|#347||5771||April 09, 2010||By Manish Girdhar|
The Air Force of the People’s Republic of China (PLAAF) is the third largest in the world after the US and Russia, in terms of numbers of aircraft. It is the largest air power segment in India’s neighbourhood, primarily in relation to its ability to operate from the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). Also called Xizang Autonomous Region, TAR is the second largest province-level autonomous region of the People's Republic of China (PRC) created in 1965, its area spanning over 470,000 sq mi/1,200,000 km2. The largest autonomous area is Xinjiang Autonomous Region. TAR has an average elevation of 4,500 metres and the Tibetan Plateau has the highest elevation geographically.
Significantly, the PLAAF’s chain-of-command is organised into four levels: Headquarters Air Force (HQ AF); seven military region air force (MRAF) headquarters; air corps and command posts; and operational units. HQ AF is organised administratively into four first level or major departments – headquarters, political, logistics, and equipment – and their subordinate elements (second level departments, bureaus, divisions, offices, and sections). The PLA's military region (MR) headquarters is responsible for combined operations, and the MR Air Force (MRAF) commander, who is also an MR Deputy Commander, is responsible for flight operations within the MR. The seven MRs are Shenyang, Beijing, Lanzhou, Nanjing, Guangzhou, Jinan, and Chengdu. Each echelon below HQ AF from the MRAF headquarters to the lowest level in the chain-of-command mirrors this administrative structure.
Of the seven MRs of the PLA, only two are opposite India. Lanzhou is opposite Ladakh sector, Chengdu is off India’s North-East and part of the Central Sector. These MRs are further sub-divided into Military Districts (MD). The MDs facing India are:
Chengdu MR – The two MDs in this region are Yunnan opposite Myanmar and Xizang (which is part of TAR) opposite Assam, Sikkim and Arunachal.
Lanzhou MR – South Xinjiang MD is opposite Uttarakhand, HP and Ladakh and East Xinjiang MD faces India adjoining Ladakh.
In the Chengdu MR, PLAAF has two Fighter Divisions (FDs) comprising of J-6, J-7, J-10 and Su-27 aircraft and one Transport Division (TD). In Lanzhou MR, there are two FDs comprising of J-6, J-7G, J-7II, J-8I, J-8F and J-11 aircraft and one Bomber Division (BD) having H-6 bomber aircraft. The current location of all these FDs is outside TAR.
The TAR spans the mentioned MDs of the two MRs which are opposite India. There are 14 airbases in these two regions from where PLAAF can launch air operations. The established bases are Hoping, Bangda, Shiquanhe, Bayixincun (in central Tibet opposite AP) and Kongka. There are two airfields in Lhasa Prefecture, airfields at Shannan, XIgaze and additional four that can be made operational quickly. Many have runways of 4000m length and their average altitude is 4000m. At these altitudes, both the aeroplane and fliers are affected, their performance curves dropping quite sharply with altitude. These airfields as per the photographs available seem to be lacking in permanent infrastructure like hangars and blast pens. Thus, PLAAF will have to position the necessary supplies, FOL and other manpower and material from the mainland in order to sustain operations here. This build up will take time and can be easily monitored, giving Indian forces the necessary warning to react. A major international airfield has been constructed at Nyingchi in SE TAR which is less than 20 kms from the Arunachal border.
Air Defence Set Up
Radar Cover – Two Radar Regiments (RRs) have been deployed by PLAAF for the surveillance of Tibet and South Xinjiang region. These regiments cover the flights from the mainland and monitor Indian air activities along the Sino- Indian border. Medium and high level cover in TAR is fairly good in spite of the fact that vintage radars are still in use. Considering the elevated locations of the PLAAF radars, it is quite likely that movement of Indian strike aircraft may be picked up well before they enter Tibet air space. However, low level cover is virtually non-existent due to terrain as well as fewer radars. VA’s and VP’s have limited low level cover as well.
Airlift capability of PLAAF in the TAR is severely restricted due to altitude at which most of the airfields are located. To place the issue in perspective, it would be well worth noting that most of the PLAAF airfields in TAR are at a higher altitude than Leh and Thoise. Thus their performance will be much lower than that of the Indian Air Force Il-76 flying from Leh on a day when surface temperatures are around 25-30 degrees Celsius. To conceive of operations like a Battalion Group drop would be virtually impossible from the point of view of the success probability that such drop may have. Similarly heli-borne operations are extremely difficult to execute. A Mi-17, which can lift 3000kg at sea level, would lift a mere few hundred kilogrammes at altitudes in excess of 3km. Contingency of an heli-borne assault in this region has a remote chance of success.
Strike element of PLAAF is centred on J-10 and the Su-27/30. Other aircraft in the inventory have extremely limited capability. Airfield infrastructure, though in existence, cannot support sustained operations due to unpredictable and inclement weather. TBA is located widely separated from the base. Strategic targets in mainland India such as airfields in eastern region are more than 500 km from PLAAF strike bases in TAR. Air Defence infrastructure, radar cover in particular is virtually non existent almost entirely due to terrain restrictions.
However, PLAAF infrastructure in TAR has considerably improved over the last four to five years. In consonance with the modernisation of PLAAF aircraft fleet, the capabilities to launch operations from airfields have also been enhanced. The rail link which begins at Golmud and goes up to Lhasa, completed in 2006, adds a new dimension to Chinese build up in TAR. There are plans to extend the rail network up to the Tibetan town of Dromo, which is near Nathu La in Sikkim. The Karakoram highway is to be widened to 30m from its present 10m to permit heavy vehicles to negotiate this route. While superficially meant to augment the carrying capacity from Karachi port into China, the military implications are obvious.
While the lay of the land gives advantage to the PLA for surface operations, the runway elevations hinder air operations. The PLAAF capability in TAR is severely restricted but this disadvantage can be offset to some extent by taking-off with full armament and minimal fuel loads and carrying out in-flight refuelling to extend radius of operations of its combat fleet. However if diplomatic relations between Myanmar and China continue to improve and Myanmar allows PLAAF to operate from its bases, PLAAF shall pose a serious challenge.
(Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the views either of the Editorial Committee or the Centre for Land Warfare Studies).