The Indian media has been highlighting the deployment of Indian Air Force’ latest fighter jets like Rafales, newly acquired helicopters like Apache and Chinook and reconnaissance drones from Israel but there has hardly been any news on Chinese deployments.
According to US Air Force’s China Aerospace Studies Institute (CASI), as of July 28, China had 36 aircraft and helicopters at the Hotan airbase in China’s Xinjiang region near the disputed northeastern Indian territory of Ladakh.
The fleet included 24 Russian-designed J-11 or J-16 Flanker fighters along with six older J-8 fighters, two Y-8G transport, two KJ-500 airborne early warning aircraft, two Mi-17 helicopters, plus a number of CH-4 strike/reconnaissance drones.
Indian and Chinese troops clashed on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in June which resulted in 20 Indian casualties and an unconfirmed number on the Chinese side. Before June, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) had stationed only 12 Flankers and no support aircraft at Hotan.
While talking to Forbes, CASI research director Rod Lee said that their imagery “suggests that there is at least some flight activity, so these aircraft are not just parked for show.”
CASI used open-source imagery from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-2 Earth observation satellite to estimate the activity around the Indo-Sino border.
“The focus does appear to be oriented towards counter-air missions, although this could be a function of the relatively small scale of the clashes,” Lee stated. “Presently, the PLAAF’s role is likely to provide Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) support and help deter India from escalating by its presence alone.
If things were to escalate, the present force is well suited to create the conditions necessary for the PLA Army’s mountain offensive campaign by specifically establishing information and air superiority,” he added.
Analysts believe that China’s buildup along the LAC has further lead to India moving its weaponry and artillery on the border to mirror the Chinese actions, which may further lead to a full-blown war, that neither of the sides wants.
India has also stationed its newly procured five Rafale jets that it claimed were superior to all the Chinese fighters. However, Chinese media opposed saying that Rafale is no match for its J-20 stealth fighter.
After a brief but bloody war in 1962, China defeated India and took control over the Aksai Chin area. However, both of them competed to construct a road for supplies in the region.
India has an added advantage over China in the disputed region. Indian airbases near the LAC are closer and thus it is easier for the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) fighter jets to reach there. On the other hand, the closest Chinese bases to the disputed border are Kashgar, 350 miles northwest of Ladakh, and Ngari Kunsha 190 miles to the southeast.
“Both of these locations have even less apron space than Hotan and could only support a small number of aircraft,” Lee stated. Larger bases are located in Xinjiang and Tibet which are over 600 miles away from the disputed border.