SOURCE: Bhagatveer / FOR MY TAKE / IDRW.ORG
For years, an eye was kept on Lhasa airfield through Google Maps. The Lhasa airfield being a forward staging base does not have any aircraft shelters or ammunition dumps. Some four years before, Lhasa airfield used to host a detachment of 5 Su-27s. The satellite imagery of Lhasa airfield hosted by www.bing/maps, has not been updated for a long time.
So, through this image, we can see that how Lhasa airfield used to look like. To the east of the terminal building is the PLAAF apron. A detachment of five flankers could be seen. Later a detachment of J-10s were rotated against Flankers. When J-10s came to Lhasa, a detachment of J-10s was maintained for the first time in Hotan airfield in Xinjiang. This was the situation even when both PLA and Indian Army were locked in tent pitching war somewhere in Depsang plains.
Some 3 years ago, S-300s were deployed for the first time in the SAM base situated 4 km from the Lhasa airfield. This SAM base with S-300 would be sufficient to provide aircover for both Shigatse and Lhasa airfields. Earlier, the SAM base was just a barebones base. For the deployment of S-300, the centre pad was elevated for placing the required fire control radar. The S-300s was deployed in full configuration with support vehicles parked in the shed southwest to the launch pads.
But as the present Indian government started to slowly show its firmness in dealing with China, the number of fighters was increased to around 14 aircraft in Lhasa. It can’t be discounted that China was not taking Indian stance lightly. The satellite imagery accessed before Doklam fiasco showed that Su-27s had replaced the J-10s.
The report from Tribune India and available in our idrw.org shows a massive deployment of a PLAAF in Lhasa in a sat image accessed on 20 Oct 17. The report wrongly counts that there are 5 J-11s and 18 J-10s. In fact, it is 18 J-11s (Su-27s) and 5 J-10s. From sat image, we could see 2 J-10s (wrongly mentioned as J-11 in Tribune report) to the west of the terminal building in the small air defence alert ramp. The presence of a section of J-10s in the alert ramp means (most possibly fuelled and armed to take off in a notice) that PLAAF was maintaining an offensive posturing.
Now the latest satellite imagery accessed through the google maps on 25th January reveals an interesting picture. We are able to see a total of 14 aircraft (10 Su-27s and 4 J-10s). Some parking bays are empty which possibly mean that Su-27s parked in those places could have gone for a sortie. The J-10s in the alert ramp also have been moved to the apron. This particular move itself means that the threat level perceived by PLAAF has come down.
In the Tribune India report, it has been mentioned that 8 Mi-17 helos were present during 20th Oct. In the latest imagery 20 Mi-17 helicopters are seen all along the taxi track. Generally at Lhasa, helos also used to be parked near the fighters in the PLAAF apron. There were not more than 3 or 4 helos earlier at any time. But due to the increased number of fighters, helos have been parked along the taxi track in the newly constructed special pads. These pads are not like the typical helipads but tailor made such that hardened surface is provided just only for the landing gears of the helos.
The presence of increased number of Helos and the enormous ‘Chinese construction activities in Doklam and the number of helipads created there (as reported by Col. Vinayak Bhat (Retd) in his twitter page)’ mean sense. The Chinese troops at Doklam are/were being supported by these helos operating from Lhasa.
This is the first time that an AWACS has been spotted in Lhasa. The spotted AWACS is a KJ-500 type, which is aircraft with an airframe of elongated Chinese version of AN-12 with a radar derivative of the type mounted on the Il-76 airframe (KJ-2000). This aircraft has been inducted into the PLAAF and perhaps PLAAF is testing the aircraft under ‘Operational Conditions.’ ‘Operational conditions’ means monitoring Indian fighter activity or in worst case, providing command and control to PLAAF fighters flying CAP or fighter sweeps.
We do not know that if PLAAF fighters flew probe missions in the Yadong valley and Doklam region that are just minutes away from Lhasa for these fighters. The Tribune India report shows a pair of KJ-500s parked in the easternmost end of the PLAAF apron. But the absence of one KJ-500 most possibly could mean that it has gone back. But in a worst case scenario, if one KJ-500 and the other absent fighters are on air, then PLAAF has definitely has not thinned down.
Not only fighters, the S-300 deployment pattern has changed. The TEL vehicles seem to be in a stand down condition either under netting or under mobile shelters. The Fire Control Radar is under a mobile shelter. Only the ‘Type-305 Acquisition Radar’ is active as it has not been covered by any mobile shelters. It can’t be discounted that some S-300s could have been deployed elsewhere in the vicinity of Lhasa.
Strangely the Shigatse airfield is empty as usual when the sat image was accessed on 25th Jan. But there should have been some fighter activity as there are some scorch marks on the PLAAF apron. What kind of aircraft operated there is not clear. The Tribune India report says that a new runway has been built in Shigatse airfield. But no such construction has been done. The sat image of Shigatse from bing maps top and google maps (bottom) is given for comparison (bing maps older, google maps are recent). Actually, the changes have been made in Lhasa airport where two high speed exits have been built.
With regards to the Doklam issue, definitely the deployment pattern of PLAAF has changed. The air activity in Lhasa and Shigatse should have been hectic. But considering the reduced number of aircraft seen in Lhasa, and the Shigatse and Linzhi airports being observed vacant could possibly be taken as deinduction. Only the Hotan airfield is hosting 20 A-5 aircraft as seen through google maps. In Lhasa, if all the aircraft that are absent in their bays have gone for sorties, then the number of aircraft has not come down. It will only be clear when Google updates the google maps for this area in the days to come.
Not only the Indian Army, the Indian Air Force also maintained an offensive posture against the PLAAF. At Hashimara airfield situated just 50 km from Doklam, two flankers were seen in the alert ramp. In the event of escalation, IAF aircraft would have been just minutes away from the zero point. In the event of escalation, the operational level advantage would have been with the IAF as the aircraft were closer to Doklam than the PLAAF aircraft.
As a whole, the Doklam issue which was mainly based on posturing has been resolved amicably. As commentator Lt. Col. Ajai Shukla (Retd.) mentions, round one (Rediff news report dated 1st July 17) was won by India by maintaining an offensive posture and also showing the resolve to fight back. This would have been a surprise at operational level for Chinese planners. But round two? Chinese will be coming with more muscle and with a vengeance. We believe that Indian strategic and operational level planners are ready to give a befitting reply to the Chinese hegemonic ambitions.
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