PLAAF in Ti­bet

India Strategic - - CONTENTS - By AVM Man­mo­han Ba­hadur (Retd)

THE AP­PEAR­ANCE of a photo of a J-20 stealth fifth gen­er­a­tion fighter of the Peo­ples’ Lib­er­a­tion Army Air Force ( PLAAF) at Daocheng Yad­ing air­field (14,527 feet Above Mean Sea Level) in Ti­bet set in mo­tion a flurry of ar­ti­cles and tele­vi­sion news re­ports in In­dia. The point be­ing made was that China had ‘leaked’ this photo on pur­pose just be­fore Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi’s trip to Viet­nam (where he was sup­posed to an­nounce the sale of BrahMos su­personic mis­sile) and just af­ter the In­dian an­nounce­ment that BrahMos mis­siles would be sta­tioned in the North East; the aim, as per the me­dia, was that China was ‘sig­nal­ing’ to dis­suade In­dia from tak­ing steps that it saw as prej­u­di­cial to its se­cu­rity in­ter­ests. While the rea­sons be­hind the ‘leak’ of the pho­to­graph would be an­a­lysed later in this ar­ti­cle, this piece looks at the new de­vel­op­ments tak­ing place in ca­pa­bil­ity en­hance­ment of avi­a­tion as­sets (fighter, air­lift and heli lift as­sets) of PLAAF to en­able them op­er­ate from high al­ti­tude air­fields in Ti­bet; and what this en­tails for In­dian air power.

The ques­tion arises why this spe­cial anal­y­sis for high al­ti­tude op­er­a­tions? A look at the map would show that the In­dia-China bor­der, most of which is dis­puted, runs for around 4,000 kilo­me­ters. If this had all been of av­er­age el­e­va­tion that pre­vails else­where on the Chinese bor­ders then the task of their aero­nau­ti­cal en­gi­neers would have been sim­ple to pro­due avi­a­tion as­sets with good pay­load ca­pa­bil­ity. But, the Ti­betan plateau is the ‘roof of the world.’ The air den­sity be­ing gen­er­ally 25 to 30 per cent less in the area com­pared to sea level, air­craft per­for­mance is se­verely cur­tailed. To get an idea of the cur­tail­ment, con­sider the fact that in sum­mers an IL-76 some­times car­ries NO pas­sen­gers in a take-off from Leh while a Chee­tah he­li­copter op­er­at­ing at some of the high­est he­li­pads on the Si­achen Glacier car­ries just 25 kg --one jerry can of fuel – in its first sor­tie! So, the low den­sity of air over all Ti­betan air­fields will ex­act a heavy per­for­mance penalty. How are the Chinese plan­ning for this in their mod­erni­sa­tion plan with new in­dige­nous avi­a­tion in­duc­tions that they would ex­pect in the Ti­bet area?

TRANS­PORT AIR­CRAFT FLEET

The present work­horse of PLAAF trans­port fleet is the Rus­sia-sourced IL-76, whose ‘hot and high’ per­for­mance is not good in the Ti­bet plateau, as brought out ear­lier. The fo­cus of at­ten­tion in the trans­port air­craft fleet of PLAAF has now shifted to the in­dige­nous heavy air­lifter Y-20 that en­tered ser­vice in June this year. The pro­gramme be­gan in 2007 and the de­sign that emerged was a cross be­tween the Rus­sian IL-76 and the Amer­i­can C-17 Globe­mas­ter - - the fuse­lage is broader than an IL76 but the air­craft is shorter in length as com­pared to a C-17. The air­craft is en­ter­ing ser­vice with Rus­sian D-30KP2 aero en­gines, a power plant that flies on the IL-76 too. Thus, presently, the Y 20 has a claimed pay­load ca­pa­bil­ity of around 55 tonnes, which is more than an IL-76 (40 tonnes) but less than the 70 tonnes car­ried by the C 17. With the present ca­pa­bil­ity, the Y-20 will find it dif­fi­cult to ferry the ZTZ99 main bat­tle tank of PLA but on fit­ment of the in­dige­nous un­der-trial WS-20 en­gines the pay­load ca­pa­bil­ity would go up to 66 tonnes. With the rate of de­crease in en­gine power due in­crease in al­ti­tude be­ing the ma­jor el­e­ment of drop in air­craft per­for­mance, the power loss in the mod­ern WS-20 en­gine is ex­pected to be at a lower rate since the en­gine would be FADEC con­trolled and would be a mod­ern tur­bo­fan; the D-30KP2 is an ear­lier gen­er­a­tion tur­bo­jet en­gine. The WS-20 has fin­ished air­borne tri­als last year on an IL 76 test bed, but its cer­ti­fi­ca­tion has not yet been an­nounced. Con­sid­er­ing that af­ter cer­ti­fi­ca­tion, some fi­nite time would be re­quired for pro­duc­tion­is­ing the fi­nal vari­ant, one can sur­mise that a Y-20 with in­dige­nous en­gines is still a few years away from op­er­a­tional ser­vice.

The Y-20 with in­dige­nous en­gines would be the ideal plat­form to be used as a base for an AWACS plat­form and for be­ing an aerial re­fu­eller too. Its oper­a­tion from most Ti­betan air­fields in these two force mul­ti­plier roles would be a peace­time ex­er­cise only, due their rel­a­tive prox­im­ity to In­dian air­fields; how­ever, the ad­di­tional pay­load ca­pa­bil­ity would be a big boon to their per­for­mance lev­els.

RO­TARY WING FLEET

Com­par­a­tively speak­ing, al­ti­tude has a greater dele­te­ri­ous ef­fect on he­li­copter per­for­mance than on a fixed wing plat­form. Of the present he­li­copters be­ing used in Ti­bet by China, the Siko­rsky S-70C is

PLAAF’s J-10s tak­ing off from Shi­gatse air base in Ti­bet

J-20 in Ti­bet??

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