New Delhi, Oct. 6: The Indian Air Force is developing a forward airfield just 23km from the Line of Actual Control with China in Ladakh into a full-fledged airbase that would host fighter and transport aircraft and helicopters.
Air Chief Marshal N.A.K. Browne said the Union cabinet was studying a Rs 2,172-crore plan to develop the Nyoma airfield over five years.
Nyoma is a rare forward airfield in the Himalayas with potential all-weather capability. At 13,300 feet, it is higher than Leh but lower than Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO), the highest operational airfield in the world where the Indian Air Force landed a C-130J Hercules transporter in August.
The air force would normally be wary of establishing an airbase so close to a disputed boundary. But Nyoma has a peculiar topography: a ridge shields it from prying eyes.
“Nyoma is an important location for both the army and the IAF in the south-east of Ladakh where we have good weather all round the year,” Browne said.
The Nyoma airfield was in disrepair for about 30 years till the IAF reactivated it by landing an An-32 transporter in September 2009. In 2010, the air force moved the proposal to develop it into an airbase.
The approval has been given recently, after it took the political establishment two years to wake up to China’s frontier infrastructure and a bloodless face-off between the armies in eastern Ladakh, near DBO, earlier this year.
Browne said the proposal for developing the Nyoma airfield was mooted in 2010 with the landing of an An-32 transport aircraft there. It is right now with the finance ministry and is expected to be taken up by the cabinet next month, he said.
“All types of aircraft, including fighters, helicopters and transport aircraft, would be able capable of being deployed and operated from there,” he said.
The location of the airbase gives the Indian military assets close to the border that can be used to observe China’s strategic Xinjiang-Tibet highway, part of which runs through Aksai Chin, territory that India claims.
Browne also said that since August, the C-130J has flown five sorties to DBO carrying troops and replenishments for the Ladakh Scouts, an army outfit, and the Indo Tibetan Border Police (ITBP). The tonnage that the aircraft has been able to move in five sorties from Hindon near Delhi would have otherwise taken weeks of drops by helicopters and An-32 aircraft.
The Nyoma upgrade plan runs along with a programme to develop seven Advanced Landing Grounds in the Northeast, also close to the China frontier. The ALGs would be equipped for night operations, said Browne. But ALGs are not airbases where aircraft can be stationed for long periods. The cabinet has sanctioned Rs 720 crore for the development of the ALGs.