India is keeping a vigilant eye on airbases in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (PoK) after a Chinese refueller aircraft landed in Skardu last week. Also, Chinese air activity has increased opposite Eastern Ladakh, raising the possibility of PLA Air Force (PLAAF) using airbases in PoK.
Indian and Chinese forces are in the middle of an escalating standoff in Eastern Ladakh with New Delhi forced to bring in a large number of troops in the area after Beijing amassed forces, which were otherwise supposed to be undergoing annual military exercises.
The Indian Air Force has been on heightened alert for several weeks now and extensive ferry missions have been undertaken to take supplies and troops to Ladakh. Besides, Chinese air activity – additional Su 27 fighters are believed to have been deployed at Hotan airbase in Xinjiang – is being closely monitored and their deployments mirrored on the Indian side.
The PLAAF has several airbases in and around Tibet, with Hotan housing the most combat assets, but they suffer from one debilitating issue – most are located at altitudes over 4,000 feet, making it difficult for fighters to take off with a full weapons load and fuel. Several Indian airbases, on the other hand, are located in the plains of Punjab and Haryana, giving them an edge.
While the PLAAF can make up for the high altitude by deploying aerial tankers, Indian military planners have always been wary that in a time of conflict, airbases in PoK could be handed over to China.
Sources said that limited activity can be observed at the Skardu airbase, and an IL 78 tanker of the PLAAF landed there a few days ago, besides some Pakistan Air Force transport aircraft. Skardu is located just 100 km from the Leh airbase and has recently been expanded by Pakistan.
In August last year, the Skardu base was used by Pakistani JF 17s on their way to the PLAAF base at Hotan for a joint exercise. The Shaheen series of exercises involving J 10s from China and Pakistani JF 17 jets had been carefully monitored by India and took place in the area opposite Eastern Ladakh.
In the past two years there has been a significant increase in air activity in Tibet. While the PLAAF earlier used to deploy its fighters to forward bases only in summers, a year-round deployment has now become the norm.
Recent satellite images show that another airbase located just about 200 km from the Pangong Tso lake is also being upgraded, with work on as recently as May this year. The Ngari Gunsa airbase in Tibet is housing Su 27 fighter jets and work to expand the runway has been ongoing.
In the past, Pakistan had no qualms in allowing other nations to use its airbases and military camps. During the Afghanistan campaign launched in 2001, US forces had enclaves at several Pakistani airbases to support combat missions against the Taliban.