In a subtle show of strength to China, on August 20, 2013, the Indian Air Force (IAF) landed one of its latest acquisitions, the Lockheed Martin C-130J Super Hercules four-engine military transport aircraft at the world’s highest and recentlyactivated Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO) airstrip in Ladakh near the line of actual control (LAC). This area was the scene of a standoff with Chinese troops in April this year. The achievement will enable the armed forces to use the heavy-lift aircraft to induct troops, supplies, improve communication network and also serve as a morale booster for the troops positioned as they will be provided far better air maintenance and logistic support. The decision to deploy the C-130J was taken by the IAF considering the lower load carrying capability of An-32s and helicopters.
Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO) is a place in Ladakh named after a 16th-century Yarkandi nobleman who journeyed through the Karakoram Pass that is just 17 km away from it and perished at this location. In fact, the name literally means “Daulat Beg Died”. The airfield at DBO was commissioned in July 1962, a few months before the Sino-Indian conflict. Located at an elevation of 16,614 feet above sea level, DBO is the highest airfield in the world. The first IAF pilot to land a C-119G Fairchild Packet aircraft at DBO was Squadron Leader C.K.S. Raje who set a record of sorts. However, on account of an earthquake in 1966 that caused some instability of the runway surface, operation by fixed-wing aircraft was discontinued. Helicopters, however, continued to operate to support troops deployed in the forward areas as these machines are not runway-dependent. The airfield was once again activated for fixed-wing aircraft with an IAF An-32 landing there on May 31, 2008. For some reason, logistic support by transport aircraft was not sustained thereafter.
Located a few kilometres from the line of actual control (LAC), the airfield at DBO is strategically and tactically an extremely important outpost especially if it were to be developed to support large-scale operations by heavy-lift transport aircraft. Should the military situation demand, the airfield at DBO can help achieve a variety of military objectives. It can be used to dominate the Karakoram highway that is becoming a vital economic link between China and Pakistan especially from the point of view of the former’s energy security needs. Strategically, China is building a road link to Gwadar port on the southern coast of Pakistan to gain easy access to the Arabian Sea. The airstrip at DBO can also provide an alternative route to the Indian military to support forces deployed on the Siachen Glacier, another area of vital strategic interest to India.
Since 1962, India and China have been engaged in a seemingly interminable border dispute, attributable primarily to the fact that the Sino-Indian border has never been formally demarcated. Despite several meetings at different levels between the representatives of the two nations, the border dispute continues to remain unresolved. The unending impasse has been a major irritant in the Sino-Indian relationship. In the recent past, there was once again a confrontation between China and India when on April 15, 2013, Chinese troops intruded 19 km into Indian territory in the Depsang Valley. The stand-off ended after three weeks when Chinese troops withdrew.
China has developed five airfields in Tibet and continues to create elaborate infrastructure on its side of the border to support large-scale military operations. However, China is opposed to India doing likewise in Indian territory over which it lays claim. China has even gone to the extent of warning India against any kind of build up along the LAC on the Indian side of the border. The tension on the Sino-Indian border therefore persists.
Given its strategic and military importance, it is only logical that India should develop the airfield at DBO for operations by fixed-wing medium- and heavy-lift transport aircraft of the IAF. It should also be expected that China would be sensitive to such effort by India and its concerns could be manifest through further incursion into Indian territory in Ladakh or in Arunachal Pradesh. As for the IAF, landing by the C-130J Super Hercules, an event that is in focus, was more in the nature of a trial landing by a modern transport aircraft, newly acquired by the IAF. As compared with the Packet C-119G, the Dakota C-47 and the An-32 that have landed there earlier the C-130J Super Hercules aircraft are far more powerful and are specifically designed for operating from semi-prepared runways of restricted length. While the IAF carried out a trial landing purely for professional and military considerations, the event appears to have acquired the overtones of a political exercise.
One should not be surprised if the IAF lands at the airfield the much larger and more capable recently acquired Boeing C-17 Globemaster III four-engine strategic heavy-lift aircraft. at the DBO. Amidst the escalating tension between the two nations, this step by the IAF in all likelihood will be interpreted as a stronger political message to China. But perhaps more important is the clear demonstration of will by the IAF to continue development and operationalisation of airfields in border areas that are sensitive.