGS) to the Western Theatre Command’s Rutog Military Garrison at Rutog County, Ngari Prefecture. At the same time, WZ-10 attack helicopters of the PLAGF’s 84th Army Aviation Brigade from Wujiaqu began deploying to Pishan County’s heliport from where the WZ-10s conducted live-firing drills on June 22 over the hinterlands of Karakoram Range at Zaidullah (in Pishan County by the north bank of the Karakash River) in Hotan Prefecture, Xinjiang, in late May. The WZ-10s are presently at the PLAGF heliport at Rutog. The presence of such heliports and adjacent underground munitions storage bases will enable the PLAGF to rapidly deploy to those areas that China claims to be its own beyond the LAC, thereby seizing the initiative and taking advantage of the element of surprise. Consequently, the on-going disengagement of forces does in no way reduce the military threat from the PLAGF of physical occupation of territory along the LAC at any future date.

The first underground munitions storage depot was commissioned in early May 2021 alongside the Tianwendian heliport, and it a composite artillery battalion of a medium combined-arms brigade equipped with 300mm PHL-03/AR-2 MBRLs, 122mm Type-81 122mm MBRLs, 122mm PCL-161 and 122mm PCL-171 mounted gun systems (MGS), and 155mm PCL-181 MGS. Due for service-entry later this year is the AR-3/PHL-16/PCL-191 MBRL, which is presently being subjected to test-firings over high-altitude plateau-like terrain at a firing range near Korla, Xinjiang. The complete eight wheeled AR-3/PHL-16/PCL-191 launcher weighs 45 tonnes and has a cruising range of 650km on roads. It can be fitted with two pods each of four 370mm rockets, or two pods each of five 300mm rockets. These can be a mix of guided and unguided rockets. There are at least three types of 300mm unguided rockets: BRC3 with a maximum range of 70km and fitted with a cargo warhead; BRC4 with a maximum range of 130km and a cargo warhead; and BRE2 with a maximum range of 130km and fitted with a high-explosive warhead. The BRE3 (or FD140A) is a 300mm guided rocket with a maximum range of 130km.

There are two 370mm guided rocket options, the BRE6 (FD220) with a maximum range of 220km and the BRE8 (FD280), with a maximum range of 280km. A 30-metre circular error of probability is claimed for these weapons. The FD in the designation means ‘Fire Dragon’, with the figure denoting the maximum range. This family of rockets allows the AR-3/PHL-16/PCL-191 to engage targets at a range of up to 360km. The MBRL can also fire surface-to-surface battlefield-support missiles (SS-BSM) like the 750mm Fire Dragon-280A (290km-range missile, armed with a 480kg warhead), 750mm Fire Dragon-480 (360km-range missile with 480kg warhead) and 610mm King Dragon-380 (300km-range with 300kg warhead).


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