Tracking China's Sudden Airpower Expansion On Its Western Border
Satellite images raise concerns over Beijing's incredible pace of expansion of its airpower infrastructure along its western flank.
China's bewilderingly quick construction of airfields atop man-made islands in the South China Sea, as well as its extra-territorial claims over that body of water, have grabbed headlines for years and the issue remains one of the most significant strategic and geopolitical problems of our time. Yet another far less discussed, but similar strategic expansion is underway in the western reaches of the Chinese mainland, which has gotten much less attention, yet it isn't all that less concerning. Beijing's remarkable blitz on airfield and other military-related construction in this remote region coincides with escalating tensions with its neighbor, India.
Just a year ago to the day, a clash along the Line Of Actual Control in the Galwan Valley between Chinese and Indian troops ended with dozens dead. While it was one of a long list of violent clashes over the years along various disputed portions of the border between the two countries, many saw this particular incident as a strategic turning point for both sides, but especially for the ever more powerful China.
Fast forward a year, and China's heavy investment in airpower-related facilities in the region is already being leveraged by the Chinese People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), as evidenced by an unprecedented level of activity along the Sino-Indian border as of late. This is in addition to massive growth in ground-based air defenses, as well as the construction of new fortifications, heliports, and rail lines into the area. As such, there is more going on here than just some defensive upgrades and the strategic implications are potentially severe.
With that in mind, The War Zone brought in some of the best satellite image analysts we know, virtually a who's-who of the strongest voices in Twitter's open-source intelligence community who also specialize in develpments in Asia. We want to actually show you via satellite imagery exactly what we mean when we say China is massively expanding its air combat capability footprint in the far western areas of the country, as well as what it all means.
Tensions Rise As Combat Capacity Grows
The tempo of military infrastructure development in western China, particularly in the country's Tibet and Xinjiang autonomous regions, has accelerated rapidly over the past years and airpower is one of the biggest elements of the expansion. Since 2017, the year of the tense Dokhlam standoff between India and China, an especially since last year, the number of new military facilities constructed or existing military facilities receiving significant expansions has skyrocketed.
Across its westernmost provinces, China has laid down new runways that expand the overall capacity for the PLAAF to operate in this strategic border region. The emergence of hardened aircraft shelters and underground facilities associated with various airbases has also increased the survivability of military assets deployed in the region, while the enlargement of support facilities helps boost readiness levels and the potential sustainability of air operations along the wider Chinese border with India.
Though much of this infrastructure development is focused on enabling and supporting fixed-wing airpower, there are many other significant aspects of this relentless infrastructure expansion effort. This includes expanding or building entirely new bases for helicopters, as well as ground forces, to include air defense assets, and logistics facilities.
The sudden acceleration of infrastructure development in Tibet and Xinjiang is linked directly to the rising geopolitical tensions between India and China. Border tensions between the two countries have informed a heightened military posture, though the competition between the two powers covers much more than competing territorial claims within the Himalayas. The expansion of military capabilities in this border area underpins a wider and longer-term regional competition over political, economic and military power.
The full intended extent of Chinese military infrastructure development in the region also remains not fully known, as each individually identified new runway or other military infrastructure expansion project in itself increases the potential scale and scope of China’s long-term plans. With different airbases at different stages of completion, from old airbases receiving thorough updates to newly constructed runways at others, interpretations of how Beijing will operationally apply this increased capacity develops along with the construction work.
Current observations through satellite imagery, as well as of overall Chinese behavior along its border with India, only tell the story so far, but it is clear that this is not the endpoint of China’s expanded military infrastructure ambitions. Meticulous investigation of developments across various types of military infrastructure in the region will help lift the veil on China’s true intent and capabilities over time.
With all this in mind, we have assembled satellite imagery and analyzed a number of airpower developments in the tense region. The massive expansion of China's existing airbase facilities and the building of new ones underscores just how aggressive its push to wield power over the region truly is. To put it frankly, the expansion is breathtaking in its scale and harkens back to the early 2010s in the South China Sea in terms of how fast Beijing is working to shift the strategic reality in the region on its own terms.
Satellite Imagery Analysis
Hotan Air Base
At Hotan Air Base, which is co-located with the civilian airport in Hotan, a Chinese city in Xinjiang, there has been construction of a new, second runway with its own parallel taxiway. However, additional developments at the airbase leave no question about the military purpose of new infrastructure at Hotan.
In addition to the new runway, a new support and maintenance area has been built up, containing several hangars that have also been observed hosting unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) operations. Satellite imagery also shows the construction of an underground tunnel near the new runway, the purpose of which is difficult to ascertain through imagery alone, but could possibly be used for unobserved or protected vehicular movement and munitions handling within the airbase.
Hotan is already an established airbase, actively hosting fighter aircraft as well as electronic warfare platforms, but its expansion represents a significant increase in the capacity of Chinese airpower in its westernmost territory.
Hotan Air Base is also situated very close to various sites along the border that separates China's Aksai Chin region and India's Ladakh that was involved in a protracted and sometimes violent standoff between the two countries in 2020. This region is one of the most intensely disputed areas along China's western border with India.
The expansion of capabilities at Hotan are not a minor adjustment in China’s posture and represent a drastic escalation that is fully oriented toward expanding Chinese airpower in the areas around Ladakh. In addition to airpower, the large base also serves as a major logistical hub in this region where Chinese ground forces man positions along the disputed frontlines.
Ngari Gunsa Air Base
Further south, in Tibet, Ngari Gunsa Air Base is seeing its capacity increased in a different manner. While no new runways have appeared there, China is busy constructing at least 12 hardened aircraft shelters that suggest an increased fighter presence in the future as only four Chinese Flanker aircraft are typically stationed there.
Construction of new hangars and what appears to be a dedicated air maintenance and support area, as well as munitions storage facilities, will also further increase the air base’s capacity. Satellite imagery shows an active deployment of surface-to-air missiles within the air base, as well. The development of new air defense positions alongside China’s air bases in Tibet and near other border locations is a common theme across the region-wide infrastructure drive.
The observed construction of hardened aircraft shelters, and expanding support areas, indicate an intent to base larger fighter units at Ngari Gunsa and suggests that China is actively aiming to fill assessed gaps in its airpower capabilities along this sector of its western flank. This assessment may be influenced by the deployment of Rafale fighters of the Indian Air Force at Ambala Air Force Station located just across the border from Ngari Gunsa.
With deployments increasing in the area, the new hardened aircraft shelters will also allow China to increase the survivability of its aircraft when on the ground, by protecting them against bombardments as well as environmental exposure. Perhaps more importantly, they will also conceal their presence to future observation through reconnaissance flights or satellite imagery. Until now, aircraft at Ngari Gunsa had been stationed on the open tarmac, without means of cover or concealment.
Lhasa Air Base
The Chinese airbase at Lhasa, the capital of China's Tibet Autonomous Region, is seeing similar expansions to those at Ngari Gunsa, with 24 hardened aircraft shelters under construction. The separate location of two of these shelters also suggests that they may be intended to serve a high alert function for rapid reaction.
Just as at Ngari Gunsa and Hotan, these expansions also include newly developed maintenance and support areas. At Lhasa, an entirely new helicopter staging area also appears to be under construction, which, in combination with the many heliports China is constructing in the region, as well as elsewhere in the country, draws attention to the Chinese military's emphasis on rotary-wing capabilities.
In the mountains just south of the airbase, satellite imagery also shows the ongoing construction of several underground facilities. The presence of underground facilities in the immediate vicinity of PLAAF bases is by no means unprecedented, but also underscores the importance of survivability as part of China’s military infrastructure expansion.
Lhasa Air Base is not located immediately at the western border, where the most recent standoff with India occurred, but instead sits closer to separate disputed border areas that lie across from India's Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh states. It was, in fact, the primary airbase serving Chinese airpower during the 2017 Dokhlam border crisis.
The development of military infrastructure at Lhasa also impacts China’s posture across Tibet, however, as it serves as a major logistical hub into the region. As in other air bases, the new developments such as hardened shelters will increase the survivability and concealment of aircraft on the flight line, but the construction of more elaborate underground facilities in the mountains to the south could suggest an even greater ambition to increase the protection of PLAAF aircraft and weapon systems. Here, like other locations, observations have also revealed renovations to existing area-denial systems alongside the airbase upgrade.
Kashgar Air Base
Satellite imagery of Kashgar Air Base, located along China’s western borders in Xinjiang, shows the construction of more hardened aircraft shelters as well as maintenance and support areas. In addition to these expansions in support of fighter aircraft operations, the developments at Kashgar also include an extension of the apron that is typically home to H-6 strategic bombers, and a temporary aircraft shelter that appears to support UAV operations. The facility also boasts a new, already active, air defense site integrated within the grounds of the airbase itself. The imagery shows likely HQ-9 surface-to-air missile systems deployed at this site.
The base shows largely the same type of improvements that other bases along China’s western borders have been receiving, aimed at improving survivability and support of air operations in China’s border region. The base witnessed the arrival of H-6s (a nuclear-capable platform) during the 2020 Ladakh crisis, and ongoing apron extensions in the area where they were observed could point to a long-term ambition to base these aircraft at Kashgar.
Such a capability reaches beyond efforts to control China’s airspace in the border region, supported by expanded fighter operations and new air defense positions, and plays directly into the Chinese nuclear deterrent toward India. The H-6s at Kashgar are not necessarily fulfilling a nuclear role, however, and could also provide the ability to execute standoff strikes using traditional and more exotic weapons currently in development, or they could be configured as aerial refueling tankers.
Changdu Bangda Airport
Imagery shows that China is also refurbishing the Changdu Bangda airport located in the very eastern corner of Tibet, near the disputed border with India's Arunachal Pradesh. The airport has in the past had a primarily civilian character and was used to host China’s longest paved runway at 18,000 feet before it was closed, leaving Changdu Bangda with just one operational runway. New imagery, however, shows that the runway is being refurbished and possibly even extended, while the construction of underground facilities in the mountains right next to the airport unveil a likely military role for the airport.
Located at an altitude of over 14,400 feet, the opening of a more than 18,000-foot second runway could greatly enhance the operation of a variety of aircraft within the PLAAF inventory. Especially with two long operational runways, a military role for Bangdu Changda airport could significantly increase the capacity for air operations over Eastern Tibet. The underground facilities would also be able to ensure a protected presence of PLAAF aircraft and weapon systems.
Multiple New Air Bases Under Construction (Tingri, Tashkorgan, Damxung)
In addition to the enhancement of infrastructure at existing airbases and airports, satellite imagery has also shown the ongoing construction of entirely new runways at various locations in and around Tibet. The runways are being constructed at locations that previously have not hosted airports or other military infrastructure. These runways are located at Tingri and Damxung, both located in portions of eastern Tibet opposite Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh, as well as Tashkorgan in Xinjiang near China’s border with Tajikistan.
Imagery clearly shows soil preparation and outlines of runways, aprons, and support areas under construction at these locations. The military character of these facilities cannot yet be derived from these observations, however. Still, the reality is that any additional runway capacity in Tibet and Xinjiang adds to the overall air combat potential capacity and resiliency of the PLAAF along China’s western borders.
The Bigger Picture
The overall purpose of these PLAAF infrastructure developments in China's westernmost regions is clearly centered around projecting increased airpower along the largely disputed border with India, and improving the sustainability of air operations in case of actual armed conflict. As such, the construction drive backs up China’s aggressive territorial policies along its western border areas by helping to ensure control of the skies over them.
China’s efforts extend far beyond airpower itself though, and the rapid increase of active heliports and ground forces garrisons throughout Tibet and in Xinjiang paints a picture of a vast multi-domain military buildup along the edge of China’s territorial reach that airfields will be critical in sustaining. In addition to the militarization of the region, China’s infrastructure drive actually also includes a tremendous number of civilian infrastructure developments. Some of these, such as road and rail construction, serve an indirect military purpose by enhancing military logistical capabilities. Others, such as electricity generation, telecommunications, and agricultural developments help China sustain populations into the more remote western reaches of its territory and thereby cement the political claims to territorial control over Tibet and its disputed borders with India.
The timing of this infrastructure development, which has taken place over the same general timeframe as border clashes with India in Dokhlam and Ladakh, suggests a level or pragmatism related to these border disputes, but is also closely linked to the development of China as a global power.
For China, the budgetary burden that this infrastructure development brings with it is something that can currently be shouldered by sustained economic growth, while the strategic benefit of the infrastructure itself will pay off over a much longer term. With Chinese leadership likely anticipating the possibility of increased regulatory and budgetary constraints in the future, now is the time to build up the infrastructure that can carry Chinese power projection through the coming decades.
The infrastructure developments also serve as a more short-term boost to China’s economy by subsidizing its vast construction sector as the government seeks to sustain current levels of economic growth and to expand the Chinese middle class. Beyond the ongoing construction, similar benefits can be found in the dual-use nature of some of this infrastructure as well as the permanent employment and economic activity that this militarization will bring to Tibet.
The unavoidable strategic implication of the buildup, of course, is a significant expansion of China’s anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) bubble along the entire stretch of its western border. As Chinese capabilities in this area grow, it will become more difficult for India or other neighboring nations to attempt to match its pace and maintain anything resembling a balance of power in the region.
In addition, it is important to note that these developments are well in line with similar military and dual-use infrastructure expansion initiatives in other Chinese border regions, such as across areas that are the responsibility of the PLA's Southern Theater Command and deep into the South China Sea. All of these combine to form an assertive infrastructure-driven policy toward securing vast territorial claims. The well-documented development of Chinese military facilities in the South China Sea in fact provides what can be regarded as a template to the rapid development of persistant military capabilities and combat capacity, as well as the sustainment of A2/AD bubbles that other border areas are now witnessing.
The growth of Chinese strength along its western border will surely embolden Beijing in the pursuit of territorial claims and in future border clashes that may in fact translate into an even more aggressive posture. By also logistically unlocking the Chinese ability to project offensive military power from the western part of the country, toward India or Central Asia, it raises a perception of a Chinese military threat beyond the geographically limited border disputes themselves. With this in mind, the buildup of combat capability on China's western edge will likely become a greater international concern as time goes on.
With all that being said, the big takeaway here is that China's force posture and ability to sustain a major conflict along its western border is being dramatically enhanced in a breathtakingly short period of time. That, paired with China's rapid advances in air combat capability, should make India and even other nearby countries very nervous.
Contact the editor: Tyler@thedrive.com