China’s all-weather fighter base in Tibet is now widening its range of options in the event of a conflict with India. Intelligence intercepts and satellite monitoring has confirmed that China may have to some extent overcome Tibet’s extreme altitude and temperatures to operationalise an all-weather airfield near the Tibetan capital Lhasa.
The airfield is Gonkar, where China has deployed Su-27 fighters. Sources told CNN-IBN that the Gonkar airfield will enable Chinese fighters to widen their selection of Indian targets from Ladakh to Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. Sources say Gonkar is a direct response to the Indian Air Force stationing Su-30MKI fighters in Chabua and Tezpur in Assam. These fighters with a combat radius of about 1,000 km can hit targets deep in Tibet and mainland China.
“I would say the development of Gonkar airfield started well before the upgradation by us of our defence infrastructure, which has taken off only in the past five to seven years. Gonkar started off much earlier, they had started building underground hangars and defence and began positioning their fighter aircraft there,” former RAW officer Jaidev Ranade said.
The Chinese Air Force Su-27 fighters were observed in the winters and now with the onset of summer, they are still there, which suggests that China has built up infrastructure for their support.
It is advantage China since Gonkar is at an altitude of 16,000 feet. The fighters can take off only with less weapons payload or fuel. China has probably solved the problem by stationing an aerial refuelling aircraft at Gonkar or nearby. This will increase the range and endurance of the Su-27s.
With recent developments at Raki Nala in eastern Ladakh, the implications are clear. China has been engaged in a deliberate upping of the diplomatic and military pressure on India, probing for weaknesses, testing India’s resolve with the expectation that India will blink and back down.