The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been continuously upgrading its infrastructure in occupied Eastern Ladakh since the last nine months. Satellite images over Tibet and East Turkestan (Xinjiang), especially along the Indian borders, indicate that China has been rushing to upscale its military facilities in Eastern Ladakh since the last three months amid the standoff between Indian and Chinese troops in the region.
India Today had earlier detailed surface-to-air missiles (SAM) locations from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh. In fact, China had planned an ingress into Eastern Ladakh as early as August 2019 as indicated by satellite images.
India Today OSINT team now investigates the PLA’s latest construction of a heliport inside occupied Eastern Ladakh through high-resolution satellite images received from Chris Biggers, a satellite imagery analyst based in Washington.
The heliport construction is opposite India’s Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO) airbase, and at 16,700 feet, is extremely close to the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and the 255-km Darbuk-Shyok-DBO road, and one of the reasons that sparked the standoff in early May this year. The road runs parallel to the LAC, connecting Leh to DBO, and is strategically important for India.
The airbase and the new road are extremely close to the LAC, enhancing India’s logistics capabilities, but irking China.
Latest satellite images covering occupied areas of Aksai Chin indicate that PLA has been constructing a heliport within the contested area. The heliport area was earmarked in the month of August 2019 and preparations began in October 2019.
Satellite images from Sentinel suggest that although preparations had begun and area marked for the heliport, construction was stalled till the beginning of April 2020, when the first activity was observed on satellite imagery.
The heliport’s construction incidentally coincides with China’s military build-up that started in mid-April. The Chinese actions were not just a spontaneous reaction to India’s road construction, but a well-planned move as the unusual activities by Chinese were reported in mid-April at least three weeks before the first clashes took place during face-offs.
Work progressed steadily after May 2020 when hectic activity of bulldozers levelling the area and clearing the surroundings was observed. Construction work progressed at a fast pace since the last three months even as military and diplomatic dialogue continued to end the deadlock.
Heliport runway, taxiway and apron
Satellite images reveal that the heliport is likely to have a runway of a length of 1,000 metres. However, only 700 metres of the runway is being graded, probably due to the winters.
A taxiway-cum-apron in semi-circular inverted D shape is seen being constructed with a 600-metre apron parallel to the runway. Eight large areas are being prepared for construction of possibly 24 hangars around the taxiway.
The eastern end has a large area that is being graded, probably for larger transporter helicopters to park. It could be developed as a technical area for the repair of aircraft.
Underground command-and-control centre
China is also making efforts to harden the heliport in occupied territory. Just behind the main building that is likely to have the air traffic controller, PLA has started preparing underground constructions for a proper command-and-control centre.
Satellite images indicate that the underground construction was started in mid-August this year.
High-resolution satellite imagery provided by Planet Labs indicates a large underground construction, which will be a deeply buried complex, possibly with all modern facilities.
The underground construction of the command-and-control module indicates that China is fully preparing itself for a high-end war in occupied Eastern Ladakh.
India and China have been involved in the standoff for eight months now with both sides deploying troops, artillery guns, tanks and armoured vehicles in close proximity.
Tensions started with skirmishes in Pangong Lake in May when troops came to blows on more than one occasion, leaving many injured on both sides. On June 15, in an ugly clash in another area called Galwan Valley, 20 Indian soldiers died, while the Chinese never made their casualty public.
There have been eight rounds of military talks at the Corps Commander level to find a solution to the standoff that started early May but the deadlock continues.
Despite the previous talks on November 6 discussing a disengagement plan, there has been no forward movement, and no further dialogue has taken place to implement measures discussed to ease out tensions.