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 to 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, Bagdogra, 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; ultralight howitzers 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 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 N A K 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 1,000-crore 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 A K Antony was flown there for a personal inspection on June 22. That was after the 2,700 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 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 Marshal 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 watching China’s developing capabilities in Tibet, just across the Line of Actual Control from Nyoma. According to Air Marshal 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 only part of the resurfacing can be completed this year, before winter stops work. The rest of the runway will be resurfaced next year.