China and India faced off last year in a tense military standoff on the Doklam Plateau on the disputed Line of Actual Control (LAC) high in the Himalayas. Although the impasse was temporarily resolved in late August through a negotiated drawdown, it has been clear all along that the LAC will remain a contentious border because both countries will continue to seek an advantage in this difficult terrain.
Recent reporting, particularly in the Indian press, has highlighted how India and China are bolstering their infrastructure and forces along the LAC, including through the stationing of additional ground units near the plateau. Satellite imagery acquired by Stratfor working with its partners at AllSource Analysis helps illuminate the scope of these developments by looking at the air and air defense aspects of this strengthening of forces. Specifically, the analysis looks at four critical air bases, two Chinese and two Indian, that are within range of the Doklam Plateau. The imagery confirms that both China and India are pursuing a wide-ranging strategic buildup that has only accelerated in the wake of the Aug. 27 agreement.
The View From India
On the Indian side of the border, imagery of the Siliguri Bagdogra air base and the Hasimara Air Force Station depicts how India has moved to reinforce its air power close to the Doklam Plateau. Siliguri Bagdogra normally hosts a transport helicopter unit while Hasimara was the base for MiG-27ML ground attack aircraft until they were retired at the end of 2017. Since the Doklam crisis of mid-2017, however, the Indian Air Force has greatly increased the deployment of Su-30MKI warplanes to these air bases as can be seen from the imagery. The Su-30MKI is India's premier fighter jet, and it will soon be capable of striking land targets with the advanced BrahMos cruise missile. Furthermore, Indian reports indicate that a squadron of the recently purchased Rafale multirole fighters may soon be home-based at Hasimara. The dispatch of these top-of-the-line Indian jets and airfield improvements at both stations highlight India's determination to improve its force structure near the Doklam Plateau.
On the Chinese Side
An even greater level of activity is visible from imagery of the Chinese air bases near Lhasa and Shigatse. This expansion may indicate a greater buildup by the Chinese, but it could also reflect the more advanced facilities at these bases. Furthermore, unlike India, China's lack of air bases close to the LAC forces it to concentrate more of its air power at these airports.
Imagery of the two air bases shows a significant presence of fighter aircraft (which peaked in October) and a notable increase in helicopters, as well as deployments of KJ-500 airborne early warning and command aircraft, components of the HQ-9 long-range surface-to-air missile system and Soar Dragon unmanned aerial vehicles at Shigatse Peace Airport. The Chinese made a number of major airfield upgrades at Shigatse immediately after the end of the crisis. A new runaway was constructed by mid-December, nine aircraft aprons measuring 41 meters by 70 meters were built along the main taxiway and eight helipads were set up in the northeast corner of the airfield. This construction, along with the deployment of new equipment in greater numbers, highlights how China has undertaken a serious effort to improve its capabilities close to the LAC.
The imagery shows that the Chinese and Indian buildups have only accelerated in the aftermath of the Doklam crisis. Now it is only a question of time until a new flashpoint along the LAC emerges, and as the increased activity shows, both sides will have greater capabilities to bring to bear next time.