China has doubled its fighter jets on India’s disputed northern border, according to American analysts.
As of July 28, China has 36 aircraft and helicopters at the Hotan air base in the China’s Xinjiang region, near the disputed northeastern Indian territory of Ladakh, according to an estimate by the U.S. Air Force’s China Aerospace Studies Institute (CASI). This includes 24 Russian-designed J-11 or J-16 Flanker fighters. In addition, there are now six older J-8 fighters, two Y-8G transports, two KJ-500 airborne early warning aircraft, two Mi-17 helicopters, plus a number of CH-4 strike/reconnaissance drones.
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The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) had just 12 Flankers and no support aircraft at Hotan before the June border clashes between Chinese and Indian troops that left scores of soldiers dead on both sides. CASI’s estimate is based on open-source imagery from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-2 Earth observation satellite.
The imagery “suggests that there is at least some flight activity, so these aircraft are not just parked for show,” CASI research director Rod Lee tells me.
However, Chinese airpower in Ladakh seems to be defensively focused on gaining air superiority to protect Chinese ground troops from Indian aircraft, as well as performing reconnaissance missions and blocking Indian recon flights. While Chinese fighters could strike Indian airfields to suppress Indian airpower, the composition of the PLAAF contingent doesn’t appear oriented toward conducting air strikes on Indian troops, supply lines and infrastructure.
“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 says. “Presently, the PLAAF’s role is likely to provide ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] support and help deter India from escalating by its presence alone. If things were to escalate into the shooting war, 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.”
China’s fighters would face a reinforced Indian force in Ladakh, which now includes five newly arrived French-made Rafale fighters as well as less advanced MiG-29K fighters. India experts assert that the Rafale is superior to all Chinese fighters, while Chinese media claims that the Rafale is no match for China’s J-20 stealth fighter.
Indeed, for now China has a strong disincentive to base too many aircraft in Ladakh, which would inevitably spur additional Indian reinforcements and risk a war that neither nation wants. Tensions escalated in June when Chinese and Indian troops engaged in several mass fistfights in the disputed Galwan River valley, resulting in 20 Indian deaths and reportedly more than 40 Chinese casualties.
The region already witnessed war in 1962, when China defeated badly unprepared Indian forces in a brief conflict that gave China over the Aksai Chin area. The war resulted in a demarcation line that China is now trying to push back, after India built a new road to supply the desolate region.
Both Chinese and Indian aircraft can reach Ladakh from airfields outside the region, but India has the edge there. 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 notes. There are larger airbases in Xinjiang and Tibet, but they are 600 miles away, which means dispatching fighters would strain China’s limited aerial refueling capacity.
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