Now, another air force base on the China border - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Friday 1 October 2010

Now, another air force base on the China border

Right: An AN-32 transport aircraft landing at the improved airstrip at Nyoma. For fighter operations, this compacted dirt airstrip will have to be upgraded to a hard surface

Left: An aerial view of the Leh airfield, currently Ladakh's only fighter base. The IAF is concerned that any disruption of Leh could affect fighter support to troops on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 2nd Oct 10

India is responding to China’s disconcerting build-up of roads and railways to the India-Tibet border by stepping up its own ability to project military power. A top Indian Air Force commander has revealed plans for a brand new airbase at Nyoma, in Ladakh, from which IAF fighters could fly missions against the nearby border, where Indian jawans were overwhelmed in 1962 without any fighter support.

This follows New Delhi’s decision in 2008 to station frontline Sukhoi-30MKI fighters at four IAF bases in northeast India --- Tezpur, Baghdogra, Chhabua and Hashimara --- close by the Sino-Indian border. A slew of ongoing equipment purchases --- e.g. the C-130J Super Hercules and C-17 Globemaster III transport aircraft; the P8I Poseidon Multi-mission Maritime Aircraft (MMA); ultralight howitzers (ULH) and light tanks for hilly terrain --- also beef up India’s abilities against China. A new corps, of some 50,000 troops, the Indian Army’s first manpower increase in decades, will be stationed on the China border. And several disused border airfields have been refurbished to allow operations by the IAF’s AN-32 transporters.

But Nyoma will be much more than that. According to Air Marshall NAK Browne, the chief of the IAF’s Western Air Command (WAC), “We shall be able to operate each and every aircraft of the IAF from Nyoma…. Our modern fighters, particularly the Sukhoi-30MKI, are designed to operate from such high altitude airfields. We have forwarded our plan to the MoD and… if we get the go-ahead today, (building Nyoma air base) would take 3-4 years.”

The air marshall confirmed that an ongoing Rs 1000 crores scheme to transform 30 IAF air bases into world-class fighter facilities --- termed the Modernisation of Airfield Infrastructure (MAFI) plan --- would also be extended to Nyoma.

Such is the importance of Nyoma, that Defence Minister AK Antony was flown there for a personal inspection on 22nd June. That was after the 2700 metre Nyoma airfield was prepared in just 90 days by an army engineer regiment, using a special compacting compound.

Defence experts are unanimous that fighter aircraft support can make the difference between victory and defeat in high altitude battlefields, but not everyone believes that fighters should be placed so close to the border, vulnerable to enemy attack. Air Commodore Jasjit Singh who heads the Centre for Air Power Studies, the IAF’s think tank, says, “While there is no denying the utility of aerial resupply and close air support, fighter aircraft should be based a safe distance away from the border. India has mid-air refuelling aircraft, which can extend the fighters’ operating ranges.”

While Nyoma was initially activated, in mid-2009, as a transport airfield to which troops and equipment could be quickly airlifted in a border crisis, the August floods in Leh, which submerged the airfield, led the IAF to conclude that an alternative to Leh was essential. Says Air Marshall Browne, “We need more options in that area if Leh is shut down because of landslides and floods… Besides, the (northern Ladakh) airfields of Leh and Thoise often get shut down because of (bad weather caused by) western disturbances. The weather pattern is far easier for us around Nyoma.

Before settling on Nyoma, the IAF has evaluated several other potential air bases in Ladakh. But Daulat Beg Oldi was too high (16,200 feet); Chushul was too close to the border; and Fukche could not have its runway extended because of water bodies at both ends.

Meanwhile, the IAF is closely watching China’s developing capabilities in Tibet, just across the Line of Actual Control from Nyoma. According to Air Marshall Browne, “We are looking at the new threats…. and all of that is factored into our planning… whether in terms of new (Chinese) bases, sensors, missiles, radars and new weapons. We evaluate how these could affect us.”

Even as Nyoma is built up as Ladakh’s second major airbase after Leh, the runway at Leh is being resurfaced after the recent floods. The IAF says that only part of the resurfacing can be completed this year, before winter stops work. The rest of the runway will be resurfaced next year.


  1. A good move. Air Cdr. Singh is right though. High value assets so close to the border can be susceptible to pre-emptive strikes by special operations forces or missiles or Rt. But capability for quick deployments/ exercising is a good psychological move. Hallelujah!

  2. After reading this article, I feel like our air force has already started giving excuses for being unable to effectively build infrastructure in the face of mounting Chinese pressure. Be assured this pressure will only grow more. I hope our decision makers don't neglect the power of guerrilla warfare and asymmetric warfare in the face of overwhelming enemy forces superiority. The Chinese will always rely on use of overwhelming force during attack. The only ways to defeat such force is thru preemption ( which our politicians won't have the courage to undertake) and the other is "Stalingrad". Hence prepare bases not near the border, which would most certainly get annihilated in the first strike, but around an Indian " Stalingrad". And I hope India understands a war with China this time should not just be limited to border war, but "all out" war.

  3. Excellent news.

    That may show our firmness and resolve in case against the Sino Red Dragon.

  4. Anonymous @ 1207

    I disagree with your hypothesis about "All out war" with China.

    If you study Chinese military strategy and thought spanning millenia, you will realise that the Chinese are more than anything else pragmatic. With the aberration of Maoist military thought in some respects, China would like to win without too much loss, especially to their economy and infrastructure.

    And so the dedication of the Chinese to Pakistan and Bangladhesh and Burma and Sri Lanka. The economic benefits accruing from this dedication is merely the icing on the cake.

    Any future war with China is likely to be short, very sharp and designed to inflict humiliation and thus teach us "uncultured yinduren" a lesson about playing with the dragon.

    The Chinese have a proverb; "There cant be 2 tigers on 1 mountain" ; in this context the mountain being Asia. They want to teach us that for good.

    So, war will most probably be a higly coordinated attack from at least 2 fronts on our borders with China, probably preceded by a comprehensive cyber attack on our network centric capabilities..including AFNET :( Of course the Pakistanis may feel obliged by their feelings of brotherhood and solidarity to open western fronts as well... Oh, and who knows, by coincidence then, our dear Maoists may feel obliged to act up more than usual..

    It will be aimed at the military, trying to avoid civilian causalities, especially in Arunachal.

    The prospect of a Stalingrad is impossible, simply because one of the cornerstones of Chinese defence is infrastructural strength. A Stalingrad resulting from an invasion of India will sorely test Chinese infrastructure... to the point of unacceptable damage.

    And besides, all said and done, the Indian military of today is not exactly the Indian military of 1962...even though many aspects of our organizational thinking remains in the colonial era.

    Bases near the border are very good for several reason, one of the main being the psychological impact of a show of our preparedness to do what it takes to safeguard our borders. How we deploy our assets is a matter of higher strategy than can be speculated on simplistically :)

  5. Heberian @ 0714, war has no short or long form. The shortness or length and intensity is decided by the leaderships ability to sustain inspite of heavy casualties and damage. As you said there cannot be 2 tigers on 1 mountain. If India's leadership cannot prepare for such scenario, then they are only fantasizing about our provoking and containing China. India is over a billion "weak" is what the message is being given out by this "dim-witted" posturing on the frontier against a billion "strong" Chinese. Seems like only India plays for "status-quo" or not winning a game. Forget Chinese of yore, it is the present psyche that we need to deal with. If economy and infrastructure protection is there weakness, then that needs to be leveraged to the max.

  6. Anonymous @ 2238 -

    Well well. The point I was trying to make in my usual, long winded manner is that we as a nation have fallen into a rut of being reactive, with no clearly designed national goals... unlike China.

    War is not about ability to sustain. That form of warfare, last seen in the trenches, is long outdated. Post WW2... the wars in Korea/Vietnam, Afghanistan/Gulf etc are different. These were/are expeditionary wars by "unchallengeable powers", and yet one can see the results all too clearly.

    Strength rises not by empty talking, but by introspection and action. As a nation, we simply sing about "Sone ki chidiya..", but dont have the discipline to introspect and identify our weaknesses and act to change them.

    Sadly, the Chinese have historically been good at it. Post Mao, with Deng's ascent, they realised that to be truly strong needed a lot of groundwork. And so Deng's dictat : hide your strength and bide your time. They ensured that their economy was superb and the average chinese on the street had roti, kapda AND makan and really good clothes to boot....before starting to flex their muscles. Have we?

    For India to "win a game", as you simplistically put it, we have to look beyond war. War is not the solution... but ability to discourage others from waging war against us is part of the solution. By your thoughtflow, the North Koreans with their seemingly mighty military, is the example to follow. To "win the game", we first need to ensure basic sanitation, drinking water, food and education to every Indian... The military is our martial form, but a superb martial form around a "khotta sikka" doesnt last.

    Some very simple food for thought: If the Chinese can build the superb high altitude railway line to Lhasa, and excellent all weather roads in Aksai Chin, what keeps us from doing the same? Its not lack of engineering skills or lack of money... its our thinking... What good will Nyoma or Chushul or DB Oldi be if the Chang La pass is unuseable for 7 months in a year?

    By the way, forgetting "Chinese of yore" will be a rather stupid thing for us to do, leading to another 1962. Thankfully, there are many in the various services who know better, despite the politicians. You may know that Sun Tzu's "Art of war" is compulsory reading in many excellent military academies around the world, including the USA.

    And just so you know, I am not speaking from knowledge gained from websurfing during office hours or other spare time.

  7. I feel india is getting sucked into an arms race, with a foe that has far more resources currently. Do you think that is wise? You have plenty of nukes.

  8. Heberian:

    You are right about being "long-winded". It really shouldn't take 450 words to make a simple point.

    May I ask you to post shorter comments?

    And that goes for everyone.


  9. Col. Shukla, sir, yes sir! My attempt at brevity will be much more sincere.

    Mertz, we speak again! :)

    Well, its a yes and no situation in my opinion. Do we need a modern, well equipped military with a coherent & modern outlook, capable of deterring/dissuading coordinated, multi-front attacks.. the answer is a resounding yes.

    Do we need to spend billions on platforms whilst not doing much to master the technologies and indigenise defense systems and encouraging private companies in defense? The answer is an often ignored no.

    I personally think its all about resource allocation based on realistic perceptions and long term goals. And defence is unfortunately a pre-requisite for peace, in this region at least.

    But then we were never known for long term strategic thinking/planning and execution, even in civilian sectors :(

    Since Col. Shukla has commanded brevity, I can but recommend that you may want to check out an excellent recent publication by Stephen Cohen of Brookings called "Arming without aiming". It has some very good stuff on how we go about doing our thing.

  10. Heberian

    Thanks for the book reference. I will look it up.

  11. Surprisingly, Nyoma airbase can be viewed from google maps, Is that an ok situation. Air bases should be blocked from public view? Or am I just being paranoid. If I am not, the govt should take cognizance of this and pursue google and other mapping agencies to block off such data


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