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China ramps up rotations at Tibet’s Gonggar Airfield

January 18, 2016

By Chris Biggers

Bellingcat, January 11, 2016 - China has increased the size of rotations at its Lhasa Gonggar airbase located in Tibet, satellite imagery has revealed.

DigitalGlobe space snapshots from November 2014 show eight Chengdu Aircraft Corporation J-10s parked on the operations apron at the Lhasa-based civil-military airport (article contains image). The airport is located approximately 130 miles from the disputed territory of Arunachal Pradesh. Four additional aircraft joined the apron since March 2014 when a flight of four was visible at the airfield.

A review of historical imagery has shown that China has typically rotated between four and five J-10 or J-11 fighter aircraft since 2010. The Shenyang J-11 are a derivative of the Russian-built SU-27SK Flanker Imagery from 2009 showed no fighters at the airfield.

While we’ve been waiting on an imagery update to confirm the ongoing deployments of additional flights, we’ve also been taking note of the larger rotations at other border airbases. Last month we posted on developments at the high altitude Hotan airbase that occurred over the last two years. We suspect the enlargement at both airbases could be part of a bigger trend to bolster more forward areas. (Hotan is near the disputed territory of Aksai Chin, currently controlled by China and disputed by India.)

While we wait, we’ve also noted new activity at the surface-to-air missile site less than 2 miles to the east of the airport. An HQ-9 unit was in residence in November 2014, complete with the HT-233 Tiger Paw engagement radar (center) and the YLC-2V long range target acquisition radar (top right corner). It’s currently unknown from where the unit deployed.

But apparently we’re not the only ones who’s been watching the site — even if they didn’t know it. The guys writing over at Indrastra back in September exploited handhelds from Google’s Panoramio, identifying an HQ-12 unit deployed to the same location. Unfortunately, they failed to geolocate the image and misidentified the unit’s location as Shigatse. [1] That airfield is approximately 90 miles West of Gonggar. The handheld’s metadata, still visible at the Panoramio website and confirmed by Exif viewer, suggest the unit was deployed in September 2014.

The HQ-12, also known as the KaiShan-1A, is a truck-mounted derivative of the HQ-2 featuring a dual-mounted rail or box launcher. It distinctly functions in the medium range role. The HQ-9 on the other hand is a four cannister TEL featuring technology from the Russian-produced S-300P and supposedly the U.S. Patriot. It provides air defense at longer ranges. Both are highly mobile, unlike the static HQ-2 which hasn’t been observed at the site since 2010.

Bottom line, satellite imagery continues to highlight improvements in China’s deployed capabilities both qualitatively and quantitatively.

[1] Shigatse is another airfield of note as it has also featured rotations of fighters. For example, imagery from 28MAY12 showed 5 x J-11s while imagery from 09OCT13 shows three J-10s. However, geolocated handhelds (undated) have shown up to 12 x J-11s.

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