A peek at China’s aerial preparedness along the Ladakh borders
The airbase is located near the town of Hotan, a major transit point on the Indian Silk Road to Yarkand (China’s Yarkant County) and beyond.
Hotan is now one of the largest bases of the Chinese air force, the PLAAF, in the Western Theatre Command.
A scrutiny of satellite imagery as latest as June 22 revealed China’s air-force activities at the facility.
Location and Infrastructure
Located about 200km north-east of Karakoram Pass and less than 400km from the Finger 4 area of Pangong Tso, the Hotan airbase has a 3330-meter runway with a width of 60 meter.
It’s a dual-use airport for civil and military purposes, with three of its aprons dedicated to the PLAAF and one for a civil terminal.
There are no dedicated aircraft shelters. A repair hangar does exist though, probably for minor repairs.
Fighter Aircraft Deployment
The Hotan airbase toyed with the idea of having J-10 fighter aircraft in 2014.
That possibly did not work well with operational responsibilities and the J-7s, the Chinese version of the MiG 21s, were instead brought in because of their operational capabilities in extreme weather.
From 2017 onwards, the J-8II and J-11B combat aircraft have been observed at this location but in small numbers.
The latest satellite imagery indicates presence of a regiment each of these two fighter aircraft.
The latest satellite images show four special aircraft standing on one of the aprons — two Y-8G or Y-8 GX4 ELINT aircraft and two KJ-500 or Y-9 GX10 early warning.
The Y-8 GX4 are electronic intelligence-gathering (ELINT) aircraft with two large cheek fairings carrying counter-measures antennae.
These antennae are purposed for long-range standoff jamming.
The large cylindrical antenna on top of the tail and below forward fuselage (not seen in satellite images) are believed to be ELINT — electronic intelligence — antennae.
The Y-9 GX10 or KJ-500 aircraft is an airborne early warning version with a circular rotodome on top of the fuselage for a 360-degree visibility.
The bar-type side fairings on the rear fuselage are interferometers for electronic support and intelligence-gathering measures.
This deployment seems to have become permanent now after the present standoff with India in the Ladakh region.
Old J-7 Fighters
Since the advent of J-11Bs at the Hotan airbase, the J-7s have taken a backseat. They probably have been discarded from active service.
In the latest satellite images, they are seen parked on a makeshift apron near the UAV (drone) hangars and parked in a graveyard fashion.
Their location in proximity to the UAV hangars may suggest these J-7 fighters may be re-purposed for use as UCAVs (unmanned combat aerial vehicles) after installation of remote-control modules.
The Hotan airbase saw two new 40mx35m hangars being constructed in 2015 in the south-eastern corner of the runway.
Within a year, they grew from two to five with new three hangars of 60mx45m.
No UAVs have been observed on open-source imagery at this location.
The commercial imagery, however, showed the latest CH-5 UCAVs of the PLAAF parked near these hangars in 2018.
The surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) for air defence of the facility have been observed at this airbase since 2011.
They remained at the apron for almost a year until being relocated to a permanent place 5km to the east of the runway.
Today, China’s HQ-9 SAMs are seen in erect position at this place along with at least seven radars.
This SAM battery has been co-located with a special-forces unit and a small heliport.
An administrative building in this complex has also been camouflaged with netting.
The radar position, which provides 3D low and high altitude coverage, has recently been camouflaged.
The platforms have been covered with massive nettings.
Ammunition Point Expanded
The PLAAF has expanded the ammunition point with three additional large buildings.
Two of these buildings have revetments all around them for security.
The third building is possibly a check-out barrack, with drive through facilities.
A large number administrative buildings and living accommodations have been created for additional troops.
The construction is modular, indicating the rush with which the PLAAF had the work completed.
The PLAAF, which has never seen combat action ever since its raising, has been preparing itself until now through training exercises at various levels.
However, China’s issues with the erstwhile USSR taught them to indigenize the PLAAF. The production rates of the Chinese military aircraft is unbelievably high.