Kargil: Implications of a Full-Fledged Air Base for India

In a move that may rat­tle India’s neigh­bours, the Indi­an Air Force (IAF) has decid­ed to con­vert the Kargil airstrip into a full-fledged air force base by 2016.

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The strip lies close to the Line of Con­trol (LoC) with Pak­istan. The IAF is plan­ning to oper­ate medi­um, heavy-lift and com­bat air­crafts from Kargil in the near future. The Kargil War of 1999 saw sig­nif­i­cant shelling and dam­age to the airstrip, and con­vert­ing the air­port into a full-fledged air base seems to be a log­i­cal response to those los­es.

The upgra­da­tion of the advanced land­ing ground (ALG) in Nyoma is also in the pipelines. It is sit­u­at­ed in the Leh dis­trict of the Ladakh region. The com­pact airstrip at Nyoma is only 23kms from Line of Actu­al Con­trol (LAC) with Chi­na. The expan­sion plan is part of a series of air­field mod­erni­sa­tion projects tak­en up since the gov­ern­ment revised its pol­i­cy and began upgrad­ing infra­struc­ture along bor­der. The plan of hav­ing an air base in Kargil, which shares a bor­der with Pak­istan and Chi­na can be inter­pret­ed as an effort to address the threat posed by both coun­tries simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, and hence of great strate­gic sig­nif­i­cance to India.

Pro­tec­tion of Indi­an Strate­gic Inter­ests:

The upgra­da­tion of the airstrip by the IAF is to strength­en its capa­bil­i­ties in Ladakh. It can be seen as a step to shore up its offen­sive and defen­sive capa­bil­i­ties and oper­ate all types of air­crafts along the bor­der with Pak­istan and Chi­na in the north and north­east­ern regions of Jam­mu and Kash­mir. India’s mil­i­tary estab­lish­ment has watched rapid devel­op­ment in Tibet through the con­struc­tion of roads, air­fields, bridges and rail­ways by the Chi­nese Gov­ern­ment and the upgra­da­tion of the airstrip can be seen as a response to the Chi­nese actions.

The Chi­nese intru­sion along the bor­der area of Ladakh can be seen as anoth­er fac­tor, which led to the deci­sion of con­vert­ing the airstrip into a full-fledged air base. In August 2011, two Chi­nese heli­copters, each with sev­en to eight troop­ers on board, flew into Indi­an ter­ri­to­ry along the LAC in Chu­mur area of the Ladakh region. This was not the first time that Chi­nese chop­pers entered Indi­an ter­ri­to­ry. On June 21, 2009, two Chi­nese chop­pers report­ed­ly intrud­ed into Chu­mur, fol­low­ing which mil­i­tary patrolling in the area was stepped up by the Army. The devel­op­ment of a full-fledged air base in Kargil will act as a deter­rent to future intru­sions and attacks by the imme­di­ate neigh­bours.

The Draw­backs:

The extreme for­ward loca­tion of this base makes its strate­gic and oper­a­tional val­ue extreme­ly dubi­ous, not to men­tion that it ignores sev­er­al cen­tral tenets of air war­fare. To note is that this airstrip is with­in the shelling range of Pak­istani guns and the sta­tion­ing of mul­ti­mil­lion dol­lar air­crafts with­in the range of Pak­istani artillery rais­es ques­tions about the strate­gic plan­ning of the air force. More­over, the wis­dom of sta­tion­ing air­crafts at such height, there­by reduc­ing both their range and pay­load, removes a sig­nif­i­cant air pow­er advan­tage that India has over Chi­na — the Chi­nese air­fields close to the bor­der are all at high alti­tudes, where­as India has the advan­tage of the Indo-Gangetic bases, which are at sig­nif­i­cant­ly low­er alti­tudes.

This air­base can be viewed as being tac­ti­cal­ly and strate­gi­cal­ly inutile. This is due to the fact that­sig­nif­i­cant resources will be expend­ed to elim­i­nate the threat at the very onset of hos­til­i­ties. Its prox­im­i­ty to the bor­der, and the abil­i­ty of planes to weave their way through the moun­tains and evade Indi­an Air­borne Warn­ing and Con­trol Sys­tem (AWACS) leave it with lit­tle scope for any ear­ly warn­ing. India’s deci­sion to squan­der air pow­er advan­tages in response to Chi­nese infra­struc­tur­al activ­i­ty and bor­der provo­ca­tions betrays a sense of pan­ic and para­noia with­in the Indi­an Air Force.

Some sec­tors in Jam­mu and Kash­mir see it as a move towards increas­ing the mil­i­ta­riza­tion process in the state. How­ev­er, it is meant to act as a deter­rent to the Pak­istani and Chi­nese threats. More­over, for the peo­ple of Kargil, it car­ries the pos­si­bil­i­ty of enhanc­ing employ­ment oppor­tu­ni­ties in the avi­a­tion sec­tor.


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