Indian Air Force Gears Up for China: Major Upgrades in Northern Airbases

Indian Air Force

In a strategic move to counter potential threats from China, the Indian Air Force (IAF) is methodically enhancing its infrastructure at 20 key air bases along the eastern border. The upgrades, including hardened aircraft shelters, munition centers, and additional runways, are part of a broader effort to ensure readiness for China-centric operations. These developments are crucial not only for military preparedness but also to accommodate increased civilian air traffic and to provide alternative operational options should primary runways be compromised in a conflict.

The Leh airbase in Ladakh stands out in these upgrades. Known for its strategic significance due to its proximity to the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China and the Siachen Glacier, Leh is set to become India’s first high-altitude airbase with dual runways. Located at an elevation of 10,000 feet, this base has been essential in airlifting troops and equipment, especially during harsh winters when road links are severed.

The construction of a second runway is a response to the increasing military and civilian flight operations, as well as a tactical move to ensure continued operations if the primary runway is targeted. Notably, during the 2020 standoff with China, Leh played a critical role in airlifting 68,000 troops and heavy equipment to fortify India’s eastern sector defenses.

Recent satellite imagery from April 2024 revealed significant infrastructure advancements at the Chabua Air Base in Assam, another crucial base near the Chinese border. The upgrades include new taxiways, hardened shelters for fighter aircraft, and underground munition storage facilities. These enhancements are designed to support high-tempo operations, ensuring that the IAF can sustain prolonged engagements if necessary.

The improved taxiways, possibly for drone operations, reflect a shift towards integrating unmanned aerial systems into the IAF’s strategic framework. The modernization of Chabua aligns with broader efforts under the Rs 1200 crore Modernisation of Airfield Infrastructure (MAFI) project, aimed at upgrading 37 airfields across the IAF, Indian Navy, and Indian Coast Guard.

Indian Air Force
Indian Air Force

Further south in Ladakh, the Nyoma air base is undergoing significant upgrades, including the construction of a 2.7-km runway at an elevation of 13,700 feet. Expected to be completed by October 2024, this new runway will enhance the IAF’s operational capabilities in the region. Support infrastructure, such as hangars and an air traffic control building, is scheduled for completion by the end of 2025.

Nyoma’s strategic importance dates back to the 1962 Sino-Indian War. Reactivated in 2009, it has since hosted various aircraft, including the C-130J Super Hercules. During the 2020 standoff, the base saw the deployment of Mi-17 medium-lift helicopters, CH-47F Chinook heavy-lift helicopters, and AH-64E Apache attack helicopters, underscoring its role in forward troop deployment and intelligence gathering.

China’s aggressive infrastructure buildup along the LAC has spurred India to accelerate its own projects. Satellite images from May 2024 revealed at least six J-20 stealth fighters stationed at the Shigatse Air Base in Tibet, less than 300 kilometers from India’s Hasimara Air Base. This deployment underscores the strategic rivalry, as India’s Hasimara base is home to Rafale fighter jets.

The Shigatse base, equipped with a new 3,000-meter auxiliary runway, is strategically positioned near the disputed Doklam area. The oblique angle of the new runway relative to the existing one complicates potential enemy strikes, making it harder to incapacitate both runways simultaneously.

China’s expansion along the LAC has involved constructing new airbases and upgrading existing ones, including missile sites, roads, and underground facilities. The Hotan airbase in Xinjiang, for instance, now boasts a second runway, additional hangars, and enhanced surface-to-air missile (SAM) defenses. These upgrades enhance the PLAAF’s operational flexibility and defensive capabilities.

According to the China Power Project of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), China has upgraded numerous airports and heliports in Tibet and Xinjiang. These facilities improve last-mile connectivity in challenging terrains and provide the PLA with bases for surveillance, reconnaissance, and potential strikes. Since 2017, China has focused on building or upgrading 37 airports and heliports in these regions, with a marked increase in activity since the 2020 Galwan clash.

The infrastructure race between India and China reflects the heightened tension along the LAC. Both nations are enhancing their capabilities to ensure rapid deployment and sustained operations in the event of a conflict. For India, these upgrades are not just about matching China’s pace but also about establishing a robust defense posture that can withstand prolonged engagements and adverse conditions.

The development of new runways and hardened shelters across Indian airbases serves multiple purposes. They provide redundancy in operations, protect valuable aircraft and munitions, and enable quick turnaround times for sorties. Additionally, the integration of drone operations, as seen at Chabua, indicates a shift towards modern warfare tactics, leveraging unmanned systems for surveillance and offensive missions.

The upgrades also reflect a significant aspect of civil-military coordination. With increased civilian air traffic, especially in regions like Leh, the dual-use infrastructure ensures that both military and civilian needs are met without compromising on security and operational efficiency. This dual-use approach is critical in maintaining a balance between defense readiness and civilian convenience.

Looking ahead, the continued development of airbases like Nyoma and the potential for similar upgrades at other high-altitude bases will further enhance India’s strategic depth. These projects are part of a long-term vision to ensure that India’s air defense capabilities are not only on par with China but are also capable of handling multiple threats across different terrains and scenarios.

The focus on high-altitude operations is particularly noteworthy, as it underscores the unique challenges posed by the Himalayan region. The ability to operate effectively in these conditions provides India with a significant advantage, ensuring that its military remains agile and responsive to any incursions or threats along the LAC.

The Indian Air Force’s infrastructure upgrades are a clear signal of its commitment to maintaining strategic superiority along the eastern border with China. The development of new runways, hardened shelters, and enhanced support facilities at key airbases is a critical component of India’s broader defense strategy. These efforts, coupled with the integration of modern technology and civil-military coordination, position India to effectively counter any potential threats from China.

As both nations continue to enhance their military capabilities, the importance of robust and resilient infrastructure cannot be overstated. For India, the focus remains on ensuring that its air force is not only prepared for immediate threats but is also capable of sustaining prolonged operations in challenging environments. The ongoing upgrades reflect a strategic vision aimed at safeguarding national security and maintaining regional stability in the face of evolving geopolitical dynamics.

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