This Article is From Dec 19, 2022

Exclusive: China War-Gamed Arunachal With Drones, Jets After Tawang Clash

The images from Maxar come as the Indian Air Force maintains combat air patrols over the skies of Arunachal Pradesh because of increased Chinese air activity.

Exclusive: China War-Gamed Arunachal With Drones, Jets After Tawang Clash

China's new WZ-7 Soaring Dragon at Changdu Bangda Airport. With inputs: Damien Symon. High res here

High-resolution satellite imagery accessed by NDTV within days of the clashes in Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh, indicates that Beijing has positioned large numbers of drones and fighter aircraft at major Tibetan airbases, which are ranged against India's northeast.

The images from Maxar come as the Indian Air Force maintains combat air patrols over the skies of Arunachal Pradesh because of increased Chinese air activity. In the last few weeks, the Air Force has also scrambled its fighter jets on at least two occasions after detecting Chinese aircraft that threatened to breach Indian airspace over Arunachal.

An image from China's Bangda Airbase, which lies just 150 km northeast of the Arunachal Pradesh boundary, shows the presence of a state-of-the-art WZ-7 'Soaring Dragon' drone. Officially unveiled for the first time in 2021, the Soaring Dragon, which can fly non-stop for upto 10 hours, is designed for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions and may be able to transmit data to enable cruise missiles to strike targets on the ground.


China's new WZ-7 Soaring Dragon being prepared for operations at Changdu Bangda Airport. With inputs: Damien Symon. High res here

India operates no drone of this class.

''Their induction and operational use indicates that an active and fully functional networked environment has been put in place to support missions over Aksai Chin and around the McMahon line in the Northeast Indian region,'' says Sameer Joshi, a former IAF fighter pilot whose company NewSpace is working closely with Hindustan Aeronautics to develop a new generation of drones for India's armed forces. In other words, Chinese drones are part of an integrated system that enables their Air Force to accurately monitor Indian ground positions on a real-time basis. These positions can then be targeted by other drones or fighter aircraft with missiles and other weapons.


On November 27, China positioned at least 10 Flanker-type fighter jets on the tarmac of Shigatse Airport along with KJ-500 airborne early warning and control aircraft. With inputs: Damien Symon. High res here

The December 14 images of Bangda Airbase also show two Flanker-type fighter jets on the flight-line. These are made-in-China variants of the Russian-designed Su-30MKI fighter operated by the Indian Air Force.


Chinese-manufactured Sukhoi-30 fighter jet variant on tarmac of Changdu Bangda Airport, December 14, 2022. With inputs: Damien Symon. High res here

''The platforms observed in the satellite imagery along with other recent reports highlight a wide range of long-endurance platforms China can use to fatigue, engage and monitor Indian movements in conflict zones,'' says Sim Tack, a leading Military Analyst with Force Analysis who has closely tracked the development of Chinese military assets in the Tibet region, particularly after the Doklam stand-off of 2017. ''The improvement of China's air combat capability in this region will definitely have a major impact on India's Air Force and how it positions itself for the future threat.''

The images of Bangda coincide with major Indian Air Force exercises over Arunachal Pradesh last week and indicate an effort by the Chinese to monitor the wargames, assess IAF tactics and detect Indian radar and electronic emissions, valuable data that can be used to counter the IAF in the event of an actual conflict.

The heightened Chinese military aviation activity comes amidst violent physical skirmishes in the Yangtse region (Tawang sector) of Arunachal Pradesh where Indian Army troops fought Chinese soldiers on December 9 to repulse a Chinese effort at capturing a high-altitude post. In a statement in parliament, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh referred to this as a Chinese bid to ''unilaterally change the status quo'' of the Line of Actual Control, in other words, slice into Indian territory. Soldiers of both sides were injured in the clashes though the exact numbers are unclear.


Runway expansion in progress at Lhasa Gonggar Airport on November 24, 2022. With inputs: Damien Symon. High res here

China's upgrade of its air bases and aviation assets, including fighters, transports, drones, electronic warfare and reconnaissance assets since the border tension with India began in 2020 has been staggering by any definition. Since then, there has been a massive development of ground-based air defences in Tibet, heliports, fortifications with the construction of rail lines to support the infrastructure push.

''Over the last few years, we have been tracking China's airpower expansion along its border with India, watching air bases be expanded and renovated along with the construction of new airports and heliports,'' says Damien Symon, a widely published imagery analyst with Intel lab who has documented the growth of China's military and associated infrastructure along its frontier with India. ''This development has accelerated to an unprecedented level in the past years, creating new supply routes and enhancing connectivity for Chinese forces across Tibet and Eastern Ladakh.''

The images in this report showcase the development of three key air bases - Bangda (150 kms from the Arunachal boundary), Lhasa (260 kms from the boundary) and Shigatse (150 kms from the Sikkim border). At Lhasa, there is clear evidence of ongoing expansion activity, including the construction of a second runway.

''With an increase in quantity, as well as quality of combat aircraft, airfields and the tight integration of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), the Chinese Air Force is clawing back at the advantage which the IAF has enjoyed over the years towards operations over Tibet," says Sameer Joshi.


Four J-10 on the flightline at Lhasa Gonggar Airport on November 28, 2022. The J-10 has also been exported to Pakistan by China. With inputs: Damien Symon. High res here

India operates major airbases in the plains of Assam and Bengal including Tezpur, Missamari, Jorhat, Hashimara and Bagdogra. For decades, Indian fighters operating from these bases had an advantage over Chinese fighters since they could take off with a full complement of missiles, bombs and fuel unlike Chinese jets which faced severe weight restrictions at take-off because of the high altitude of the Tibetan airbases from where they operate. There was a sense that IAF fighters would be better armed and would fly longer than Chinese aircraft if they entered into combat.

That advantage may be fading fast because of China's upgrade of its entire air defence system in Tibet. China's "deep integration of combat aircraft and UAVs [Unmanned Aerial Vehicles] along with layered Surface-to-Air Missile systems around core airfields like Ngari Gunsa, Shigatse, Lhasa and Bangda mitigates the terrain disadvantage which the PLAAF [People's Liberation Army Air Force] has faced in the past,'' says Mr Joshi. New generation combat jets like the J-10C, J-11D and J-15 based in upgraded Chinese airbases with longer runways and supported by Airborne Warning and Control (AWACS) aircraft will increasingly be able to ''undertake offensive sweeps in likely ingress corridors for IAF strike packages.'' That means Chinese fighter formations operating out of Tibet are more likely now to intercept Indian Air Force jets than they have ever been in the past.


Flightline of Shigatse Airport showing unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) operations on November 27, 2022. With inputs: Damien Symon. High res here

The Indian Air Force, which received the last of 36 Rafale fighters it contracted from France just last week, has repeatedly warned of its falling squadron strength with obsolete aircraft such as the MiG-21 being progressively retired. The IAF, which has a sanctioned strength of 42 squadrons (approximately 18 aircraft per squadron), presently operates just 32 squadrons, well short of its requirements. Given the present pace of orders and inductions, it is unlikely the IAF will be close to meeting its requirements even a decade from now.