Satellite photos of a Chinese air force base high in the Tibetan mountains show new construction in the last few months, allowing it to handle many more aircraft.
Satellite photos obtained by India’s New Delhi Television (NDTV) show a massive construction project at the Ngari Gunsa airport in western Tibet, just 130 miles from Pangong Lake, a site on the border with India where Chinese and Indian forces clashed earlier this month.
In the first photo, taken on April 6, 2020, an airstrip with a single, small terminal area can be seen – not even a taxiway is visible. However, in the second photo, taken just six weeks later on May 21, the base’s size has more than doubled. Not only is there a huge new construction project to the north of the terminal, but also what seems to be either a taxiway or a second tarmac under construction.
The airport is a dual-use airfield, serving both civilian flights and People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) needs. At more than 14,000 feet up, it’s one of the world’s highest airfields, too – so high up that interceptors will have trouble staying in the air for useful amounts of time.
One former Indian Air Force pilot told NDTV that Chinese J-11 and J-16 fighters would not have “more than an hour” of endurance at that altitude.
The construction comes amid renewed clashes on the Line of Actual Control, the de facto border between parts of Jammu and Kashmir claimed by India and China. The two countries fought a short war in 1962 over the territory, which Beijing claims is only in dispute because of a misdrawn border dating to the time when India and Pakistan were British colonies.
Earlier this month, a shootout between Indian and Chinese troops near Pangong Lake resulted in several serious injuries on both sides, which rushed additional forces to the area as well as other borders, including in Uttarakhand, to the south.
Another standoff between New Delhi and Beijing occurred in the eastern part of Tibet in 2017, on the plateau called Doklam by the Indians and Donglang by the Chinese. It was similarly over construction of a highway in the disputed territory, although that confrontation never came to blows, like the more recent incident did.