Sino-India border in Arunachal | IAF fortified operational abilities

Beyond the Horizon

By Pradeep Kumar

Amid border clashes in Tawang sector of Arunachal Pradesh, India found that Shigatse dual-use military and civilian airport in Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) has seen upgraded and now hosts fighter jets, airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

While Shigatse is the second largest city in TAR, the airport is approximately 155-km north of India-China border located at an elevation of 12,408 ft, and is one of the highest in the world. Practically all 11 airfields facing India in TAR and Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR) are for dual use. Lhasa Gongkar Airport in Tibet was one of two first pilot airports to implement the ‘integration’.

A joint statement from the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and General Administration of Civil Aviation (CAAC) had announced that the integration will include joint maintenance of airport support facilities, joint flight safety support and joint airport management. China uses the dual-use airports in the Himalayas to transport PLA soldiers and strategic materials, and also for use by its 15th Airborne Corps.

China’s intention to encircle India with its ‘Dog-tail foreign policy’ is well known. Thus, then  then Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh in 2008 had initiated bold steps to march aggressive China.

As Arunachal Pradesh shares 1,126-km of total 3,348-km Sino-India border, Defence Ministry on 13.07.09 had taken over operational control and maintenance of eight Advanced Landing Grounds (ALGs) for smooth operation of Indian Air Force (IAF) aircrafts in Arunachal Pradesh.

Then Defence Secretary Vijay Singh leading a high-level central team had arrived and signed an MOU with the then state’s Chief Secretary Tabam Bam to take over eight ALGs. The state Govt had agreed to hand over those ALGs for dual use to meet defence needs of the country besides catering to the need of civilians of the sparsely populated land-locked state.

The ALGs were temporary advance airfields built by the Allies during World War II during the liberation of Europe. They were built in the UK prior to the invasion and thereafter in northwest Europe during 06.06.1944 to 07.05.1945. These were basically temporary tactical combat airfields often improvised airfields to be used by tactical air forces to support the advancing ground armies engaged on the battlefield. Once the front line moves out of range for the aircraft, the groups and squadrons move up to newly built ALGs closer to the ground forces and abandon them.

The ALGs, lying unused for long because of a funds crunch, were located at Walong, Tuting, Vijaynagar, Mechuka and Tawang — all close to the Sino-India border — and at Aalo, Pasighat and Ziro, HQs of West Siang, East Siang and Lower Subansiri districts respectively.

Then Chief Minister Dorjee Khandu and Finance Minister Kaliko Pul were present when the MoU was signed to fulfill promises made by PM Singh during his visit to the state in 2008.  In tune with MoU, the ALGs were upgraded and made operational.

On 18.11.11, IAF’s Vijaynagar ALG in Changlang district was inaugurated by then state Governor Gen (Retd) J J Singh after its extensive renovation to facilitate operation of C130 transport aircrafts. It was hurriedly established in the wake of 1962 Indo-China War.

On 23.10.15, IAF’s Walong ALG of was renovated and made operational. Located on the banks of Lohit River in Anjaw district nearly 30-km south of India-China LAC near Kaho village along India-China-Myanmar tri-junction, It was in operation during 1962 Indo-China War.

On 19.08.16, Sukhoi-30MKI had made historic landing at Pasight ALG, which was inaugurated by Union MoS (Home Affairs) Kiren Rijiju in presence of EAC AOC-in-C air marshal C Hari Kumar and large number of civil and military dignitaries. A flypast by a formation of three Sukhoi-30 MKI Air Dominance Fighter aircrafts, that took off from one of the EAC forward airbases was a highlight of the event. This was followed by a Su-30 MKI landing at the ALG. The touchdown by an IAF frontline fighter jet at the ALG is a ‘historic first’ in the predominantly hilly state of Arunachal Pradesh.

In Sept 2016, Tawang Air Force station, set up to ensure border security needs of the country, was upgraded with a runway for fixed wing aircrafts, including large and heavy transport aircrafts. It was originally a functional heliport and fixed-wing ALG capable of handling Lockheed Martin C-130J Super Hercules transport aircraft. It was then playing a pivotal role in security training and monitoring. Radar was set up in 2010-11 and helicopter service was introduced for tourism under UDAN scheme.

On 04.11.16, IAF’s largest transport aircraft (C-17 Globemaster) landed on 4200-ft-long runway, just 29-km from Sino-India border in Mechuka, then in West Siang & now in Shi-Yomi district, at 6,200-ft elevation. The conventional military cargo aircrafts operate from 9000-ft-long runways even at sea-level airfields.  Shillong Defence PRO group captain Amit Mahajan in a statement had said that the trial landing of C-17 aircraft validated its short-field landing performance even at high altitude and demonstrated.

On 29.12.16, IAF’s renovated Tuting ALG on the banks of Siang River in Upper Siang district was inaugurated by Chief Minister Pema Khandu in presence of Eastern Air Command (EAC) air officer commanding-in-chief (AOC-in-C) Air Marshal C Hari Kumar. It was abandoned after 1962 India-China War. The airstrip is used for vital air supplies from Assam by aircrafts and helicopters.

On 13.07.18, two upgraded ALGs at Ziro and Along, HQs of Lower Subansiri & West Siang district respectively, were inaugurated to boost IAF operational capabilities in Eastern Air Command to enable operation of C-130J Super Hercules,” its AOC-in-C Air Marshal C Hari Kumar had said.

In Sept 2016, Tawang Air Force station was upgraded with a runway for fixed wing aircrafts, including large and heavy transport aircrafts. It was originally a functional heliport and fixed-wing ALG capable of handling Lockheed Martin C-130J Super Hercules transport aircraft. It was set up to ensure border security needs of the country and playing a pivotal role in security training and monitoring. Radar was set up in 2010-11. Helicopter service was introduced for tourism under UDAN scheme.

Three more ALGs were proposed at Dirang in West Kamng district, at Upper Subansiri district HQ Daporijo and at Alinye, 8-km from Dibang Valley district HQs Anini.. In November 2020, a 16-member inter-ministerial team and representatives from Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and Alliance Air had inspected the Alinye ALG (in pic), built during 1962 Indo-China War & lying abandoned, when villagers were opposing to offer land without compensation.

Moreover, state’s air connectivity had achieved yet another milestone on 26.09.21 with the  HAL inking an agreement with Alliance Air to lease out two ‘Made in India’ Dornier DO-228, a 16-seater fixed-wing aircrafts, to introduce phase-wise  flight services to remote towns of Pasighat, Tezu, Mechuka, Tuting, Ziro and Vijaynagar.

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