Exclusive: Latest satellite images show how China is scaling up air power on LAC | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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Exclusive | Latest satellite images reveal how China is scaling up its air power along LAC

Jun 01, 2023 05:36 PM IST

The changes since the military standoff on the LAC began in May 2020 show that China is scaling air power to create a range of offensive capabilities.

China’s expansion of airfields along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) since 2020 has created capabilities for its military to conduct a wider range of operations, and to counter India’s comparative advantages in some areas, according to an analysis of satellite imagery.

China has embarked on a massive expansion of airfields along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) since 2020. PREMIUM
China has embarked on a massive expansion of airfields along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) since 2020.

An analysis of satellite images

Hotan airport, 2020

Hotan airport, 2023

Lhasa airport, 2020

Lhasa airport, 2023

Ngari Gunsa airport, 2020 and 2023

An analysis of satellite images exclusively provided to Hindustan Times by Planet Labs of airfields at Hotan, Ngari Gunsa and Lhasa shows the Chinese side has either expanded these facilities by building new runways, hardened shelters designed to protect combat jets, and construction of new support and military operations buildings.

Also Read: India, China hold talks on LAC standoff in Delhi, agree on military discussions

These three Chinese airfields were chosen for analysis because of their locations opposite strategic positions on the Indian side and use in current operations amid the standoff with India, which has taken bilateral relations to a six-decade low. A brutal clash at Galwan Valley in June 2020 killed 20 Indian soldiers and an unspecified number of Chinese troops – the first fatalities along the LAC in 45 years.

Indian officials declined to comment on the analysis. India has made it clear to China during bilateral interactions and meetings on margins of international forums this year that normalcy along the LAC is essential for normal bilateral relations.

Hotan airfield in southwestern Xinjiang is located about 400km, in a straight line, from Leh, capital of the Union territory of Ladakh. Hotan airfield was last expanded in 2002. A satellite image from June 2020 showed no construction or development in the area near the airfield, and an existing aircraft apron with combat jets.

A satellite image from May 2023 shows Hotan airfield has a new runway, new aircraft and military operations support buildings and a new apron. These upgrades are supported by the construction of additional munitions storage sites not far from the airfield. Recent satellite images of the airfield have shown unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) operating from Hotan, and the Chengdu J-20, a stealth fighter, has been deployed at this airfield amid the standoff.

Ngari Gunsa airfield in Tibet Autonomous Region is located 200km, in a straight line, from Pangong Lake, which has witnessed several skirmishes between Indian and Chinese forces and where the Chinese side is building a key bridge. The airfield started operations in 2010 and was expanded after the 2017 standoff at Doklam. At that time, combat jets were stationed at the airfield.

A satellite image from June 2020 showed only one aircraft apron with combat jets. An image from May this year shows a new taxiway and improvements to the runway. There are also at least 16 new hardened aircraft shelters and new aircraft and military operations support buildings. This airfield, too, shows the presence of UAVs. Ngari Gunsa has served as a key logistics hub for Chinese forces, acting as a node between areas south of Aksai Chin to deployments further within Tibet.

The airport at Lhasa, the administrative capital of Tibet Autonomous Region, has for long been a dual-use facility. Though it is not in the western sector of LAC, it is located less than 250km, in a straight line, from Tawang, which is at the centre of Chinese claims in the eastern sector.

A satellite image from May 2020 showed combat jets on an existing aircraft apron. An image from May this year showed a new runway and a new apron under construction, at least 30 new hardened aircraft shelters, and new support buildings.

Satellite imagery from recent years has shown the construction of underground facilities south of the Lhasa airfield, as well as a radar and electronic warfare unit and an air defence unit.

The developments observed at these three airfields and others along the border region clearly indicate “China’s strategic intention to bolster its military capabilities and offset India’s advantages in the area”, said Damien Symon, geo-intelligence researcher at The Intel Lab.

“The ongoing construction activities, along with significant and diverse deployments at these sites, including the use of UAVs and advanced aircraft, underscore China’s efforts to enhance its offensive capabilities, especially in light of the active border situation with India,” he said.

“It is crucial to recognise these developments fundamentally transform the dynamics of air warfare, extending China’s operational range and presenting challenges to India’s deterrence strategies,” Symon added.

Air Vice Marshal (retired) Manmohan Bahadur, an aviator who served in the Ladakh region, said the Chinese side has used the past three years to find ways to counter the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) comparative advantages in the region.

“The IAF could carry the war to them because of these advantages. Most of the Indian airbases are along the foothills and the aircraft could take off with larger [weapons] payload,” Bahadur said.

Lt Gen (retired) Rakesh Sharma, former commander of the Ladakh corps responsible for Kargil, Siachen glacier and eastern Ladakh, said many Chinese airfields across the LAC initially didn’t have hardened aircraft shelters, long runways or ammunition storage facilities.

“They have got over this problem. Their runways are longer, the aircraft are safe and can take off with heavier payloads,” Sharma said.

“This is all part of a planned move. There are reports that the Chinese side has positioned a substantial number of cruise missiles in this area that can be used against targets up to 2,000 km away,” he added.

Bahadur said China has created a large number of airfields along the LAC, from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh, plugging the gaps which existed between military airbases. “This also leads to an improvement in their redundancy factor,” he said, referring to the capability of having more airfields to take over in the event any airbase is knocked out in an enemy attack.

Both Bahadur and Sharma described the construction of hardened shelters as a significant development. “Earlier, the number of hardened shelters was literally zero.They have also set up radar and surface-to-air missiles systems, increasing the risks for the IAF to go [across],” Bahadur said.

Sim Tack, geo-intelligence analyst at Force Analysis, said hardened shelters at each airbase may impact India’s efforts to deter or defend against Chinese air power. “Not only do these shelters provide survivability to Chinese aircraft deployed within range of disputed territories, increasing the complexity of strikes against them, but another important consequence is that they help obscure the actual presence of fighters. By storing fighter aircraft under cover, China is able to better conceal its deployments, or lack thereof, to these forward airbases,” he said.

This can result in India expending additional resources to assess Chinese air power in the region, he added.

The Indian side, Bahadur said, depended on “deterrence by punishment” and the new and expanded airfields and air defence capabilities would dilute this capability.

The Chinese facilities, Sharma said, have changed the character of air warfare in the region. “From Kashgar [in Xinjiang], Chinese jets can overfly Gilgit-Baltistan and Srinagar is in range. The airfields in Tibet Autonomous Region are a bonus that have taken away a portion of India’s advantage,” he added.

India and China have been unable to resolve all friction points in Ladakh sector of the LAC despite more than two dozen rounds of military and diplomatic talks, and external affairs minister S Jaishankar has insisted that bilateral ties cannot be normalised without peace and tranquillity on the border.

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