China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) seems to have taken serious note of India’s determination since 2007 to beef up its force projection capabilities along the arc stretching from eastern Ladakh all the way up to the India-Nepal border adjacent to the southwestern portion of the Tibet Autonomous Region, and in turn is now proceeding to counter India’s moves by undertaking its own build-up of offensive airpower capabilities in the same area. Translated for the layman, it means that A) the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will realise its tactical objectives on the ground by resorting to massed fire-assaults (against forward-deployed Indian ground forces) delivered by a numerically superior deployed force comprising tactical non-line-of-sight battlefield support missiles (NLOS-BSM) and long-range multi-barrel rocket launchers (MBRL) capable of firing rockets equipped with sensor-fuzed munitions (SGM); B) such rocket artillery-based weapons would be employed for the ‘deep battlespace’ in tactical areas that are ideally suited for deployment of such weapons, i.e. the flat, locational deserts around eastern Ladakh and the foothills opposite Uttarakhand State; C) while increased use will be made of NLOS-BSMs and tactical ballistic missiles (TBM) to neutralise the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) offensive airpower generation capacities that would be located in Jammu & Kashmir (J & K), the PLA Air Force’s (PLAAF) manned combat aircraft backed up by AEW & C platforms would be employed for blunting/neutralising any localised ground offensives (during the contact battle phase) that could be mounted by the Indian Army.
Presently, the IAF’s Western Air Command (WAC) can deploy some 150 combat aircraft of various types within air bases located inside J & K, these being Adampur (capable of housing Mirage 2000Hs, MiG-29B-12s and Jaguar IS), Awantipura (MiG-21 Bisons, MiG-29B-12s and Jaguar IS), Pathankot (MiG-21 Bisons and MiG-27UPGs), Srinagar (Su-30MKIs, MiG-21 Bisons and MiG-27UPGs), Udhampur (MiG-21 Bisons), Leh (MiG-29B-12s and Su-30MKIs) and Thoise (Su-30MKIs). WAC by early 2002 had firmed up plans for phase 2 of its transformation process along the northern front and in mid-2003 a solitary Su-30MKI Mk2 did a trial-landing at the IAF’s Leh (located at 10,680 feet ASL and having a 9,000 feet-long runway) and Srinagar air bases. This was preceded by the Su-30MKI pilots during a few route-check flights and runway overshoots with MiG-29B-12s to familiarise themselves with the overall sortie pattern, weather conditions and the operating terrain. It was only after this that the four Su-30MKI Mk3s from the Barielly-based No24 Squadron along with 12 pilots landed at Leh on September 16, 2008 (in two phases of four each) for a 10 day-long deployment that also saw the Su-30MKIs each logging up to four training sorties per day and also doing overshoots of the runways at Srinagar and Thoise air base (located 10,066 feet ASL and hosting a 10,000 feet-long runway). Thoise is the acronym for Transit Halt of Indian Soldiers Enroute. Prior to this historic deployment, was another pathbreaking achievement on May 31, 2008 when after a 44-year break, an IAF An-32B tactical transport aircraft landed on the 2.3km-long sandy airstrip (now lengthened to 3km) at the 12,037 feet-high advanced landing ground (ALG) in Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) in the sub-sector north (SSN) area of Ladakh at 6.17am. This was followed by another An-32B landing at the refurbished ALG at Fukche (at 14,200 feet ASL) on September 24, 2008, with the Nyoma ALG, south of Chushul, at 13,400 feet ASL being activated on on September 18, 2008. The 3,400 feet-long ALG at Dharasu at an altitude of 2,950 feet in Uttarakhand’s Uttarkashi hills bordering China was made operational in the second half of 2010 without much fanfare. All these ALGs facing the Line of Actual Control (LAC) will eventually have a 3km runway length and will be used for aerial logistics support.
According to the PLA’s appreciation, these air bases and ALGs will be ideal targets for the PLA Army’s NLOS-BSMs and TBMs, which have already been stockpiled in both Xinjiang and Aksai Chin. To date, 13 tunnels dug into the mountains have been built at Xiadulla, 98km from the Karakoram mountain pass between Ladakh and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, while another similar NLOS-BSM storage facility is located at Qizil Jilga, 40km off the LAC in eastern Ladakh near the Western Tibet highway.
However, when it comes to interdicting the supply lines of India’s forward-deployed ground forces in both eastern Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, the PLA plans to employ a combination of massed fire-assaults from heavy-calibre MBRLs as well as battlefield air interdiction sorties carried out by Su-30MK2s and J-10s, with the Su-27SKs being employed along with the ZDK-03 AEW & CS platforms for defensive counter-air and airborne battle management taskings. And it is exactly for engaging in such scenarios that the PLA conducted its first joint expeditionary Army-Air Force live-fire exercise on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau (at an altitude of 15,420 feet, or 4,700 metres) between July 27 and August 9, 2010 that involved an infantry battalion of the PLA Air Force’s (PLAAF) XV Airborne Corps and six Su-27SKs drawn from the 97th Regiment of the Chongqing/Baishiyi -based 33rd Fighter Division (95661 Unit). Preparations for this exercise began in March 2010 and by May a train loaded with combat support equipment like ZBD-03 armoured infantry fighting vehicles had arrived in Lhasa using the Qinghai-Tibet railroad, the first time ever that the GLD’s Military Transportation Department had made use of this railroad.
In addition, for the second year in a row, the PLA Army and the PLAAF last year conducted Brigade-level live-fire exercises on the foot of the snowcapped mountains on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau at an altitude of more than 5,000 metres. Though the exercises, dubbed as Integrated Joint Operations (IJO), were conducted under the command of the Tibet Military District, which comes under the Chengdu Military Region (MR), a few select field artillery and armoured formations belonging to the Lanzhou MR also took part in the combined arms exercises, which got underway last July and lasted till last October.
PLAAF elements again deployed in 2011 Shigatse air base between last August and November, these being six Su-27SKs and three Su-27UBKs from the Chengdu Military Region’s (MR) Chongqing/Baishiyi-based 33 Fighter Division’s with 98 and 99 Air Regiments, and three J-10s from the Mengzi-based 44 Fighter Division’s 131 Air Regiment (based in Luliang). While some of the Su-27SKs engaged in defensive counter-air sorties, others were armed with 122mm S-13 and 266mm S-25 air-to-ground rockets for straffing runs. The J-10s on the other hand were armed with PL-11 beyond-range and PL-8 within-visual-range air combat missiles for air superiority taskings, and also took part in daytime precision strikes by dropping LT-2 laser-guided bombs (LGB), which were guided to their targets in both daytime and at night by man-portable laser target designators. And in another first for the PLAAF, a detachment of four J-10 MRCAs from 131 Air Regiment began a two week-long deployment at Shigatse starting January 21 this year, during which tactical airspace dominance exercises were conducted in coordination with the PLAAF’s ground-based airspace surveillance radar stations deployed within the Tibet Military District. And last February, a detachment of four J-10s from the 131 Air Regiment practiced the dropping of LT-2 LGBs (which were guided to their targets in both daytime and at night by man-portable laser target designators) and gravity bombs.
Shigatse is now being upgraded into Tibet’s first all-weather air base capable of sustaining high-intensity offensive air sorties, and is now protected by the JL-3D-90A long-range airspace surveillance radar, a Battery of HQ-12/KS-1A MR-SAM air defence system and a combination of FN-6 MANPADS, LD-2000 point-defence systems, and SmartHunter low-probability-of-intercept radars. During hostilities, Shigatse, falling under the Lanzhou MR, could also receive reinforcements from the Yinchuan AB-based 6 Fighter Division with 16 (Su-27SKs and Su-27UBKs), 17, 18 & 139 Air Regiments; Wulumuqi AB-based 37 Fighter Division comprising 109 (J-8Fs at Changji), 110 (Urumqi South) & 111 (with J-11s at Korla-Xinhiang) Air Regiments; and Wugong AB-based 36 Bomber Division with its 106, 107 (Lintong) and 108 (Wugong) Air Regiments, and the 93942 AAA Missile Brigade.
Since all types of combat aircraft to be operated over Tibet have to fly at the critical limit of their respective flight envelopes with reduced safety margins, and since the unpredictable weather there calls for a high level of flying skills (veteran pilots’ oft-repeated warning is: “you can take chances with the hills, you can take chances with the weather, but it is suicidal to take chances with the weather and the hills at the same time”.), it will be interesting to see in future whether:
· The PLAAF initiates the development of rocket-powered LGBs (like the AASM from SAGEM) for its Su-27SKs and J-10s, since such PGMs offer distinct advantages over their gliding counterparts when used for hitting targets located at high altitudes.
· The 106, 107 and 108 Air Regiments are equipped with newly-built H-6K bombers that are capable of launching CJ-10K air-launched cruise missiles.
· The PLAAF deploys its H-6U aerial refuelling tankers in support of its future periodic deployments of Su-27SKs and J-10s (each of which are equipped with four external fuel tanks during their ferry flights and two during battlefield air interdiction sorties) to Shigatse.
· The PLAAF accelerates the development of conformal fuel tanks for its J-10s—Prasun K. Sengupta