On a Building Spree

PLA strengthens its facilities in the Tibet Autonomous Region

Prasun K. Sengupta

China’s President Xi Jinping, also General Secretary of the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) Central Committee and Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), on 4 January 2021 signed the first order of the CMC for 2021, this being the mobilisation orders for the projected training exercises of the People’s Liberation Army’s ground forces (PLAGF), navy (PLAN) and air force (PLAAF) and for the People’s Armed Police (PAP) that are planned for this year.

China’s ZTQ-105 Main Battle Tank

To commemorate this event, a grand show of force was staged by the Western Theatre Command’s (WTC) Tibet Military District (TMD) at Hanbo in Lhasa, which included a display of the TMD’s warfighting assets, as well as a flypast over Lhasa by the newly service-inducted Z-20 medium-lift helicopters. And while the PLAAF has over the past two years accelerated the deployment of HQ-22 MR-SAMs and HQ-17 SHORADS in both the Tibet and Xinjiang military districts, the PLAGF has begun service-inducting the LY-80 MR-SAM in greater numbers.

Altogether, there are now 12 PLAAF-operated surface-to-air missiles sites in the Tibetan plateau facing the Line of Actual Control (LAC), including the new ones now coming up at Pagri, Nariyong (north of Bum La), Shigatse, Lake Mansarovar, Lhasa-Gonggar, Linzhi, and Bangda. These sites can house both HQ-9 LR-SAMs and HQ-22 MR-SAMs of the PLAAF, or LY-80/HQ-16 MR-SAMs of the PLAGF. 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. Opposite Ladakh, the PLAAF has operationalized a JY-27A VHF radar station (built in 2019 near Panggong Tso east of Rutog town), as well as another radar station at Zhongba, this belonging to the PLAAF’s 29 Radar Brigade. The PLAAF’s 6 Air-Defence Brigade’s 122 Battalion is located at Lhasa-Gonggar and the 125 Battalion at Shigatse. On the other hand, the PLAGF has deployed its 85 Air-Defence Brigade with HQ-16/LY-80 MR-SAMs within Lhasa.

Five airports are now in operation in TAR: the Lhasa-Gonggar Airport, Linzhi-Mainling Airport, Shigatse Peace Airport, Chamdo Bangda Airport, and Ngari Gunsa Airport. Three others—Lhuntze in Lhokha; Tingri in Shigatse county; and Burang in Ngari near the border with India and Nepal—are being built. China’s airports in Tibet are all dual-purpose and can quickly be deployed for military use, with civilian air control staff trained to work with the PLAAF in cases of emergency. The Chamdo Bangda Airport is about 160km north of Arunachal Pradesh and is located in the narrow valley on the west bank of Yuqu River at the Banda Prairie in Chamdo Prefecture. The high-altitude (roughly 4,400 metres) civilian airport is currently out of bounds for foreign tourists. Out of its two runways, the one that is operational is 4,500 metres long. The airport has been under renovation since June 2020.

Meanwhile, just 89.4km north-west of Tuting ALG in Arunachal Pradesh, the airport at Linzhi is presently being transformed into a dual-use airport/ air base through the construction of a new parking tarmac, two new taxiways, a warehouse complex for housing a complete SAM Battery, and a nearby SAM deployment site capable of housing a Battery of HQ-22 MR-SAMs.

New Battlefield Logistics Facilities

Since 2019, enormous effort has been pumped into the creation of permanent, hardened battlefield logistics facilities for the stockpiling of both weapons and related rotables/ perishables. Underground warehouses have so far come up near near Demchok, Shigatse Airport, Lhasa-Gonggar Airport, Linzhi-Mainling Airport and Bangda Airport. Other sprawling above-ground military warehouses have been built within two locations at Lhasa (with one containing an integral heliport), one at Tsetang, Khanba Dzong, Yakla and Dromo. In addition, armaments storage depots have been built at Gyantse (along with a new SAM site) and Linzhi-Mainling Airport. Related to such efforts are the construction of heliports for the PLAGF. TAR’s biggest logistics centre in Nagku in southwestern China was completed in June 2009 at a cost of USD220 million. It is located next to a railway station at an altitude of 4,500 metres and can now handle 3.1 million tonnes of cargo. The existing logistics infrastructure south of the Shigatse–Gyantse can can hold a stock level of up to 90,000 tonnes, which can sustain operations of 5 to 7 Divisions for about 30 days at approximately 600 tonnes per Division per day.

Since last May, the PLAGF has been constructing a heliport in Tianwendian, east of the Daulat Beg Oldie ALG and Depsang Plains. Survey work for this heliport had commenced in August 2019 and civil engineering works began in October. The heliport is at an altitude of 16,700 feet and is likely to have a runway of a length of 1,000 metres. However, only 700 metres of the runway has been asphalted. 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 last August. Going hand in hand with such activities is the expansion of the WTC’s helicopter bases, such as the brand-new helicopter training base at Yibin in Sichuan province, deployment of the 85 Army Aviation Brigade with Z-8L and Z-20 utility helicopters at Nagku in TAR, the 76 Army Aviation Brigade at Dalachi, and the 77 Army Aviation Brigade at Feng Huang Shan Heliport.

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