China’s People Liberation Army (PLA) has integrated air force and army elements to create a combined air defence system for the western theatre command that is responsible for operations along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the latest in a series of moves indicating a strengthening of its positions in the region.
The move follows numerous reports of China moving in new military equipment and formations into Tibet and Xinjiang and bolstering air defence and missile positions and airports on its side of the LAC amid a border standoff with India that began more than a year ago.
People familiar with developments said on condition of anonymity that PLA had, for the first time, integrated army air defence units in the air force’s chain of command in the western theatre command to create a combined air defence control system.
This new system was put through its paces during a recent exercise at an unknown location under the western theatre command, which saw army elements jointly training with the air force while command and control was exercised by the air force, the people said.
At least 10 PLA army units under the western theatre command are believed to have been integrated in the reporting chain for sharing inputs on early warning, combined readiness status and exercise participation as part of this new joint air defence set up,” one of the people cited above said.
“It appears that the PLA air force is controlling all the air defence network assets along the LAC and it appears the Chinese side has felt an urgent need to put all such assets of the army and air force under a central control to avoid any fratricide and to ensure their optimum use,” the person added.
Air Vice Marshal (retired) Manmohan Bahadur, a defence commentator who closely tracks developments on the LAC, said such a development in normal times would be seen as part of routine steps by a country to ensure military preparedness. “But since we have a confrontation, we must view it in that context and make plans accordingly,” he said.
The Chinese side appears to be bringing all air defence assets into one grid and plugging gaps that can be exploited by the Indian Air Force (IAF), he said. “There have been reports of additional radar stations and other set-ups being created and the Chinese side seems to be in for the long run. Their aim would be to blunt the strike potential of the IAF, which they know will spearhead any Indian response,” he added.
Disengagement of Indian and Chinese frontline troops along the LAC stalled following a drawdown of forces and armoured units on the north and south banks of Pangong Lake in February. Diplomatic and military talks have not led to a breakthrough at other friction points on the LAC such as Depsang Plains, Gogra and Hot Springs.
Ties between the two sides plunged to an all-time low following a deadly clash in Galwan Valley in June last year that resulted in the death of 20 Indian soldiers and at least four Chinese troops – the first fatalities on the LAC since 1975. External affairs minister S Jaishankar has made it clear that restoration of peace and tranquillity on the LAC through disengagement and de-escalation alone can be the basis for restoring normal ties in other areas such as trade and investment.
Satellite imagery from last month showed that after withdrawing its forces from around Pangong Lake, China relocated a large section of troops and equipment to nearby Rutog County, where new military barracks have been built since 2019.
The open-source intelligence analyst who uses the name @detresfa on Twitter said the new structures at Rutog include a large motor pool that includes support and offensive units, troop accommodation including prefabricated heated units and tents, camouflaged positions believed to hold supplies and weapons, and munitions storage facilities.
The scale and proximity of the deployment in Rutog suggests the PLA is continuing to hold itself in depth areas near the LAC, experts said.
A steady stream of satellite imagery and reports in recent months have shown that China is strengthening its position all along the LAC, building villages in previously uninhabited areas and building and reinforcing highways and airports to facilitate the speedy deployment of troops.
A report issued by Stratfor, a leading security and intelligence consultancy, last September had said China has more than doubled the number of airbases, air defence positions and heliports near the LAC since 2017. China began building at least 13 new military facilities near the LAC after the 2017 standoff at Doklam, and work on four heliports began after tensions erupted in Ladakh, the report said.