China expands helicopter bases in the Tibetan plateau

String of heliports will host the high-altitude Z-20 utility helicopters to combat India

This vast, elevated landform in the Tibetan plateau is the highest and largest plateau in the world. Surrounded by mountain ranges, including the Himalayas, it is almost five times the size of California.

But it now contains a new secret weapon — one that threatens India.

In Golmud, on the northern edge of the plateau, a behemoth heliport can be seen under construction south of its existing airport, The War Zone reported.

A total of 63 individual hangars are visible along with the construction of barracks and support buildings.

It’s by no coincidence that Golmud has been seeing regular Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) drills west and south of the city, along with the construction of large barracks and military training facilities, the report said. 

Over the last year, China has been regularly engaged in potential conflict zones on both its eastern and western borders. As a result, territorial issues along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with India have reached new heights. 

The LAC is a notional demarcation line that separates Indian-controlled territory from Chinese-controlled territory in the Sino-Indian border dispute. The term is said to have been used by Zhou Enlai in a 1959 letter to Jawaharlal Nehru.

Hand-to-hand battle

Tensions have flared since mid-2020 when troops from both nations fought a hand-to-hand battle further west along their shared frontier in Ladakh, killing at least 20 Indian and four Chinese soldiers.

The airport in Golmud already serves as a key logistics hub, with commercial and military aircraft parking areas. Bomber, fighter, airborne early warning, and transport aircraft regularly deploy to the airfield. 

A large contingent of helicopters also calls the facility home. These helicopter operations will certainly be relocated and greatly expanded once the new heliport is operational.

Situated in an area that was historically part of Tibet, but that is currently situated in the Haixi Mongol and Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of China’s Qinghai Province, the airport greatly enhances China’s ability to improve training or execute troop movements toward any section of the Sino-Indo border if the need arises, the report said.

Experts say the Z-20 will help overcome complications to vertical lift operations caused by the air density at high altitudes

Discussions with India aside, China is digging in for the long haul, make no mistake — as if preparing for a major conflict. 

In a report released last week, the US Defense Department said Beijing was taking “incremental and tactical actions to press its claims” at LAC, despite participating in talks to resolve the crisis.

China first deployed its Z-20 utility helicopter to Tibet in 2020. 

Experts say the Z-20 will help overcome some of the complications to vertical lift operations caused by the air density at high altitudes and variations in airflow through the mountainous terrain. 

Golmud also hosts a major railway junction connecting China’s Tibet Autonomous Region to Xining and Korla, two large cities in neighboring Qinghai and Xinjiang provinces, respectively. 

String of heliports

These cities are also known to serve as bases for a variety of PLA military contingents, the report said. Moving deeper into Tibet, we see a string of heliports almost equidistant from each other located in various remote townships. 

The smaller heliports, while still quite large, hosting around 18 hangars, also appear to have their own fuel storage and servicing points, allowing them to ensure sustainability for operations between large distances.  

Renovations and expansion activity have also been noted at older pre-existing heliports such as the one in Lhasa, the report said.

The heliport has seen new hangars being constructed along with the deployment of UAVs, indicating a multi-purpose role to the structure. It is also indicative of a larger undertaking, one based around a major vertical lift network that is rapidly taking shape on the Tibetan Plateau. 

It stands to significantly enhance Beijing’s ability to quickly project power and sustain military operations throughout the tense region, even independent of runways.

There appears to be no end in sight to the standoff, with army chief General Manoj Mukund Naravane stating that if PLA is there to stay in the Ladakh theater, so is the Indian Army. 

Sources: The War Zone, Wikipedia, Al Jazeera, Hindustan Times